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Manitoba History: Limited Identities - Ten Years Later

by J. M. S. Careless
University of Toronto

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I enjoy commenting on an authority I respect — me. A decade ago, in the Canadian Historical Review, I published an article on the general significance of regional, ethnic and class identities within Canadian society as a whole noting that these “limited identities” had tended to bulk larger for Canadians in their history than any identification with overall national patterns of values and attitudes. [1] Consequently major regional entities pluralized cultural communities and social class groupings deserved a good deal more attention from historians in Canada, especially when the quest for the Holy Grail of a unified, strongly expressed national identity. long looked to by older scholars in the craft, appeared to be playing out. They had done monumental work in studying themes of political and economic nation-building; yet their own dream of a self-assured and close-knit nation had not come to reality. Thus it was time to leave the national dreamers and investigate other historic realities behind the particularist Canadian condition. Some historians were already doing so. in fact; but I conjectured “in any case, by pursuing a line largely of sociocultural inquiry. one may hope to uncover satisfactions in the limited identities ... which have added up to some positive balance of satisfaction with Canada itself.” [2]

Ten years after, one well might ask if there is any “positive balance of satisfaction with Canada” now left at all when he considers the strenuous chorus of dissatisfactions voiced from Newfoundland to British Columbia. The strength of western regionalism the pressures of Saudi Alberta the resentments of Atlantic Canada — even the new anxieties of Ontario — all shake the creaking national fabric while Quebec’s thrust for sovereignty may split it into pieces. Altogether limited identities threaten to take over and settle the matter of a Canadian national identity by ending it outright, leaving perhaps a loose league of survivor states essentially existing on American outdoor relief. Meanwhile moreover, there has been a massive outpouring, both in popular and scholarly writings on regional interests and inequities, on cultural discords and demands. on class disparities and stresses and such things as national concerns are by and large passed over or discounted. In this situation, I feel a little like the farmer in the midst of a flood, when he declared “Lord, I know I prayed for rain — but this is ridiculous.”

Nevertheless, there are reasons why I do not really feel as bad as the foregoing might suggest. First cutting myself down to proper size as a mere historian I know, I scarcely caused the flood any more than did the farmer. Besides just among historians and related social scientists there were those ten years ago who were already well into regional ethnic or class studies, and who have pursued them much more than I myself have since. I do not mean then to overrate my own one article: simply to reexamine it in the light of the passage of ten years. And, after all, as an historian I was only — typically — reflecting views and currents manifestly at work around me at the time.

Furthermore I do not think that an overall balance of satisfactions with Canada has now necessarily disappeared. One really cannot tell yet; and in any event, it is possible to become far too impressed with the turbulent signs of a transitory present. To decide upon the contemporary moment, without scope for a long-range view, is the very thing which an honest historian should place — the past — and seek merely to outline on that basis what has happened to the treatment of limited identities in Canadian history since my article of 1969. Then, after considering the handling of the theme in the past decade, I can attempt to judge its continuing use, setting out my current attitude by way of a conclusion.

An important caveat remains to be underlined. In discussing the sizeable body of work that now bears on limited identity, I am not pretending to assert paternity for it all, even at several stages removed. Like Confederation, fatherhood here was a collective affair; while at times, indeed, precise relationships cannot be effectively determined — as with the young woman in wartime Britain who wrote on a form in regard to the father of her expected child, “Some soldiers.” All I want to do is to comment on recent historical inquiries concerned with regional, ethnic or class identities as representing a widespread trend in Canadian historiography, in which my own pronouncement was simply a participating element. And I will spend more time and effort on the examination of regionalism and cultural pluralism than on social class: essentially because my own work has tended in the former two directions, but also because the study of aspects of class history in Canada, as far as it has gone by now, actually deserves a separate full paper in itself.

We may best consider this matter of class history first, so as to clear the way for the two other topics to be given more attention. Class identity, has been taken up increasingly and in all sorts of ways since the (presumably) epoch-making year of 1969. Much of the relevant work is still in the form of proliferating doctoral theses, but a flow of published articles and books is stemming out of these. In the major field of working-class and labour history, a significant item appeared in 1973, the bibliography prepared by Russell Hann, Gregory and Linda Kealey and Peter Warrian, entitled, Primary Sources in Working-Class History, 1860-1930. Its introduction noted that, “For some time J. M. S. Careless has called for ... a historical appreciation of the varieties of ‘limited identities’ that constitute Canada” (advertisement), and offered this source book as a partial effort “to create a new local history” focusing on “features of Canadian society that previously appeared as mere dots in the firmament of the old imperial vision” — that is, of course, the old national overview which hardly got down to the lives of labouring multitudes all across the country. [3] Now in calling this bibliographic collection significant, I am not remarking on its particular contribution in its own field, but rather upon the fact that it was put forward in the terms just cited. Indeed, it signalized the effort spreading through the 1970s to study working-class identities in Canadian history, chiefly pursued within local and regional settings and assuredly as a socio-cultural inquiry.

