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At a conference about ten years ago a colleague remarked that there was no longer any interest in the history of ethnic neighbourhoods in Canada. It is true that at the time fewer historians were examining the urban ethnic experience than before. It was strange that historical geographers and sociologists continued to produce monographs and articles on the phenomenon just as historical production had waned, but there may have been good reasons for historians’ loss of interest. The changing face and features of ethnic enclaves in the 1980s and 1990s may have left historians at a loss to understand the urban ethnicity of the past. But this change was unusual because only a few years earlier historians had gone through a vibrant phase of research and writing on the history of ethnic enclaves. Much of this new wave was associated with Robert Harney at the University of Toronto. He arrived at the university in the early 1960s to teach European history and his own specialization, Italian history. The bustling setting of Toronto and Harney’s predilection for social history and national identity made him sensitive to the phenomenon of ethnicity in his adopted city.

This paper has two objectives. First, it will recall how Harney and his students approached ethnicity and the city in that exciting period of the 1970s and 1980s. Harney’s students came from different backgrounds and had different political and ideological perspectives, yet together with Harney they were able to bring a freshness to the study of urban ethnicity. That initial enthusiasm for studying the ethnic quarters of a city subsided but now appears to be making a return. Secondly, this paper will briefly examine questions about urban ethnicity that still need to be asked, in particular in light of new developments in the relationship between ethnic groups and the city. This paper does not pretend to be a comprehensive examination of the state of the art in the field. Rather, it looks back to an exciting period of research on urban ethnicity and looks forward to new research questions that we still need to pursue.

There was very little interest in the history of urban ethnicity in Canada until Robert Harney shifted the focus of his research from the Italian Risorgimento to the study of immigrant groups and the city. There was some irony in this fact. The young Harvard and Berkeley–trained historian was not particularly enamoured of Canadian history. He also had a love/hate relationship with Toronto that, I believe, had a great deal to do with his own experience of growing up in Salem, Massachusetts. His mother was of Polish-Jewish background, while his father was Irish Catholic, and Bob resented the sense of ownership or appropriation of Swamp Yankees or the descendants of Boston Brahmins in Salem or Boston. Harney found their corresponding class in Toronto in those whom he called “those Upper Canadian types.” As an American, he took exception to Donald Creighton’s evident unease at the significant growth in the hiring of fresh PhDs from south of the border in the early 1960s. As a social historian (his doctoral dissertation was on the mercenaries in Pius IX’s army)[1] he was perplexed by the silence of urban historians on the immigrants of the city. As he put it, it was like studying an ocean liner without even taking note of the passengers.[2] And so Harney soon found himself in an odd situation: he was a European historian operating in a Canadian history theatre, and on more than one occasion related to me his unease with this predicament. Yet he had a passion for North American urban history. More precisely, he loved cities and was fascinated by the hidden life within, the networks and relationships beneath the ethnic store signs, the associational life behind the doors of a shul or church, the family dramas played out behind the lace curtains, and the hierarchies being respected or deference acknowledged at a Ukrainian rally, Portuguese parade, or Italian procession.

Harney liked to say that he had a sense of fellowship with G. M. Trevelyan, who, to feel better equipped to understand Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand, literally followed in their footsteps from Piedmont to Sicily.[3] He often remarked that he had left the Risorgimento because he no longer had physical connectivity with it. On the other hand, Toronto in the 1960s or 1970s was what Chicago had been to the sociologists Robert Park and Herbert Miller: a backyard laboratory for anyone interested in the urban ethnic experience.[4] Harney was deeply interested in ethnic neighbourhoods, not as a laboratory for assimilation or acculturation but as an expression of the urban experience. The focus of Harney’s work and indeed his greatest passion was the city, and his love for the experience of immigrants gave concreteness to his approach. His articles on Little Italies, the commerce of migration, ethnic neighbourhoods, and diversity in Toronto had a specificity that allowed the reader not only to imagine the morphography of the ethnic enclaves but to fathom the reasons for the development of physical structures and social relations in those neighbourhoods. Harney had an appreciation for the functional and symbolic values of buildings, institutions, parks, playgrounds, streets, storefronts, and architecture that was most evident to those who walked through ethnic neighbourhoods with him. He could draw on parallels from such quarters across North America and read all sorts of explanations into the relationship between ethnicity and the shape of neighbourhoods. For example, one of his more interesting insights was that Eastern European ethnic neighbourhoods were less visible than Italian or Jewish enclaves because Polish, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian secular institutions were often integrated into the broader activities of the ethnic parish and were therefore less visible on the streetcape.[5]

