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For some time now, concerns have been raised that Canadians—and more particularly, new Canadians—are losing or have lost sight of the values that give meaning to being Canadian. For example, Andrew Cohen warns that with our commitment to diversity “we risk losing our centre of gravity and our fragile sense of place as Canadians” (163). Jack Granatstein claims that because they do not have a proper understanding of the past, Canadians are unaware of “the common fund of knowledge, traditions, values, and ideas that help to explain our existence” (165). His call to focus on the responsibilities that bind us together more than the rights said to keep us apart is shared by Rudyard Griffiths: “The powerful emotion of loyalty—not abstract ideas about individual freedom or the rights of man—is the terra firma of our political history” (4).

From another perspective, uncertainty over what it means to be Canadian is understood to stem from the retreat of a collective commitment to the national community channelled through government policies and laws. With the rise of neoliberalism, Janine Brodie concludes, “citizens are [increasingly] expected to shape themselves into self-sufficient market actors who provide for their needs and those of their families” (41). Moreover, Sandra Rollings-Magnusson, Alexandra Dobrowolsky, and Marc Doucet contend that in a post-September 11 context, core characteristics of Canadian national identity have been brought into question through “a disturbing number of illustrations of national security preoccupations severely impinging on freedom and liberty, not only undermining civil liberties but also undercutting broader citizenship, equality, and human rights” (23). This has affected some, Sharryn Aiken maintains, more than others: “While the government’s anti-terrorism agenda has had a corrosive effect on the rights of everyone living in Canada, the primary victims have been immigrants, refugees, and citizens of Arab and Muslim descent” (180).

Although these two perspectives anchor contemporary concerns to different sources, each underscores the need to situate the intersection of rights and Canadian citizenship in historical perspective. But this is easier said than done, as Canada possesses a surprisingly thin historiography with respect to rights and citizenship, especially in the context of Canada as a country of immigration. This is changing, however, as a number of works have appeared that address these themes—either directly or indirectly—and thereby allow the outlines of a fuller account to be drawn. Indeed, the eight texts examined in this review provide evidence of underappreciated depths and dimensions to debates over what it means to be Canadian, and what it means to pursue liberal-democratic citizenship amid ethnic diversity. Although this review seeks to indicate the full scope of each work, its main objective is to situate them within this broader narrative, which necessitates first broaching the subject of Canada’s British liberal heritage.

The importance of appreciating the enduring Britishness of Canada is the focus of C. P. Champion’s The Strange Demise of British Canada. “[T]he British tradition is not something foreign,” he insists, “it is a constitutive part of Canadian identity” (226). In analyzing the efforts of the governments of Lester B. Pearson to recast the country’s self-understanding by sidelining traditional “British” symbols and promoting new “Canadian” ones in the 1960s (as seen, for example, in the displacement of the Red Ensign for the Maple Leaf flag), Champion joins authors such as Phillip Buckner, who challenge the well-worn interpretation that this was all part of a transformation from “colony to nation.” Champion shows how the institutionalization of these new forms of Canadian nationalism are better viewed as complex continuations from, rather than simple rejections of, British traditions: “decision-makers did not seek to betray or abandon their British heritage so much as to assign to it a new and less dominant role in national life” (13). He draws on a wealth of published and unpublished records to delineate how Pearson, his supporters, and his opponents understood and reflected being British/Canadian. As he traces the influence of religion, war, and schooling on the development of their British/Canadian identities, and explores how these arose with respect to the flag debate and policies aimed at “Canadianizing” the military, he underlines the persistent centrality of core dimensions of the country’s British liberal heritage, including “the long tradition of freedom and dignity of the individual,” among other basic liberties (80, quoting Frank Underhill).