In this regard, the enterprise moved well beyond an earlier concern with labour unionism, which has certainly continued as a study, though in older forms it had been mainly political and economic in approach and institutional in emphasis. The newer working-class historians, however, dealt with unorganized as well as organized labour, with disadvantaged women workers, immigrant elements in the work force, living conditions, status and mobility, or with poverty and unemployment, crime and violence — the list could run even further. Obviously, not all these developing themes in the history of the masses in society can be necessarily tied to a pursuit of class identity; yet the connections are implicit, and oftentimes explicit. We may well consider, therefore, that working-class history has become one of the most active and productive areas in the varied examinations of limited identities in Canada that are presently being conducted.

In other areas relating to social class, it is possible to cite business history as another significantly advancing endeavour. Again this does not necessarily have to be handled as an inquiry into social identity; and the close associations of business history with economic history are more than evident throughout. Nevertheless, the business theme can be, and has been, treated in socio-cultural terms; as investigations of the aims and conduct of entrepreneurial groups or the personalities, perceptions and social backgrounds of their members. In the work of William Acheson, Gerald Tulchinsky or Michael Bliss, to name only a few, such an approach is manifest. They deal with socio-cultural contexts and responses. Bliss’ study of the “protective impulse” among late nineteenth-century Canadian manufacturers is a prime example here; and his recent biography of Sir Joseph Flavelle is a penetrating assessment of a Canadian millionaire in his social and intellectual as well as financial milieus.

Intellectual studies, notably represented by the writings of Carl Berger, educational history, given decided class associations over the decade in the work of Alison Prentice, Susan Houston and others; the history of religious movements or moral and social reform impulses: all have illustrated the strong socio-cultural emphasis of recent Canadian historiography, and have many links with the investigation of particular identities. But there is no space to say more about them or to go on with women’s history, family history, the child in society, and still more that patently displays the continued spread of social approaches. Besides, it is almost invidious to name a few names, when a complete listing of historians deserving of recognition is not the purpose of this paper. Beyond that, it is again not necessary — and could even be absurd — to tie this whole expansion of the social historical field to a quickening interest in limited identities per se. Let us just say that the latter still has had a very substantial impact on studies pertaining to social groupings, and turn to the next main theme, the treatment of regionalism.

If class-connected topics have gained a good deal of historical attention over the decade, the same thing plainly goes for regional subjects — in spades. Again one can make only the briefest of surveys across the country, offering a bare selection of examples that cannot do justice to the work in hand but simply suggest something of its scope. In Newfoundland, for instance, the Maritime History Group based at Memorial University is generating machine-readable data from masses of Atlantic shipping records which almost for the first time enable us to examine the classic sea-based life of the Atlantic region in close detail, from the shipyards up. At the University of New Brunswick, the excellent scholarly journal Acadiensis came into being in 1971, and since has published a host of valuable articles on the Atlantic area, that mark a veritable renaissance in Maritime regional history. In Quebec, where what I might term studies of the region would more likely be called studies of the nation, the writing of Fernand Ouellet on Lower Canada and of Jean Hamelin and Yves Roby on the province in the second half of the nineteenth century constitute major regional achievements by current Quebec historians. They are matched — and confronted — by rival interpretations of socio-economic change in French Canada notably put forward over the decade by lean-Pierre Wallot and Gilles Pacquet on the basis of intensively quantified research. Here the approach of the influential French annales school of history meets with econometric models and the processes of the computer to yield some of the most theoretically developed (and intricate) regional historical work in Canada today.

