Manitoba History: Book Review: Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945.
by Kate MacFarlane
Immigration has been and remains a central element in the making of modern Canada. In the three decades after the Second World War, more than four million people immigrated to Canada. Of these, more than half a million were English-born. In all but eight years between 1945 and 1975, the English formed the largest national sub-group in this vast wave of immigration. Yet in their recent collaboration, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, historians Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson note that, while “much has been written about Canada’s many immigrant communities, the English are conspicuous by their comparative absence in the pages of Canadian history.” With the exception of war brides, English immigrants have tended to be “invisible.”
In this carefully done and enjoyable book, Barber and Watson attempt to address this gap in the literature and our understanding, not through a “top-down perspective relying on government reports, passenger lists, agency records” but by “exploring the memories and experiences” of a select group of immigrants. Dr. Barber has worked extensively in the areas of immigration, women’s and gender history, and oral history. Dr. Watson is an oral historian specializing in post-war English immigration. The authors believe that the personal stories of more than seventy English-born Canadians will “contribute to our understanding of post war immigration and fill a significant gap in the history of English migration to Canada.” Some of the interviewees came to Canada as young, single people looking for adventure and to see the world, not necessarily to settle; some came as family units, intent on building their lives here. To some extent, they had different social backgrounds and educational levels, but the vast majority of English immigrants during this time “were professionals including teachers, nurses, civil servants and engineers.” All had lived through the Second World War. The majority settled in Ontario, followed by British Columbia, and Quebec.
The authors set the stage by examining the economic, social, and political conditions in both England and Canada during the years between 1945 and 1975. Many interviewees were influenced by the experience of war and the ongoing grimness of post-war England with its continued rationing, housing shortages, poor employment prospects, and ongoing class struggles. Immigration levels fluctuated during this time (peaking in 1957 with more than 70,000 arrivals), but tended to coincide with economic downturns in Britain, including in the late 1960s. The reasons immigrants chose Canada (rather than other destinations, such as the United States, South Africa, Australia or New Zealand) were highly personal and in most cases, quite pragmatic. Some had friends, family, or business contacts here. They already spoke the language and shared key elements of a common cultural heritage. Canada’s relative proximity offered the possibility of some travel back and forth, especially as lengthy sea voyages gave way to commercial flights, which, as noted by many interviewees, were impressively marketed. For its part, Canada’s post-war policy was to foster the growth of Canada by the encouragement of immigration. However, it did not want mass migration to alter the fundamental character of its population. In 1955, the federal immigration minister noted, “[W]e try to select as immigrants those who will have to change their ways least in order to adapt themselves to Canadian life and to contribute to the development of the Canadian nation.” The English, indistinguishable from the then majority of Canadians, at least until they opened their mouths and spoke, fit the bill.
While immigrants were influenced by many of the same push and pull factors, their experiences and stories are not the same, and their personal accounts make for informative and delightful reading. The interviews dealt with the immigrants’ reasons for coming to Canada, what they hoped to find here, the actual process of emigrating, and the challenges they faced upon arrival as they looked for work, purchased homes, and put down roots in their new communities. Finally, Barber and Watson looked at immigrants’ evolving national identity, when and if they ever truly felt “Canadian,” and what that meant to them.
It is the personal nature of the recollections, the retelling of the experience in their own words that makes the immigrant experience come alive. They spoke of deciding to go, selling up, and leaving their loved ones behind. According to one early immigrant, “it was a very difficult time in England and there was still rationing in many things, right up until the 1950s. And we just got tired of it. And then we took this visit to Canada and the United States, land of milk and honey (laughs) ... then we decided it was time we got out. And that’s what we did!” The decision wasn’t always an easy one. Decades later, a woman who had emigrated in 1956 cried at the memory of saying good-bye to her grandmother. They all believed immigrating would improve the quality of their lives, and, besides which, “... it was an adventure. You know, when you’re in your twenties, it is an adventure.” Some people were remarkably pragmatic in their choice. One man, an engineer who immigrated in the 1960s, initially considered Australia and New Zealand, but dismissed them as too far for regular visits between his children and their grandparents. He also felt the engineering opportunities were better in Canada and South Africa. But what really convinced him was “when I looked at the funding ratio, the cost of the house divided by the annual salary of an engineer, in Australia it was going to take me twenty-four years to buy a house, twenty-four years of salary; in Canada I could do it in six. That’s why we decided if we go anywhere, it would be Canada.” Home ownership was an important goal, and it helped anchor immigrants in their new communities.
Looking back, the interviewees recall their reactions to their new country, which were largely positive: affordable homes; big, well-made cars; and (especially for those who had experienced wartime shortages and ongoing rationing) the astonishing “variety and abundance” of the food. However, there were also challenges, including linguistic isolation for some settling in Quebec during the turbulent 1960s, and sometimes dreadful homesickness. Many joked about the $1,000 cure for homesickness, which included an attempt to move back to England, only to find that Canada had become home.
Though experienced in the methodology, the authors acknowledge the challenges and limitations of using oral histories. Further, they recognize that their findings do not encompass the experiences of the estimated 30 percent of English immigrants who either returned home or moved on to other countries. No doubt, their stories would have moderated the overall remarkable homogeneity of these findings. The majority of people included in the book felt their move to Canada had brought “personal happiness and a sense of fulfillment.” Most had achieved success in their careers and were pleased to have brought up their children as Canadians. They were actively engaged in their communities, and the majority, to a greater or lesser degree, had come to see themselves as Canadian or part-Canadian. The relatively cohesive nature of the group—who were predominantly young, white, English-speaking, and quite well educated—and the similarity of their experiences does leave the reader wondering about the other 30 percent. The book could also have been enhanced by a bit of context, some sense of where the English experience fit with other large groups of post-war immigrants. As it stands, however, Invisible Immigrants provides a wealth of detailed information on a largely neglected aspect of Canada’s immigration history and its post-war development.
We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.
Page revised: 7 January 2021