Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Quick Thoughts on History Slam #14

I listened to the most recent Active History Slam podcast on my way to work this morning. This month's episode contained an interview with Dr Timothy Stanley of the University of Ottawa. In particular, Sean Graham and Dr Stanley discussed ideas of race and racialization in Canadian history in the context of the Chinese school strike in Victoria, British Columbia in the 1920s.

Racialization is defined by Dr Stanley as: "the social process of inventing race, of marking is fundamentally a process of cultural representation." (c. 8:45) As an example of this, he points out the ways that a racialized category of "black" was defined differently in the United Kingdom (i.e. in the early 19th century, the Irish were considered 'black' and until the 1970s someone from Hong Kong was considered 'black') in comparison to the ways the same term is used in a North American context. (c. 8:20)

This definition of race resonated particularly with me in light of some research I've been doing recently on the "Menno-Cannuck Conflict" that took place in southwestern Manitoba in the late 1870s around the ownership of certain lots near and within the boundaries of the Mennonite Reserve created to promote the immigration of Mennonites from the Russian Empire.

While today we wouldn't use racialized language to categorize the groups, the Dominion Land Agents and other Department of the Interior officials sent to mediate the conflict characterized the two groups in very interesting ways. On the one hand were a number of English speaking settlers from Ontario who were variously categorized as "English-speaking," "Canadian," and "White" settlers. On the other hand were the "German-speaking," "Russian," and "Mennonite" settlers.

(See Library and Archives Canada RG15 Volume 232 File 3129)

 As Dr Stanley argued in his interview, creating categories of the 'other' requires the creation "equally racialized category called 'Canadian.'" (c. 16:05) In this case, the creation of racialized categories of different types of settlers played out on the land in a compromise, the so-called "Menno-Canuck line" that was drawn in red onto the Department of the Interior's maps and translated into lived experience through the relocation of "Canadian" settlers to one side of the line and the concentration of "Mennonite" settlers to the other.

Far from only distinguishing between the Canadians and the Mennonites through their religion or territories of origin, discussions of different ideas of settlement and "improvement" shed light on the ways that the government agents came to know the parties. For example the line drawn on the map acted to separate the more individualistic Canadian homesteads from the more communal Mennonite villages.

(Absent from the records is any discussion of First Nations peoples in this territory, though they briefly note that there wasn't a M├ętis present prior to the creation of the Mennonite Reserve. Instead, the Department's maps portray the territory as a series of quarter sections either already claimed by one group or the other, or else open for "improvement" by Canadians or Mennonites, depending on which side of the line one looks at.)