In Ontario, provincial government put in its hand in 1972 by underwriting the Ontario Historical Studies Series, a long-term project for Ontario historians to produce a set of volumes on the political, social, economic and cultural development of the province — and prove that Ontario, too, has its own history, not to be confused with Canada at large. The first volume in an opening series of biographies of the more important premiers came out in 1977; others are imminent. A general provincial history since 1867, by Joseph Schull, has also appeared: as a foretaste of the definitive general historical treatment looked for when all the specialized research monographs have been completed. The last multi-volume history of Ontario was produced in 1927. Only in the 1970s has Ontario regional history thus become a major scholarly undertaking in its own right; fostered, if certainly not created, by the extensive Studies Series just outlined. It has also been promoted by such local studies of first-rate scholarship as Leo Johnson’s History of the County of Ontario, which came out in 1973.

Passing onward to the great plains, we could first take note of the seminal Western Canadian Studies Conferences centred at the University of Calgary, the proceedings of which have been published as collections of pace-making papers on historic western regionalism ever since the first set, Prairie Perspectives 1, appeared in 1970. The introduction to Prairie Perspectives 2 (of 1973) will bear some quoting here. “Until recently,” it observed, only a handful of scholars and writers had “ploughed furrows across the prairie West, sometimes singly as with G. F. G. Stanley, Edward McCourt and Grant McEwan and sometimes in matched teams with identical surnames, like the Mortons, the Thomases and the Grays. Without their persistent efforts against a highly resistant and unliterary landscape, as W. L. Morton has put it elsewhere, the intellectual traditions of western Canada would still be as dark as Sinclair Ross’ bleak tale of the thirties — “The Lamp at Noon.” In contrast, the Western Studies Conference began in the latest era seemed almost “the child of luxury.” Yet the work done there served in “opening the way and setting high standards for subsequent investigations of western culture and society.” [4]

The assessment is sound. The conferences plainly expressed and helped to stimulate the veritable current industry in western regional history. Once more there is just no room to discuss the many products of this industry: the important individual books and articles, the research projects into particular aspects of western development and the organizing bodies set up. Nor is there space to refer to other conferences and symposia — though undoubtedly the Western Studies Conference was only one prominent manifestation of the surging interest in western subjects among historians of tie region that was apparent as the seventies opened. Suffice it to say that that interest has been powerfully evident here in Winnipeg; in its universities, at the fur-trade treasury of the Hudson’s Bay Company archives, and in the long-established Manitoba Historical Society, which indeed heralded the decade by producing its admirable Historical Atlas of Manitoba in 1970.

In the far West, British Columbia history is a flourishing regional enterprise of its own. It is fostered by the journal B.C. Studies (launched at the close of the sixties), by the activities of the University of British Columbia Press and the Archives of the province in fostering expanded interests and products in the field, and now by the B.C. Studies Conference which, like its prairie counterpart, brings historians together with other social scientists and humanists to discuss the life and culture of the region. Again these concerns have grown strongly over the past ten years. Once there was little more to be said about any major British Columbian history beyond the founding-father names of Noway, Sage and Lamb, and of course the great mother-presence of Margaret Ormsby, whose preeminent British Columbia, a History came out in 1958, on the occasion of the provincial centenary celebrations. The western province found a whole succession of such dates to witness thereafter — in 1966, 1967 and 1971 — each of which promoted regional historical celebrations, right down to getting Captain Cook into a bicentennial act last year. Whether British Columbian historiography would still have taken a large leap forward without these public stirs is another matter; although they obviously supported, as well as indicated, a keen sense of regional identity. At any rate, historians of the Pacific West are increasingly busy with their own distinctive world. The passage of a decade has made a striking difference in both their intensity and expertise.

How can one make a general statement about this whole regional effort, in all its depth and variety — but thinly presented as it has been here? We can at least congratulate ourselves that so much has been going on to uncover the historic realities behind this kind of limited identity in Canada: and so much of it of fine quality, besides. Furthermore, we should observe that certain specialities have also developed largely in relation to the strong interest in regional approaches. Local history now has widely risen above its all too common earlier level, of being a mixture of antiquarianism, parochialism and anecdote. with dulling dashes of local genealogy thrown in. Now it can be an attractive. authoritative mode itself; and studies of villages or country communities maybe just as well done and meaningful in their own way as works on much larger areas. Immigrant and ethnic history has also mainly emerged within the frame of regional writing, as has the history of land use and land holding. Above all, urban history has done so, for the growth of cities and towns that have been such significant factors in Canadian life are virtually linked to themes of regionalism. They are not only very particular places on the general map; they are also centres that focus and structure regions or sub-regions about them. The interplay of city and region thus demands and has received attention, as well as the internal affairs of the urban places themselves. And that leads me on to the topic of metropolitanism, which is integrally connected with regional studies, in any case.