Such an approach was a far cry from where the field of immigration and ethnic history found itself at the time, particularly when it dealt with the urban experience in North America. In the United States urban historians of ethnicity seemed to be especially concerned with social, occupational, and geographical mobility and assimilation. In that sense they pursued problems that sociologists had been tackling for a couple of generations in their country, the most notable study being W. L. Warner and Leo Srole’s work on Newburyport, Massachusetts.[6] In Canada, on the other hand, urban ethnicity seemed to find no place in the literature. In the 1960s and early 1970s, immigration history tended to concentrate on agricultural settlement and in particular colonies and ethnic bloc settlements. Much of the literature of the period dealt with the Mennonite, Hutterite, Icelandic, or Ukrainian experience in the Canadian West.[7] If Canada’s immigration policy in the nineteenth century had been about populating the West, then the historical record on Canadian immigration until the 1960s reflected that vision. “Frozen wastes” was the expression that Harney had used to describe the field of studies on Italians in Canada. He borrowed the metaphor of the Ontario northlands and prairie terrains, where Italian immigrants built, repaired, or maintained railways, to describe the paucity of research on the lives of those immigrants.[8] One could fall back on the same metaphor to describe the state of the historical literature on urban ethnicity in Canada in 1970.

Although Harney had a good sense of the sociological works on assimilation and acculturation, and of the historical and sociological literature on racism and discrimination, he was not deeply interested in those issues. They reflected the host society’s fascination with its own questions and unease regarding diversity, whereas Harney’s focus was on the immigrant experience and in particular its link to ethnicity. His research topics might examine gender or labour or class, but his prism for understanding society was ethnicity. It was less a question of studying society at the intersection of these approaches than ethnicity illuminating the other perspectives. How could one understand class, he would ask, if one did not understand the intricacies and subtleties of status and class within an ethnic community?[9] How could one seriously pursue a labour history approach, he argued, if one saw immigrants only as exploited workers and did not perceive them as making rational choices about their employment, fulfilling their plans, and sustaining ethnic networks?[10] But Harney did not discard these other approaches. For instance, he was sensitive to the question of gender before the term was in vogue. He considered the world of the male migrant in the North American city, the meaning of his living away from immediate family, especially mothers, fiancées, or wives, as well as the significance of the landlady in a male, migrant boarding house.[11] However, for Harney, it was ethnicity that allowed deeper insight into immigrant life and society. Immigrants were the primary sign of a lively urban experience; therefore ethnicity was the key to understanding modern North American urban society.[12]

Harney’s approach influenced a generation of students and researchers who developed common questions about the urban immigrant experience and sought to deepen their—our—understanding of key concepts and approaches. These included chain migration, the origins of ethnic neighbourhoods, the role of family and kin in migration and settlement, work as an expression of ethnicity, and the role of religion in developing ethnicity in the New World.[13] This school’s emphasis—if we can call it a school, and there are good reasons for doing so—was on what Harney called an internal history of ethnic groups. This helps to explain why so many of Harney’s students concentrated on ethnic neighbourhoods and the migration chains that gave them birth—that is, on a history of place and people—as opposed to the ethnic group’s role, place, or reception in a larger society.