However, in consciously recounting this history from the perspective of those who sought and failed to preserve a more prominent place for British markers in Canadian civic and political life, he adopts the polemicist’s habit of overemphasizing the faults of those he opposes (like Pearson) and the strengths of those he supports. For example, in a very informative chapter on how Conservatives and Liberals courted “the ethnic vote” in the 1950–60s, Champion writes that the former “made important gestures towards ethnic representation in high office,” while the latter (and ethnic leaders that supported them) traded in “outright appointment-seeking along ethnic lines” (150; 153). More fundamentally, this determination to tarnish the “winners” unfolds within an unresolved tension: if the “new” Canadian symbols constituted an adaptation of “the British spirit in the local context,” and if “the post-1960s civic identity might in some respects be a fulfillment … of the British heritage,” (228, emphasis in original; 39) then why speak of its demise, however strange, instead of situating these symbols more firmly within processes of adaptation and maintenance? Unfortunately, with his sights set more on problematizing Pearson’s legacy, Champion does not do enough to place his insights within a larger historical narrative of the transformation of Britishness in Canada.

The need for such an undertaking is great, however, for as Janet Ajzenstat and others have observed, compared to Britain and the United States, Canada has a poorly developed understanding of its own British liberal roots. As a result, scholars—and more generally, Canadian citizens—are left with an unnecessarily limited understanding of politics both past and present. A good example concerns the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act, a law that aimed at preventing Chinese immigration to Canada. While it is rightly and widely identified as an example of Canadian racism, the fact that strenuous arguments were made against it at the time in the Senate on British liberal grounds—that it was regarded as “[s]o utterly inconsistent with the well understood rights which every human being has when he steps on British soil,” as Senator Alexander Vidal declared on 13 July 1885—has been completely overlooked. This sentiment so dominated debates on the question between 1885 and 1887 that government supporters had to engage in procedural trickery to see the law passed and amended against the will of the majority of senators (see Anderson).[1] Without this kind of knowledge, Canadians lack adequate historical benchmarks against which to assess how the intersection of rights, citizenship, and international migration has evolved over time.[2]

In the absence of a more general analysis that explores such aspects of Canadian history, it is necessary to turn to a disparate set of texts that address different dimensions with respect to particular immigrant communities. As William Janzen has written concerning the Doukhobors, Hutterites, and Mennonites, this allows for greater appreciation of how the presence of such groups has “forced the Canadian political system to address the subject of the limits of liberty in ways that are important … for what they reveal about that system” and, by extension, what it means to be Canadian (4). Such insights are abundant in Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill’s monumental Like Our Mountains. In the context of the discrimination and persecution faced by Armenians during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century within the Ottoman Empire, and the genocide of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians (out of a population of 2–2.5 million) between 1915 and 1923, Kaprielian-Churchill provides a definitive history and analysis of the cultural, economic, political, and social maintenance and adaptation of the Armenian community within Canada over the course of more than a century. In the process, she contributes to the development of a fuller understanding of the nature of rights in Canada.

During the first half of the twentieth century, Canadian officials generally considered Armenians as “Asians,” and therefore subject to the extensive restrictions put in place to prevent, for example, East Indian immigration. Armenian arrivals were therefore few in number, even after the genocide began. Isolated from their homeland, Armenians often lived economically precarious lives within tight-knit communities defined by a willingness to provide mutual aid and an approach to politics that was split between regulating their own within Canada and maintaining connections with, and seeking to assist, Armenians abroad. “When Armenians came to Canada,” Kaprielian-Churchill writes, “they carried with them centuries of experience of being a minority and well-honed traditions and techniques of ethnonational survival” (xxiii). They also adapted to their new surroundings as they “experienced freedom and began to understand the meaning of equality” (99). This history, then, provides an important reminder that all immigrant groups (including, as Champion argues, the British) have undergone processes—incremental, intermittent, and uneven—of identity adaptation and maintenance. In this light, the history of Armenians in Canada reinforces a frequently overlooked fact: that citizenship has never been about the wholesale adoption of a clearly defined Canadian identity but instead constitutes “a mid-point in the integration process, not … the end-point” (Kymlicka 199).