To talk of myself (which is where I started this paper) I can immodestly affirm that during the past decade I have done a certain amount to elaborate and apply ideas on the major significance of metropolitan centres — leading cities — in historical developments across the regions of Canada. I will not list articles, since I have not done that for others either, but rather note that I have always sought to emphasize the reciprocal and complementary nature of the relations between the great city and the territory it dominates, between the metropolis and the hinterland. Without doubt. the strategic power and grasp of the metropolis often leads to its holding the initiatives. But this is not a one-way set of relationships, and their balances do change over time. Regions are not simply deprived and exploited hinterlands of domineering cities, but crucial components in metropolitan systems, wherein either side requires the other. and both operate together to shape regional and metropolitan identities. This (finally) brings me to a major point I want to make about the character of some of the multiplying work on regionalism from Atlantic to Pacific. It can too readily be one-sided in emphasis, (ingrown) in attitude, and even wrong-headed — just because it is one-sided.

That is to say, there is a frequent over-simple dichotomy presented or suggested by regionalist historians between a “metropolitan” central Canada and their own closely regarded region to east or west. Theirs is the home of the poor but honest good guys of “the hinterland,” confronting the scheming, greedy autocrats of “the metropolis” (for which lump in all Ontario, rich or poor, plus Quebec or not, as the mood strikes you). It is, of course, the rooted Canadian exclusionism of Us against Them, the fellow inhabitants of the home territory versus the outsiders. It has some validity: in fact, it expresses the very reality of regional consciousness in this divided country . Yet the assumptions of self-regarding righteousness that may accompany it, the memories of grievances — the feeling that all would have gone well if only We had been able to run Our own show — often indicate more the simple emotions than the complex facts of history. And, as I have said, the bias arises mainly from a one-sided view that discerns the regional entity, but not its many metropolitan interconnections both without and within the regional bounds.

With regard to the last, one must remember, for example, that metropolises exist inside as well as outside the prairie region. While westerners may join in common opposition to the power wielded by a Toronto, it can be another thing when it is a question of the power of Winnipeg in their own midst, or of a Regina as opposed to the interests of Saskatoon in Saskatchewan. or Calgary contending with Edmonton in Alberta. Actually, it is the same thing: the dominance exercised by metropolitan places brings countervailing responses in their various hinterlands. The crucial fact is that regions are structured into metropolitan systems both within and beyond their territories, and it is these interlinking, inter-relating patterns that need more attention, not some self-contained (and virtually non-existent) regional monolith. Properly to weigh a regional identity in Canada, we must examine the whole context of historical forces that have shaped it, extending far outside the region across the country, into the United States, and probably back beyond the oceans as well. Metropolitanism is not the antithesis of regionalism. Each is inherent in the other — two sides that co-function and give meaning to one another.

With that pronouncement, we may leave regionalism and turn to the theme of cultural pluralism, the patchwork of limited ethnic identities contained within the Canadian nation-state. Clearly this kind of limited identity is no less significant than the regional variety. To begin with, there is the coexistence of two predominant language and culture groups, French and English-speaking, which has been such a prime factor through Canadian history. English-speaking Canada may now show a marked internal ethnic heterogeneity, French Canada far more homogeneity (though one may overstate it). The fact remains that they do constitute two major, very distinctive limited identities in themselves. One could say indeed, that each historically has limited the other. The French-speaking community has constantly felt constrained in its own inherent development, as subordinated to an English-speaking majority which could dominate it, both politically and economically. Thus the recurrent impulses to a separate French national existence. the strongest being with us now. Yet the English-speaking majority has also been limited by the French presence, being led to accept political and cultural bargains which the facts of dualism imposed, and which otherwise it would seldom have entertained.

In point of fact, the limiting presence of the French Canadians not only impeded the realization of any unitary, assimilationist “Anglo-based” Canadian nationality, but also provided leeway for other ethnic groups to maintain some cultural separation of their own. In other words, the way to cultural pluralism was opened. With the influx of non-English-speaking immigrants to Canada from the late nineteenth century onwards, a third force was in the making in Canadian society. Or rather, a whole set of third forces emerged; ethnic groups which in time would chiefly acculturate with English Canada in language. economic pursuits and political association, but which kept a large degree of socio-cultural distinctiveness in many areas of the country. There were, of course, varying degrees in the persistence of ethnic identification within these different elements. Yet in general, no one could deny that a further set of limited identities were added and have endured: the limited identities of multiculturalism.