But what did Harney make us see? On the one hand he made it clear that a vast array of significant historical resources were either being ignored or lost altogether. He disabused those of us who had just come out of an undergraduate history experience of the notion that sources were found solely in archives or libraries. Harney warned us that the immigrants of the pre-war period, or even those after the war for that matter, would not be here forever, and he got us out into the homes of immigrants and into their institutions to retrieve invaluable records: letters, family photos, the papers of tiny non-profits or even unincorporated institutions such as theatres or mutual benefit associations or friendly societies, ethnic clubs, and the like. Oral history had only started to emerge as a serious method of inquiry, and we were encouraged to go into the field and meet the older immigrants and interview them, asking them general questions and some pointed ones as well, without leading the agenda, trying to get them to speak about what was important to them in their immigration experience. In any case, he challenged us to go back into the archives and libraries or government departments to examine overlooked documents—bankruptcy records, church registers, ethnic newspapers or photographs, assessment roles, city directories, incorporation records, or financial statements. What was new in all of this was not the kinds of sources that Harney encouraged us to discover: after all he was attuned to social history trends of the 1960s and 1970s. What was truly new was how Harney took the immigrants’ experience and ethnic neighbourhoods very seriously, and thus made us understand the importance of recovering and preserving sources and records that until then had appeared trivial or at least insignificant.[14]

It is not within the scope of this paper to discuss the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, founded by Robert Harney in 1976 to search out and preserve the record of Ontario’s ethnic past. However, one cannot avoid alluding to its importance for those of us engaged in the history of urban ethnicity in the 1970s and 1980s. This centre immediately became a vibrant meeting point not only for Harney’s students but also for other historians, sociologists, archivists, and researchers who were influenced by his vision of immigration and ethnic studies. The MHSO also connected us to the ethnic communities, as their lay historians would often come to the central office to turn in material, discuss new finds, relate details of fascinating interviews, or show off a particularly interesting photograph. We students thus had a direct connection to those communities through members of the ethnic communities who had made the preservation of their histories an avocation.

Harney’s students would meet in seminars along with doctoral students of other professors at the University of Toronto who were working on immigrants, and especially immigrants in the cities. We would meet at the many colloquia, guest lectures, and conferences organized by the MHSO, forming a community of scholars who were constantly comparing notes on new sources, questions, difficulties, or ideas. Everything seemed to be on the table, from Canadian immigration policy or multiculturalism policy, to behaviour in a boarding house or street railway routes, endogamy, or the problems in discovering the home towns of immigrants. One would learn how to look for clues to the urban immigrant experience by listening to one’s fellow students.

At times, the question would arise for any of us working in the area as to whether the whole enterprise might not be too provincial. After all, when fellow PhDs in history were researching broad topics in Canadian political, diplomatic, or intellectual history, it was easy to wonder whether or not working on sojourning life among Macedonian immigrants in Toronto, or on migration chains from Calabria to Toronto, or on the development of an Italian ethnic identity in the city, might have that much significance in the big picture. Harney responded by showing us how the study of ethnic group life in the city in fact went beyond a national history. He did not use the term at the time, but he was trying to make us aware of the significance of transnational history. From the perspective of some of his colleagues, he might have been too quick to dismiss national history but he also had a point. There was a connection between the internal history of an ethnic group and the broader world that gave us important insights into the urban experience and Canadian society. For example, that Armenian workers took the day off from International Harvester in Brantford, Ontario, in mourning to read about the massacre of kin and friends in Armenia while the local press virtually ignored the event—all this spoke to the wealth of the Canadian urban experience. Cities were cosmopolitan by virtue of the presence of these immigrants whose mental maps (or cognitive maps, as Harney called them) extended well outside the confines of urban space, and beyond to exotic, foreign lands. Not only was there a rereading here of the ethnic experience but there was also a new understanding of the meaning of urban. The presence of ethnic groups gave a sense of cosmopolitanism to what might have otherwise been backwater areas.

Perhaps this was the most significant outcome of Robert Harney’s vision and approach: by emphasizing the internal history of the ethnic group rather than the broader society’s attitudes towards it, Harney accounted for the changing sense of the city across generations. The urban experience for him was a dialogue between identities, and while one might point to discrete ethnic groups out there (which he encouraged us to study), a new urban identity emerged from that dialogue and coexistence between immigrant groups and the “host society” (an expression also loaded with meanings).