These processes, moreover, worked both ways, as the majority population’s national identity received more precise articulation even as it developed through its own (limited) interaction with the Armenian experience. This can be seen in the response of Canadian citizens to the genocide, which entailed a considerable mobilization of funds for survivors (one appeal received over $300,000), pressure on the government to resettle orphans, and support for political autonomy for Armenian territories in Europe after the First World War. Such humanitarian work was most prominently channelled through the Armenian Relief Association of Canada, the “first public interdenominational, interethnic nongovernmental organization … to assist refugees abroad and to help them to migrate to Canada” (Kaprielian-Churchill 145). However, as the need for assistance grew so did the forms of restriction pursued by officials. This provides insight into the meaning of the rights extending from British liberalism. These have evolved considerably over time and have been, to no small degree, the product of an engagement with ethnic diversity, although not always in ways that reflect well on Canada. Thus, Kaprielian-Churchill concludes that in its dealing with Armenians during the first half of the twentieth century, “the Canadian government rejected the principle of individual rights and freedoms, specifically the individual’s right to safety and security” (156).

Canada’s restrictive response to the plight of those fleeing the Armenian genocide was soon repeated in the case of Jewish refugees in the 1930–40s, documented in Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s landmark study None Is Too Many. However, as early as the 1920s a political debate over what it meant to be a British liberal country (which had receded soon after the passage of the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act) was revived. Although this occurred in response to restrictive legislation against British immigrant workers after the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, it had expanded into a discussion over the rights of Canadians and non-Canadians in Canada by the time of the Great Depression. It would eventually be transformed into a debate over the meaning and protection of human rights, one that continues to inform being Canadian to this day. This shift—long overlooked in the historiography on rights in Canada, which has centred on the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms—is now well documented in Christopher MacLennan’s Toward the Charter and Ross Lambertson’s Repression and Resistance.

MacLennan recounts the emergence and expansion of demands for a written bill of rights in Canada between 1929 and 1960. The roots of this movement are found in domestic reactions to government actions that undermined or denied rights and freedoms based in British liberalism that extended as far back as the Magna Carta of 1215. These infringements, he shows, “had a catalytic effect on the agitation for civil liberties protection in Canada” (14). Thus, in response to restrictions on freedoms of assembly, association, free speech, and the press with respect to communist and socialist organizations, and limited due process protections for immigrants facing deportation during the Great Depression, calls were made for a written bill of rights as early as the 1930s. Although inhibited by internal disputes between and within groups, and a perception that it was being fostered by leftist radicals, the movement grew during the war years as “Depression-era civil libertarians launched a vigorous campaign against the government’s abrogation of freedom of speech, habeas corpus, and freedom of the press and its use of arbitrary detention” (20). With the postwar arrests, detentions, and trials that followed revelations of a Soviet spy ring in Canada, MacLennan writes, “[t]he suggestion that Canada needed a national bill of rights now [became] a political demand rather than an intellectual argument” (44).

Although many of the rights issues covered by MacLennan have been studied before (for example, Quebec’s Padlock Law and the wartime Defence of Canada Regulations), he establishes new linkages between them by tracing the organizational and political response of advocates for a written bill of rights. Another marked contribution lies in his exploration of the role played by bureaucrats, especially within the Department of Justice, in convincing the government that such a bill of rights would encroach upon provincial jurisdiction and contravene the British tradition of parliamentary supremacy, arguing that the latter already provided effective rights protection. Canada nonetheless found itself in an increasingly uneasy position at the end of the Second World War, MacLennan shows, as it “attempted to reconcile its public support for the UN’s efforts to promote international human rights with a rather determined policy to avoid any commitment to their protection” (61). This aspect could have received more attention in the text, for although Canada was clearly a “reluctant liberal” (Nolan; also see Schabas) when the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was created, its effects on both state and non-state actors in Canada (as well as the effects of other international human rights instruments) remains poorly understood. MacLennan’s narrative ends with John G. Diefenbaker’s 1960 Bill of Rights, which the prime minister—in vain, as it turned out—hoped “would guarantee the equality of all Canadians and thus … create the necessary conditions for the country to become unified as ‘one Canada, One Nation’” (122).

A perfect companion to MacLennan is Lambertson’s study of human rights activism in Canada, covering the same period and basic issues (i.e., from the Padlock Law to the Bill of Rights) but in greater detail and with more of a grassroots perspective on the formation of human rights policy communities. His analysis cuts impressively deep and wide into the archival record to explore the impact of such activism on state policy. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of rights in Canada. Lambertson finds that “activists were on the whole moderately successful” in achieving their rights-based goals, but that contextual factors such as “a favourable ideological climate, which in turn was based upon a number of other factors, especially at the economic level,” (379; 380) were key. He also underscores “the power of even apparently unsuccessful political struggles” when they are made part of “our collective memory” (379). The effectiveness of human rights work, therefore, should not simply be viewed in terms of “winners” and “losers” but also in terms of how it both reflects and informs the values understood to define Canadian identity.