Again it is mainly within the past ten years that earnest efforts have been made to take up the theme of multicultural history in Canada. Certainly, there were important pioneering works by the 1940s, or even earlier, on the growth of non-English-speaking settlements in the country, especially in the West where they played such a vital part in its development. In the fifties the term Canadian “mosaic” came increasingly into popular acceptance — and John Porter was to write in the sixties of the “Vertical Mosaic”, signifying that at the top levels of Canadian society elites drawn from the older Anglo-Celt elements still kept a commanding hold. Then. too, the extensive studies of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the later sixties includes major treatment of the cultural contributions of the “other” ethnic elements that were published in 1969-70. Still further, anthropologists and sociologists had already been engaged in studying factors of ethnicity in Canada, while a number of valuable volumes also appeared on the Canadian historical experience of particular ethnic communities that were often written by members, from the inside, so to speak. But not till the end of the last decade did historians really begin seriously to develop ethnic, immigration and multi-cultural inquiries to their present level of significance all across the country.

Exhibit A in this regard might be the influential young journal, Canadian Ethnic Studies, published since 1968 by the Research Centre for Canadian Ethnic Studies at the University of Calgary; especially one particular issue of 1977 that dealt with immigrants in the city. The role of the urban base in immigration history is the salient feature to be noted here. Whereas a good many earlier ethnic studies dealt with rural communities in Canada, the link with urban history was now being closely treated. Indeed, a very similar approach was taken in a 1978 issue of the Urban History Review, produced in Ottawa under the auspices of the National Museum of Man, which was also devoted to the immigrant and the city. Labour history no less than urban history has been tied in with the course of growing multiculturalism. And Winnipeg indeed, as a major multicultural focus in Canada, has been and is being effectively examined in both these respects.

"In Canadian social elites still kept a commanding hold"
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

The study of ethnic identities is also being implemented through the federal government’s multicultural programme, that sponsors works on “the history of Canada’s peoples.” In this advancing series, three volumes came out in 1976 dealing respectively with the Scottish tradition, the Portuguese and the Polish communities in Canada. Obviously, there are a lot yet to follow: but these books constitute significant bench-marks in themselves. Another of note, and worthy of comment because of its interesting form as well as content, is Immigrants, a Portrait of the Urban Experience, 1890-1930, which was produced in 1975 by Robert Harney and Harold Troper. This is a compilation of a vivid set of photographs illustrating the immigrant’s new world in Canada, together with a connecting and evaluating text. It brings to mind the fact that the multi-cultural experience in Canada has fallen largely within a time span in which the newer techniques of both photographic documentation and of oral history (the tape-recorded memoir) can be applied to good effect. Indeed they must be applied; for otherwise the written records of the host country may be all too silent about the newcomers’ early lives of struggling adaptation to a strange environment.

As usual, I can give but a sketchy outline of this many-sided theme that touches all parts of Canada: that could embrace treatments of Finnish communities, at the Lakehead. Jewish in Montreal, Japanese on the West Coast, or Blacks in Nova Scotia — and beyond that, native peoples in any number of different locales. Yet since my references to ethnic examples can only be so partial, I may as well conclude them with a case that particularly concerns me, the activities of the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario. On this, let me say, however, that I am not continuing with self-advertisement. I am merely chairman of the board of the Society, a front man; the direction and real work of the organization fall to other hands. Its engagement is considerable and significant, nevertheless; and so I offer it as deserving attention.

Established in 1976 with ample Ontario government funding, the Society’s primary aim has been to gather and preserve a wealth of historical records from ethnic groups in the province for transfer to the Archives of Ontario. The same sort of multicultural endeavour of course, is also proceeding at the Public Archives of Canada in Ottawa and at many other Provincial depositories as well. Yet there seems a huge amount to be done still. It is astonishing how much the body of the Society’s researchers (now more than 160) have turned up, and continue to turn up, of precious original documentation, from records of churches or political and social associations within an ethnic community to the papers and reminiscences (often taped) of prominent and not-so prominent community members. The coverage ranges from long-established Mennonite elements to post-war Hungarian immigrants, from Ukrainian groups to Lebanese. But since forty-four ethnic communities have already been the subject of research so far throughout the province, it is no use to go on naming them. The Society, moreover, is now producing research papers, publishing noteworthy primary documents, and last year began its own journal, Polyphony. It also sponsors or co-sponsors conferences in the field of immigration and ethnic history, such as that on the Italian Immigrant Woman in North America, a large recent joint Canadian-American gathering, the proceedings of which have now appeared with a substantial Canadian content. And all this is put before you, I do stress, not to laud the Multicultural Historical Society, but further to demonstrate the amount that has been going on in the area of multiculturalism.

