Evangelia Tastsoglou, Alexandra Dobrowolsky and Barbara Cottrell, eds. The Warmth of the Welcome: Is Atlantic Canada a Home Away from Home for Immigrants? (Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2015).
By Royden Loewen
This book presents work from social scientists (sociologists, social anthropologists, and leisure studies specialists) from mostly Atlantic Canadian universities on a topic of national importance: immigration and integration. The project is straightforward enough and addresses a fundamental Maritime concern: to consider ways to secure a greater share of the nation’s immigrants and seek a higher retention rate of those who come in the first instance: as Howard Ramos and Yoko Yoshida demonstrate, Atlantic Canada receives half the national average of newcomers and endures an astonishing rate of secondary migration, mostly to Central Canadian metropolises. Much of the book analyzes the immigrant experience through this lens and thus by definition considers the shortcomings in their experiences: their underemployment, sense of isolation, racial discrimination, and domestic and work-place gender-based abuse. Most of the contributors follow up with suggestions on how governments might address this problem, usually with expanded and more sensible social and economic programming. As a problem-oriented work, the implicit answer to the question of whether “Atlantic Canada is a home away from home,” is ‘no’.
The temptation in such a project is, of course, to forgo the academic exercise of analyzing a social phenomenon and rather simply collect evidence of a broken system with an eye to offering policy solutions which might well legitimate the authors’ own professional expertise. True, the writers seem to share a particular cosmology, an underlying belief that middle class culture is good, that liberal governments must guarantee the rights of the individual, that the individual stands at the foundation of society, and that overcoming “difficulties [that] persist with respect to immigrant attraction and retention in the region” (15) is natural. Therefore policy wonks and front-line workers will find this book relevant to their work.
But the book also has much to offer in relaying the distinct immigrant experience in Atlantic Canada that will make it of interest to scholars of migration, migration history, mobility studies and regionalism in general. First, a number of the chapters consider the immigrants’ daily experiences based on case studies; we meet real ‘flesh and blood’ professionals who are chronically underemployed, women who are abused by their male partners or male bosses, adolescents lonely and unable to fit in, immigrants bewildered at the middle-class’s penchant for privacy and their incipient cultural shallowness. Second, incisive analysis of the nature of Maritime society and its unique quality within Canada infuses the book: notwithstanding the codicil that regionalism is about the lack of power vis-a-vis “external units” (15), the book illustrates a particular array of Maritime “qualities”: of rurality and communitarian intimacy; and of knowing the meaning of being at “home”; of historic ethnic and racial homogeneity; and that the culture of regionalism is more than politics. Third, the authors provide useful insight into the actual workings of a multiplicity of programs: from the “Provincial Nominee Program” with its “ideal migrant” mentality, to local chapters of the “Association for Newcomers to Canada” (171): indeed the book considers initiatives at every level of governance – federal, provincial, municipal and neighbourhood – each aimed at either increasing migration or attending to the well-being of the immigrant, or both.
Most importantly, the book offers a fresh approach in that it introduces the lived experience of the immigrant. The book’s theoretical assumptions and the region’s demographic uniqueness are introduced in Section One. But Section Two portrays the “Immigrant Experiences” and is filled with moving ethnographic details that at once announce the initial strategies and the range of immigrant human agency, and the emotions of failed dreams and redrawn family strategies. It tells the stories of women, for example, seeking the elusive immigrant dream of establishing a “home away from home,” even as “invisible homelessness” and domestic violence thwarts that dream. In Section Three the “everyday worlds” of newcomers are illustrated with a focus on the region’s “small communities”: they include scenic, rural Colchester County in Nova Scotia (home to a mere 1600 immigrants), the high schools in the McCain Foods-dominated small town of Florenceville-Bristol, New Brunswick, and numerous other specifically “Atlantic” communities. Finally, in Section Four the emotional wellbeing and sense of belonging necessary to make a “home away from home” are addressed as necessary steps to “building belonging”; here specific case studies of Korean Newcomers in Prince Edward Island, Turkish professionals in Halifax, and a diverse group of newcomers in Miramichi, New Brunswick, illustrate social reality.
Ironically the chapters that invoke the cultural stereotypes of quaint, intimate Atlantic Canada at once offer the greatest hope for the immigrants and the most dismal of their experiences. This region, given to rural cohesiveness and to “informal and spontaneous” (25) acts of kindness, also allows for feelings of being “loved” (242) in small town New Brunswick. But similar characteristics can be disheartening: in Prince Edward Island, as Godfrey Baldacchino reminds us, immigrants rarely sense that they “fully belong;” afterall, “one has to be born on PEI to be an “Islander” (209), leaving newcomers with “sadness, disappointment and frustration” (220).
I recently returned from a workshop on the global history of “immigration and health” in Charlottetown and was driven to the airport by a very “friendly” white taxi driver who complained about a “very dark” fellow worker, an immigrant with a “bad attitude,” barely able to speak English; he wondered why such a person would even want to come to Canada. I was taken aback by what seemed a brazen expression of racism. Fortunately, the authors of these chapters suggest that whatever elements of racism exist in any corner of our country, they are actively opposed by thoughtful citizens and scholars. Indeed they underscore the “gentler” nature of Canada; even cerebral academics measure successful adaptation not in cold terms of “integration,” but as Stacey Wilson-Forsburg argues, in the warm embrace of acts that ensure immigrants “become equal citizens” with strong “emotional bonds” (199). They also indicate why the federally funded Metropolis Project considered Atlantic Canada an integral part of a national study of immigrant well-being.
Royden Loewen is the Chair in Mennonite Studies, Professor of History at the University of Winnipeg, editor of the Journal of Mennonite Studies, and editor of the “Ethnicity and Culture History Series” at University of Manitoba Press. His research interests include: North American immigration history; North American environmental and rural history; Canadian ethnic history; and19th and 20th century history of Mennonites in the Americas.