Lambertson adds important dimensions to understanding the relationship between rights and citizenship through the prism of ethnic diversity, especially in his consideration of the contributions of Jewish organizations to the development of a legislative framework for rights protection. “The modern regime of human rights in Canada,” he states, “has its roots in these early statutes” (241). Although others are now expanding on this history (for example, see Patrias; Walker), Lambertson provides the most extensive analysis of the advocacy strategies and coalition-building involved. As Jewish organizations came to realize at the end of the war that “the courts were unwilling to expand existing laws so as to provide new forms of protection against racial and religious discrimination,” more effort was made to secure legislation to overcome discrimination in the workplace and the property market, for example (206). In the process, the Canadian Jewish Congress in particular nurtured coalitions with civil liberties associations, religious organizations, labour unions, and others, and also lent support to minority groups facing discrimination. Lambertson devotes a chapter to the Dresden, Ontario case, where Blacks were routinely refused service at some restaurants and barbershops, and attendance at some churches. In detailing such human rights legislation campaigns, Lambertson concludes that “[m]uch of the impact of these organizations came from reasoned argument and moral suasion, rather than from brute political power” (381). This influenced the development of Canada’s postwar identity by forcing majority populations, and more particularly governments, to confront rights-based issues that had long been kept out of the political realm, which produced a wider discussion concerning the intersection between rights and citizenship than might have occurred otherwise.

Alongside Jewish organizations, another major factor in the evolution of rights in Canada at the end of the war stemmed from government efforts to remove Japanese Canadians (including the Canadian-born) to Japan. The displacement, internment, and attempted “repatriation” of Japanese Canadians have been addressed in such texts as Ken Adachi’s classic, The Enemy That Never Was. However, the rights-based dimensions of these events receive more focused attention in two recent works: Stephanie Bangarth’s Voices Raised in Protest, which compares American and Canadian wartime policies toward the Japanese with an emphasis on the role of civil society actors, and Patricia E. Roy’s The Triumph of Citizenship, which completes her trilogy on the politics and public opinion of Chinese and Japanese immigration to Canada since the late 1850s.[3]

Although “almost no Canadians publicly opposed the wartime relocation and forcible removal of the Japanese Canadians from the west coast,” Bangarth observes that with government “repatriation” plans, opponents quickly “recognized the threat to civil liberties posed by any deportation of Canadian citizens” (34; 47). In response, a broad range of actors—including civil liberties groups, religious organizations, academics, politicians, and media commentators, as well as Japanese Canadians themselves, among others—sought to coordinate their opposition. This created new links between minority groups, as “African American and Jewish groups … came to recognize that the struggles of the Japanese resembled their own” (114). A great strength of Bangarth’s work is her focus on civil society actors, especially Japanese Canadians, and how they engaged with one another and the state. Indeed, she suggests that the community was farther ahead than others in terms of “articulating their rights. They were responsible for revealing the link between discriminatory policies directed at them specifically and the problem of racial prejudice in general” (146). Through her comparative focus on the United States, Bangarth also explores possible effects of the lack of a written bill of rights; it likely left the community open to a wider range of rights infringements due to the authority vested in parliamentary supremacy, but it may also have produced more extensive coalition-building since resistance required a broader range of political tactics, a process that carried on into the postwar period.

The Canadian government’s “repatriation” policy eventually went before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, which confirmed the state’s authority to deport Canadian-born citizens. In the process, Bangarth writes, Japanese Canadians and their supporters came to understand “that the courts were concerned only with the legality of the orders, not with the moral justice or injustice of the policy” (179). In the long term, the government’s formal apology and offer of redress to Japanese Canadians in 1988 suggest that the activists and their supporters possessed a better understanding of Canadian values at the end of the war than did those in power. And as Bangarth observes, the fact that “there were public debates and individuals who were appalled at the policies … weakens the excuse” that times were different or that choices were made in the absence of clear ethical alternatives (6). In providing such historical perspective, her work raises challenging questions of how future generations will interpret the ways Canadians today are developing the relationship between legality and moral justice in responding to such issues as the recent arrival of Tamil asylum-seekers in boats off the coast of British Columbia in 2009 and 2010.