In sum, it is apparent that the whole realm of cultural pluralism in Canada is under vigorous historical examination. Nor are the older ingredients in English-speaking Canadian society being neglected — British, American or long-settled Anglo-Canadian, as they might loosely be termed. West Country English in Prince Edward Island, Irish cultural transfers in Newfoundland, the Miramichi and the Peterborough area; American elements in Alberta, Loyalist Scots and Ulster inheritances: all have come into current ethno-historical accounts in various ways and forms. We have broadly recognized our cultural particularities in traditions and origins; and have increasingly sought to assess their influences.

Is this enough? What is left of Canada, if we display multiple identities in culture, class and region but little overall? “Unity in diversity” has been used as a hopeful Canadian motto. Now it rather seems that it should be “diversity Unlimited.” if we are only to mark the particularism of so much of the historical labours of the latest decade. Still, there are some other answers. First, nation-wide historical studies have by no means ceased, and really stand to gain from the much fuller special knowledge now put within the national framework. Second, class and ethnic identities can extend well beyond local or regional limits; far across the country, very often. They may indeed be viewed historically as horizontal linkages that reach past vertical spatial divisions. Third, as has been said, regional communities can only be fully dealt with in terms of their relations to other regions and centers outside their home territories. And, finally, all these limited identities together are part of an interlaced, national mediating structure, which has an existence of its own as more than the sum of its parts.

I will venture to call on two influential Canadian historians for support. The first is W. L. Morton, a man of many parts and volumes, but whose epic Manitoba, a History here provides my text. Although published in 1957, it is as vital as ever at the close of the 1970s. This remains a superb achievement in regional history — but Morton never forgot the region’s broader settings, its multiple interconnections, the play of historic forces inward and out. Thus at the outset of his work, he declares that Manitoba’s “local history goes back to the Elizabethans and to Henry Hudson”, that Winnipeg grew as an imperial city, the heir to Fort Garry which had ruled a continental expanse, that Manitoban society and history represented “the Canadian experiment in political binationalism and cultural plurality ... at its most intense.” [5] And at the end he notes that Manitoba’s geography and history. like Canada’s geography and history, “were one and inseparable”, for each was the “response to the challenge of the North.” [6] These are truly themes that run through Canada, beyond particularisms, and the country itself is their total product. Or, to put that assertion another way, the history of a segment of Canada is an expression, an epitome, of the whole. To neglect that fact in writing of regionalism is to falsify the picture itself.

Then there is Sidney Wise, whose presidential address to the Canadian Historical Association in 1974 supplies my other instance. From the basis of his own authoritative studies of the Canadian conservative tradition, he reflected on the then current “culture-fragment” theory of Louis Hartz, and, incidentally, on limited identities. He endorsed the latter, I am happy to say — though by no means all of my views! And he found in a countryside, characteristic Canadian conservative outlook the best explanation for the persistence of group identities, “for the fact of pluralism”. Limited identities, that is, were themselves a reflection of a Canadian national attribute. They did not negate a larger Canadian identity; they were part of it. The “contradiction, paradox and complexity” of a diverse country was bound to the historic Canadian style of “muted conservatism, ambivalent liberalism.” [7] Hence the very expression of a limited identity is a manifestation of Canadian identity itself. Such identities are comparable across the whole country: they relate, each to all.