During the 1990s social historians in Canada were less interested in these questions, and in particular with urban ethnicity qua ethnicity. However, in this last decade there has been renewed interest in this area, certainly on the part of sociologists, but increasingly on the part of historians as well.[15] One significant development has been research into the relationship between religion and ethnic space—the single most important advancement in our understanding of ethnic neighbourhoods in recent years. Lately Canadian historical studies have emphasized the centrality of the parish church or congregation to the understanding of ethnic community. Mark McGowan has shown how the Catholic Church in Toronto attempted to incorporate ethnic groups into the Catholic fold through the development of national parishes.[16] Rosalyn Trigger’s doctoral dissertation looks at Protestantism in Montreal through the rootedness of congregations. Despite the constant relocation of churches, Protestants of British or American background developed a sense of place, as class, ethnicity, and gender were galvanized in their congregations and neighbourhoods; in these cases the neighbourhood was rebuilt with the relocation of the congregation.[17] Etan Diamond examines the move of Orthodox Jews from Kensington Market into North York and beyond in the postwar Toronto metropolis,[18] showing how the suburban experiment blended traditional religious practice with modern suburbia. The book concentrates on local developments but it does so within the context of the broader geography of the city. In the new suburbs, Orthodox Jews with specific spatial needs (among them, an eruv, proximity to a synagogue) shaped their neighbourhoods as a secular expression—as part of the suburban sprawl of post-1945 Toronto—but also as sacred space. Jordan Stanger-Ross’s dissertation comparing Italians in Toronto and Philadelphia has an innovative approach to space and ethnicity. His examination of the relationship between religion and ethnic neighbourhood in postwar Toronto is one of the more fascinating aspects of his research. He argues that Italians “disavowed the localism” that had marked Little Italy earlier. After the war, the national parish remained the focal point of a community that had moved into the suburbs. People were geographically removed from locale, but the parish drew them back for bingo, festivities, and the annual St. Anthony and Good Friday processions. This in turn changed their ethnic understanding of themselves. As Stanger-Ross argues, what matters is how these immigrants did ethnicity.[19]

One hopes that this momentum might be maintained, as there are still many unanswered questions about ethnic neighbourhoods and the relationship between ethnicity and the city, ethnic neighbourhoods, or enclaves. In the next section I wish to look forward and identify briefly three broad areas that have been examined by other disciplines but to which a historical approach would make a major contribution. I am referring to the problem of the origin of ethnic enclaves; polyethnic neighbourhoods, suburbanization, globalization, and technology.

Genesis of Enclaves

Although much of the historical literature on North American ethnic enclaves has discussed the early settlement of immigrant quarters by one or more ethnic groups, there are few works that probe the question of why those enclaves should have emerged in the first place. To be sure, the argument has often been advanced that workers wished to be near their workplace in a period when public transit was either lacking or expensive, but the question of why particular ethnic or polyethnic neighbourhoods should arise in a particular time, in a particular city, and in a particular neighbourhood of that city has rarely been approached systematically in the literature.

One might also turn the question around and ask why certain cities and towns did not develop ethnic neighbourhoods, despite the presence of a number of ethnic groups in those cities. London, Ontario, is a good example. Even if the 1971 census of the city proper listed over thirty thousand residents of Dutch, German, Italian, and Polish origin, there were and are no real ethnic enclaves of any substance in the city. Fort William and Port Arthur were certainly smaller towns, yet they had definite Italian, Greek, Hungarian, and Finnish quarters. London did not. Neither did Kingston, even if it had sizeable Greek and Italian communities in the 1970s, nor did Quebec, Edmonton, or Calgary. Halifax has a very tiny Lebanese neighbourhood and no real Jewish neighbourhood, even if Jews are numerically quite close to the Lebanese.[20] On the other hand, Toronto’s Jewish community has one of the highest rates of concentration of any ethnic group in the country. What determined whether or not a city or town would develop substantial immigrant neighbourhoods or definable ethnic enclaves? Was it a question of population density? Relative population of immigrants to natives? Was it a question of city layout? Class relationships and the place of the immigrant in the class structure?