At the end of the Second World War, the “repatriation” issue renewed the civil liberties movement. Indeed, as Roy observes, “the revulsion of many Canadians to forcing Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry to go to Japan after the war stimulated interest in human rights and the value and rights of Canadian citizenship” (7). It did not lead, however, to an all-out commitment to equality. In keeping with the high standards set in her previous two volumes, Roy provides a detailed analysis of government policy and public opinion with respect to Chinese and Japanese migration to Canada from 1942 to 1967. With her broader focus, she is able to carry the effects of the “repatriation” issue further forward into the postwar evolution of Canadian citizenship. As she demonstrates, it ensured that debate over Canadian identity would not simply revolve around such symbolic measures as a new flag or passport but would address more substantive concerns like equality and due process in the context of being Canadian.

In some ways, relatively rapid progress was made after the war. Antagonism toward Chinese Canadians, for example, had diminished considerably, especially as attention became focused on the Japanese. Chinese associations, including Chinese Canadian war veterans, worked with various groups to secure their franchise rights. The resonance of their message was underscored by the passage of the 1946 Canadian Citizenship Act: “Every Canadian citizen should, by virtue of that citizenship, have the right to vote,” one Vancouver newspaper opined (quoted in Roy 173). The Chinese and East Indians were enfranchised in British Columbia in 1947 (which eliminated a raft of discriminatory provisions based upon the provincial voters’ list, including being left off the federal list), but restrictions remained at the municipal level until 1948, and the Japanese had to wait until 1949. Such progress with respect to citizens was not matched, however, with openness to increased immigration. Thus, while the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act, which had essentially reduced Chinese immigration to zero, was soon repealed, “Asian” immigration continued to be restricted. It was not until the 1960s that steps were taken to reduce official discrimination in Canadian immigration policy. Although some resistance was societal, Roy shows that it was prominent at the bureaucratic level: “Officials in the immigration department did not share the same liberal ideas” that politicians were increasingly coming to adopt (292).

The commitment to an equal and inclusive citizenship therefore took some time to develop and required changes from both majority and minority populations. However, as Roy observes, “Caucasians only had to set aside their prejudices; [other immigrant groups] had to be good citizens and had to campaign actively to secure the rights due to them as Canadian citizens” (305). While the works reviewed above reveal much about the latter processes, considerable light is shed on the outlooks of majority Canadians during and after the war in Ivana Caccia’s Managing the Canadian Mosaic in Wartime and Franca Iacovetta’s Gatekeepers.

When ethnic diversity in Canada during the war is considered at all, the focus tends to be on presumed national security issues such as the Japanese Canadian “repatriation” policy or the internment of Italian Canadians. An important development has thereby been overlooked, in which decision-makers sought to provide a new foundation for Canadian identity that took into account its ethnic diversity. As Caccia observes, a concern over “foreigners” (then the favoured term for non-British immigrants) “triggered in some native-born Canadians a strong sense of moral duty to protect and preserve the values of the British tradition and its particular liberal way of life, a duty they took as a civic responsibility” (19). With the onset of the war, officials recognized the need to address immigrant communities specifically to mobilize support, creating the Committee on Cooperation in Canadian Citizenship and the Nationalities Branch of the Department of National War Services.[4] In tracing the histories of these agencies and providing intellectual studies of some of the main actors, Caccia reveals that national integration (and not just national security) was a prominent concern among decision-makers, and that many of the ideas debated continue to shape the politics of multiculturalism in Canada.