"Local history goes back to the Elizabethans"
Source: Western Canada Pictorial Index

So much for testimony. Let me revert, in conclusion, to some estimate of the present place of the idea of limited identities, and what I think of it now. I do feel the concept has had much value, and still has, in uncovering the attributes of Canadian particularism. On this a great amount has been accomplished. Yet after all this burrowing-in, perhaps it is time to come up for air and look around. Comparative studies provide a way of doing so. Already there have been interesting joint conferences, for example, on the nature of historic regional responses in the West and the Maritimes. But this, too, is not enough: it may result in a somewhat artificial combination of “have-nots” in history, a mere putting alongside of disparate regions, with a general verdict that they should have pulled together, but did not. The very “have” and “have-not” categories in Canadian history may have a rather dubious basis. Parts of central Canada. that is, could be better compared with sectors to west or east instead of treating the whole area as a unit, as one of those nonexistent regional monoliths, the myths of shallow thinking. Thus disadvantaged eastern Quebec, or segments of eastern Ontario, might be more effectively examined alongside Atlantic regional communities in history than the Atlantic region with all too-different West. Again, Ontario and Manitoba farm society, resource frontiers in the Ontario north and the Mountain west, or the growth of metropolitan communities around Montreal and Toronto and subsequently around Western cities, could afford better bases for fruitful comparisons. The results, at least, might be more fruitful than those derived from further historical reworkings of “the” West against “the” Centre, “the” Centre against “the” East — oversimplifications of regional identities which ignore about as many vital internal variations as the old national overview ever did. Otherwise, any quest for regionality may become as tenuous in outcome as the earlier simple search for nationality unbounded.

Much the same hold true for class identities. They must be treated in their national scope, comparatively, as well as in their local, regional (and conceivably international) dimensions. We assuredly need to fill in the old “imperial vision” of Canada in respect to social realities; but not to forget that politics in the national capital or markets on the prairies conditioned the real lives of Ontario and Quebec factory workers. And as for cultural pluralism, we cannot assess the facts of ethnic survival and diversity without weighing the equally significant processes of ethnic integration and national assimilation in the varying degrees to which they have operated, once more across the entire country. In brief, limited identities remain crucial subjects for the historian’s regard — but they should not limit his own perception.

Accordingly, though I said what I did about the concept of limited identity—and I am glad—it is time to recall wider perspectives. [8] Detailed work, masses of it, is still to be done, for all that the last decade has achieved in Canadian history. Yet while doing it, we must look up and about as well, or incur the peril of not seeing the woods for the trees. Once, perhaps, historians were only impressed by the vast forest that was Canada (my, what a big one). Then they got down to tackling the trees, and carved out their particularist clearings. But clearings, we know. imply a confining isolation. Now the task is to cut the sight-lines through, to make the perceptual links, so that once again we may discern the still vast Canadian forest-nation as an entity, or identity, in itself.


1. “Limited Identities in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review, L, 1, March 1969, pp. 1-10. It should be recalled that I did not invent the term “limited identity”, but acquired it from an article by Ramsay Cook, cited in my own article — which was thus essentially a commentary on his initial idea.

2. Ibid., p. 10.

3. Primary Sources in Canadian Working-Class History, 1860-1930 (Kitchener, 1973), p. 11.

4. Prairie Perspectives 2, A. W. Raspovich and H. C. Klassen, eds., (Toronto, 1973), p. 1.

5. Manitoba, A History, W. L. Morton (Toronto, 1957), pp. viii-ix.

6. Ibid., p. 473.

7. “Liberal Consensus or Ideological Battleground,” Historical Papers, 1974, Canadian Historical Association (Ottawa, 1974), p. 13.

8. See “The Golden Age of Canadian Historical Writing,” Historical Reflections, IV, I, Summer 1977 (Waterloo 1977), by Ramsay Cook, especially pp. 138-9 and 148-9. These show that Professor Cook has again anticipated me, in regard to the next stage for “limited identities”

Editor's Note

Professor Careless' lecture inaugurated a series of annual lectures in memory of James A. Jackson (1918-1976). A teacher and instructor of history, James A. Jackson died 14 October 1976. For almost thirty years he had taught hundreds of students at the University of Manitoba, at St. John's College and at the Technical Vocational School of Winnipeg.

James Jackson was a scholar whose contribution to Manitoba history was deep and lasting. His study of the railway policies of the Greenway government cast a new light on the events from which the Manitoba School Question came. His Centennial History of Manitoba is a wholly admirable history of this province, readable, popular and scholarly. More lasting, perhaps, was his service as the first archivist for Manitoba. It was James Jackson who started to put in useable order the already considerable records of the Province and who began the collection of other records, both private and public.

To commemorate James Jackson's memory, private and public, and contributions to the history of Manitoba, Professor J. M. S. Careless was asked to present a public lecture reflecting on the ten years of Canadian historical writing which followed the appearance of his seminal article "Limited Identities in Canada."

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