Narrating the Canadian Mosaic: Immigration and Ethnicity in Canada / Immigration et ethnicité au Canada

April 1, 2017
By: Marlene Epp

Canada has about 200 ethnic groups, according to the most recent national census. To write the individual histories of all of these groups is a daunting, probably impossible, task. In 1979 the Canadian Historical Association (CHA), with funding from what is today named the Department of Canadian Heritage (Government of Canada), launched a project to commission brief histories of Canada’s ethnic groups. The booklet series, initially titled Canada’s Ethnic Groups, was meant to provide broad surveys – yet limited to about 35 pages – accessible to general readers, historians, and students from high school to graduate school. Funding was guaranteed for 40 booklets, and all were published simultaneously in English and French – Canada’s official languages.

The series was launched at a time when the nation was still basking in a then decade-long official federal policy on multiculturalism. The notion that Canada was a ‘mosaic’ of colourful, distinct cultural entities that were nevertheless part of a unified collective, was contrasted to the culture-erasing ‘melting pot’ of the United States. Needless to say, neither of those characterizations ring true in an absolute sense. Both countries, as ‘nations of immigrants’ – other than the indigenous peoples – are imbued with ideas, policies, and practices that reinforce ethnic and racial hierarchies.

The first four booklets in the series, all published in 1982, were about the Scots, the Portuguese, the Japanese, and the Poles in Canada. Subsequent booklets surveyed the East Indians, West Indians, Jews, and so on. All of the booklets are digitized and available on the Library and Archives Canada website and via the Canadian Historical Association website. Decision-making about which group to do next seems somewhat random, but was largely based on historians known for their expertise on a particular ethno-cultural collective. The series was ably edited by historians Phillip Buckner and Roberto Perin until 2009 when I was invited to edit the series.

In 1989, the series emphasis began to diverge from focusing only on specific ethnic groups, to covering important topics related to ethnicity and immigration in Canada more broadly. Subsequently, the series included surveys of specific ethnic groups, as was the original mandate, along with topics that ranged from surveys of Canadian immigration policy to ethnic minorities in the World Wars, to doing oral history with ethnic groups. To reflect this shift, the series was recently renamed “Immigration and Ethnicity in Canada / Immigration et ethnicité au Canada.”

The booklet series is one aspect of the CHA’s interest in issues of ethnicity and immigration. In 2009, the Canadian Committee on Migration, Ethnicity, and Transnationalism (a mouthful more commonly called CCMET) was formed as a subcommittee of the Canadian Historical Association. The Committee meets annually at the meetings of the CHA, awards an article prize, and primarily offers a network space for Canadian historians probing the past and present of the nation’s multi-ethnic, immigrant identities. CCMET sponsors thematic sessions at the CHA annual meeting and has sponsored two separate workshop-conference – on ‘Immigrant documents’ and ‘Immigrants and health’.

To date, 34 booklets in the Immigration and Ethnicity series have been published, the most recent on immigrant reception centers up to 1930. Forthcoming are booklets on refugees, Filipinos, deportation, and redress movements. It is not clear what will be the next steps after the goal of 40 booklets is reached. Needless to say, we are still a very long way from 200.

In a global context in which multicultural and migratory identities are ever more important, there are endless topics for this series to explore.

Editor’s NoteThe Immigration and Ethnic History Society will be regularly featuring pamphlets from the Canadian Historical Society’s series, “Immigration and Ethnicity in Canada / Immigration et ethnicité au Canada,” on IEHS Online. Ultimately, links to these pamphlets and related materials will be featured in the educational resources section. Authors or scholars interested in blogging about the topics of particular pamphlets are encouraged to contact the Digital Humanities Officer at

Marlene Epp

Marlene Epp is editor of the series “Immigration and Ethnicity in Canada / Immigration et ethnicité au Canada”. She is Professor of History and Peace & Conflict Studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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