Comparative studies would be very useful to help us understand some basic questions about settlement. What was it about the general Canadian and North American experience that led to greater clustering of ethnic groups in cities? What effect did homeownership—or rental—have in clustering? What was it about the local urban experience that led to either clustering or dispersion of ethnic groups? Was it the labour market and the forms of capital investment? Did it have to do with labour recruitment strategies? Real estate practices? The settlement goals of immigrants to those cities (long- or short-term settlement)? Or, as Samuel Bailey has suggested, the class structure of the city and the proportion of middle-class immigrants to the population of the ethnic group?[21]

The Polyethnic Neighbourhood

Social scientists who examine ethnicity tend to use the polyethnic neighbourhood as a laboratory. For example, many of the studies tied to the Metropolis Project’s research agenda in Montreal have centred on Côte-des Neiges. It is almost a given that any ethnic neighbourhood study should start there. Historians have tended to eschew these quartiers as a focus of study. Apart from the occasional chapter on ethnic enclaves, as appears, for example, in Artibise’s history of Winnipeg or McDonald’s Vancouver,[22] there is very little in the literature on the history of polyethnic neighbourhoods in Canada. Urban and ethnic historians should tackle some of these, such as Winnipeg’s North End, with its large Jewish, Ukrainian, and, later, native populations (admittedly one of the better-studied examples); or the Montreal suburb of Lachine, where Ukrainian, Italian, and Irish enclaves shared their neighbourhood with smaller ethnic groups and with French Canadians, under the shadow of Dominion Bridge Works; or Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grâce, which was transformed from a middle-class neighbourhood of British background to one of mixed class and ethnic groups after the war. Few of these quartiers have been studied in depth as polyethnic neighbourhoods. And despite Harney and Troper’s book on immigrants that made the ward a centrepiece, this area of Toronto has not yet merited a definitive study.[23] This is not to mention another great lacuna, in-depth research on Jewish neighbourhoods in Montreal: there is no significant study on the move uptown or of the suburbanization of one of the historically significant Jewish populations in North America.


Any study of postwar immigration must take into account the suburban experience of immigrants.[24] We cannot study the predictable areas where immigrants settled—the inner city enclave—without giving attention to the suburbs where they increasingly put down roots in the 1950s and beyond. With the growth of automobile ownership in the 1950s it became possible for immigrants to establish suburban ethnic enclaves. Jewish immigrants in Montreal, for example, expanded northwards and westwards and began to settle as far as Côte Saint Luc. Italian immigrants in Toronto increasingly moved northwest towards Downsview, Weston, and then beyond. Meanwhile newer immigrant groups occupied the ethnic enclaves of these groups, very much in the model developed by Warner and Srole in the 1940s.

