Coming to Canada: Building a Life in a New Land by Susan Hughes. Book Review.

 

This is a nonfiction history book is organized into easy-to-read sections. Is quite up to date and inclusive. It begins with the arrival of the aboriginal peoples. It follows through with the Acadians and the Great Expulsion, an example of how prejudice and politics can destroy the lives of ordinary people.

Throughout the book, it honestly shows the cruelties and failures done while building our country. Many people know generally about the loyalists’ tribulations but few know how badly the emancipated slaves were treated. For example, “of the 30,000 Loyalists who came north to Nova Scotia in 1783 in 1784, roughly 10%, or 3000, were black.” Many didn’t get their land grants and if they did it was soil that could not be farmed. They were treated worse than second-class citizens. “And what about the other resources promised by the British – the lumber, the money, the tools? Again, the black Loyalists were always at the end of the line. Many suffered through their first winters in the inadequate temporary structures they put up just for shelter.” They were not given the same rations as the whites. But in spite of all this, the black loyalists built several strong communities of their own. While some may think it is shameful to bring forth the treatment of groups such as this, I think that their descendents would be proud of their resilience and ability to overcome such blatant racism. There may be inspiration in their suffering. I wish I could say that these inequalities were quickly corrected, but in fact the people of Halifax’s Africville were appalling victims of entrenched systematic abuse and neglect for 150 more years. For those of us who are not black, seeing the truth is a reminder that we must be vigilant against prejudice toward immigrants and minorities. A timely topic.

The book covers the arrival of the Irish immigrants in the 1600s aboard the coffin ships. It follows these people through the building of the railroad where it also connects up with the experiences of the Chinese immigrants.

You will find historical tidbits you may not have known. For example, have you heard of New Iceland?

In the late 1800s, many Ukrainian immigrants arrived and most settled around Winnipeg. The book explores the premises made by the Canadian government to potential immigrants. It examines the prejudices and false assumptions towards southern Europeans. I was surprised to learn that, next to the Chinese, the Italians “played the biggest role in pushing the Canadian Pacific Railway through the diamond-hard mountain rocks and steep-sided river valleys of Western Canada.”

Hughes discusses the treatment of Italians in the first world war, the creation of ethnic neighborhoods, and, again, the mistreatment of immigrants. The most shocking is the refusal of the Canadian government to allow most of the east Indians on board the Komagata Maru to disembark even though they were not being supplied with food or water. Eventually, they were forced to return to their places of origin.

Of course, you cannot speak of immigration without discussing the treatment of Japanese immigrants and their descendents, especially during the second world war. It is one of Canada’s most dishonourable moments.

After the Second World War, 165,000 refugees came to Canada. Those countries that came under Soviet control did not experience true freedom. 1956, Hungarians rose up with nothing more than kitchen utensils and makeshift weapons. The Soviets sent in tanks. 2500 Hungarians were killed and 37,000 were admitted to Canada as refugees.

Although not refugees, there was a surge of Americans moving to Canada during the Vietnam conflict in order to avoid being drafted. Approximately 50,000 to 225,000 Americans came to Canada. When they were offered a pardon in 1974, few were willing to take the risk to return. Of course, many Vietnamese immigrated to Canada during this time as well. They were followed by refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, and more. Between 1991 and 2001 almost two million immigrants have arrived in Canada.

Canada is a nation of immigrants and refugees. Most of us know someone from each of these groups. We do not consider ourselves a melting pot but strive to be a mosaic wherein people keep the parts of their culture that do not contradict Canada’s laws or strong social norms. This can be difficult at times, but it is also enriching. The first time I went to Europe in 1977, I was surprised at how each country seemed culturally isolated from the next. If you wanted spaghetti, you’d have to go to Italy. The last time I went, in 2015, this had changed greatly. Countries had become multi-ethnic and food, music, and entertainment had spread from one country to the next. It felt closer to Canada where my typical Christmas dinner had always included Ukrainian periogies, Chinese fried rice, Italian lasagna, French bread, English pudding, Jamaican jerk chicken, Japanese sushi, Canadian wild blueberry pie and more. Multiculturalism at it’s best.

This book would be a marvelous addition to a family library. Adults and young people alike will find much to attract their attention. There are photographs and illustrations on every page. These include copies of important telegraphs, tickets, maps, numerous photographs and drawings, and more. It is written in sections just right for short periodic reads. An outstanding book.

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Bonnie Ferrante: Books For All Ages

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