Although academics and bureaucrats involved in these agencies often disagreed over how to promote greater integration, Caccia shows, their policy preferences generally exhibited a common tension, as “[s]tereotyping, paternalism, and assertions of unqualified Anglo-Saxon and Protestant superiority over the continental Europeans competed with a liberal, universal principle that valued individual personality over the cohesiveness of a particular cultural group” (210). Although internal disagreements and weak political support undermined their work, it nonetheless shaped the future management of ethnic diversity. For example, in response to the paternalistic approach taken by officials, a number of groups felt compelled “to speak publicly on their own behalf about issues that concerned both their communities in Canada and their homelands” (159). Such mobilization was supported by government efforts to promote the recognition of the wartime participation of “foreigners” at home and in the armed forces abroad. It was also facilitated as ideas about the immutable and hierarchical nature of culture and race were increasingly challenged, especially in light of the discrimination inherent in Nazism. As a result, “[t]he identification of their various cultural characteristics as ‘foreign’ or ‘strange’ gradually lost, in the political discourse, the demeaning connotation of ‘otherness,’ along with its consequence of inevitable social exclusion” (211).

Indeed, as the war ended, Caccia finds that “[a]n optimistic and idealist view of an all-inclusive Canadian citizenship [appeared] as a potentially essential trait of ‘Canadianism’” (212). This gained traction with the onset of the Cold War, as the integration of ethnic and immigrant communities was seen as essential in both the fight against communism and the reception of some two million immigrants (mostly European) by the early 1960s. As Iacovetta rightly states, this immigration and Canada’s response to it fundamentally altered the nature of being Canadian, as “Canadians from different social and political backgrounds contemplated the meanings of family, morality, citizenship, and democracy” (11). Although political dimensions of this Cold War story have been examined before (for example, in Reg Whitaker’s Double Standard), Iacovetta explores how efforts at moral and social regulation fed into the political integration and identity formation of Canadians during this period. She analyzes how various gatekeepers—bureaucrats, journalists, social workers, health officials, and ethnic organizations, among others—engaged with newcomers, promoting “conventional ideals of proper gender roles, the family, and sexual behaviour [to] cultivate good citizens who would be as cognizant of their civic duties to the state and wider society as of their individual rights and social entitlements” (50).

While Canada’s postwar citizenship model reflected British liberal ideals, for immigrants in particular, it was also founded on more coercive ideas of conformity and loyalty. Iacovetta’s work is remarkable for its continual assessment of the power relations navigated between gatekeepers and newcomers, keeping the agency of immigrants firmly in view. For example, in a fascinating exploration of how experts sought to promote integration into “Canadian” consumer, gender, and nutritional norms by altering immigrant food practices, she shows how immigrant women “generally responded in selective and pragmatic ways to Canadian health experts and to homemaking campaigns, even if they could not entirely control the terms of these encounters” (150–51). Iacovetta also reveals how gatekeepers often focused more on the loyalty of immigrants than their rights, and “willingly intruded into people’s lives and regulated or punished those who transgressed dominant norms” (290). It is an approach, she suggests, that has reappeared in Canada since 2001 through “the equating of certain family values and uncritical acceptance of the national security state with respectability, loyalty, and democracy” (292).

As with the texts reviewed above, Iacovetta’s work provides numerous opportunities for thinking through the intersections of rights and citizenship at the outset of the twenty-first century (especially in the context of Canada as a country of immigration) by subjecting the past to critical analysis. In doing so, support can be found from all of the authors for the main claim of those cited at the outset—that to understand what it means to be Canadian today it is necessary to develop a fuller appreciation of the past. They also confirm that the importance of the rights anchored in British liberal traditions cannot be underestimated, as they underpin the rule of law and parliamentary government in Canada, which in turn provide the foundations for legal and political citizenship. As stated in the government’s new citizenship guide, Discover Canada, they “reflect our shared traditions, identity and values” (Citizenship and Immigration Canada 8). However, they do so in complex and unsettled ways. In this context, defining Canadian citizenship in terms of “the immutable beliefs about the nature and purpose of Canadian society that our forebears fought to establish over generations” is extremely problematic (Griffiths 96). The evidence provided in the works reviewed here shows how such beliefs have evolved significantly over time, often in response to the activism of ethnic/immigrant Canadians and their supporters. Loyalty to a partial and reified past would seem, then, to offer fewer possibilities for a better understanding of being Canadian in the here and now than an appreciation of how all Canadians, in their engagement with one another and with non-Canadians, continue to refine and redefine the rights and responsibilities that mark Canadian citizenship. These works, individually and collectively, shed much-needed light on this process.