Suburbanization has not meant the end of ethnic enclaves in the penumbra of the city. Carlo Teixera has written about the “resegregation” of Portuguese Torontonians as they recreate their cultural and religious institutions in the suburbs.[25] The classical image of inner city Chinatown may have remained the stereotype of the Chinese neighbourhood in North America, but it has been eclipsed by the new upper-middle-class enclaves. They too will have to be studied, and they clearly cannot fall into the image of pathological, poverty-stricken immigrant quarters. The “monster homes” of Chinese immigrants in the 1980s and 1990s in Markham, Ontario, or Richmond, British Columbia, have introduced another element to diaspora studies. We are no longer dealing with a marginal underclass in the global city but with an economic elite that dwells in enclaves largely settled by others of their ethnicity and wealth status.[26] The same is true of Italian immigrant neighbourhoods in parts of Woodbridge, Ontario, for example. This new kind of enclave, the so-called ethno-burb, is no longer associated with street-level shops where the storefront meets the sidewalk. Office buildings, supermarkets, malls, financial institutions, and banquet halls with Chinese or Italian signage clearly indicate the new ethnic suburbs. What is striking is how the old models—by which immigrants leave their inner city ethnic enclaves eventually to disperse with the general population—no longer apply. A significant part of the ethnic group chooses to relocate to upper-middle-class enclaves, thus effectively remaining in the ghetto. Historians have done significant work on Chinatowns and Little Italies in Canada to examine these new phenomena of upper-middle-class ethnic enclaves. What is not clear is precisely why those who have the economic means to move out of ethnic enclaves and yet remain in the ethnic “community” by other means are opting to live in wealthier yet still ethnic neighbourhoods. At the same time, their older quarters are being taken over by newer immigrants. Are we merely seeing another example of the ethnic succession of neighbourhoods that Robert Park and W. E. Burgess wrote about almost a century ago, or is there more to it? Historians will have to begin to ask why this was the case at the end of the twentieth century.[27]

The issues of suburbanization will require a particular sensitivity to gender, as found, for example, in the work of Franca Iacovetta and Etan Diamond on postwar suburban Toronto. However, as the focus moves to the second generation in the ethnic group in the suburbs and ethnoburbs in the later twentieth century, and with an increasingly transnational population and with a variety of cultural approaches to gender, new questions will emerge about the roles of immigrant men and women in the Canadian urban experience, and in particular how they perceive gender roles. There is, for example, a paucity of historical research on topics that have been in the news over the last decade and approached by social scientists, such as the debate over women wearing the hijab in public, or its meaning for Muslim women.[28]


Closely tied to the issue of suburbanization are globalization and global cities. It has been argued that global cities will develop an underclass of tertiary sector workers, who—with transnational connections and with the rise of technology (satellite TV, the Internet)—will develop fewer allegiances to their land of adoption than previous immigrants. Rather, they will be engaged with the culture and politics of their home country and to the global diaspora of that country. The growth in globalization and the rise of communications technology might signal a decline of ethnic neighbourhoods.[29] Ultimately, the emphasis on the word and electronic conversation—through telephony, the Internet, and satellite television—might very well lead to a devaluation of place. I am peering into the future and my remarks can be only preliminary, but I encourage urban historians to examine urban ethnicity over the last twenty-five years to see if there are signs of this trend, in particular in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Loewen and Friesen suggest as much in their examination of late-century transnational ties in prairie cities.[30] In Montreal, Mario Polèse and others have concluded that in the 1970s ethnicity declined in importance as a criterion for choosing a neighbourhood in which to reside. This of course could call into question Kathleen Neils Conzen’s argument that “ethnicity depends originally on some level of neighbourhood concentration but its continued salience does not depend equally on neighbourhood survival.” It will be interesting to see if, among recent immigrants working in the tertiary sector (that is, after 1980), there is a decline in the relationship between residential clustering and ethnicity. Certainly Nick Harney’s work on Toronto suggests that what will matter will be the “communicative community” and not the territorial one: cognitive maps will prevail over territorial maps.[31]


This paper has attempted to give a sense of the excitement in the late 1970s when Robert Harney launched the historical study of urban ethnicity in a significant way. It does not suggest that this was a golden period that cannot be emulated. On the contrary, there appears to be a renewed interest in urban ethnicity: in immigrant life in the city and in ethnic enclaves and on the bearing of ethnicity on urban life. It seems that Harney’s approach and his questions continue to influence contemporary historians researching in this area. Historians recognize that ethnicity is a salient factor in not only the lives of immigrants but in broader arena of social relations. The work of Etan Diamond, Jordan Stanger-Ross, and Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen,[32] for example, departs from a focus on the concerns of the host society and concentrate rather on the immigrant groups themselves, on their questions, on the relationship among ethnicity, identity, and the broader society. The last part of this paper suggests some directions to help move this agenda forward by addressing key features of the Canadian experience of urban ethnicity over the last forty years.