Robert Fulford's column about the Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples

(Globe and Mail, September 11, 1999)

This month brings a notable anniversary to the CTV network, but it's unlikely that the people who work there will hold parties to celebrate. Twenty years ago, on Sept. 30, 1979, the CTV public affairs show W5 created a small niche for itself in Canadian history by running a story called "Campus Giveaway." It claimed that foreign students, particularly Chinese, were filling so many university places that they were depriving qualified Canadians of higher education. The story was wrong in many details, especially the statistics, and protests led to apologies from the network, including the admission that the program was racist.

What stayed with me, and many others, was the visual treatment. The people who put the program together worked from the quaint assumption that they knew what a Canadian looked like. While the narrator told the story, a camera panned over Chinese faces in Canadian classrooms. It did not occur to the producers that any such shot would likely include students who are Canadian-born or Canadian citizens. It was a stunning proof of the axiom that we reveal ourselves not by what we say but by accidentally disclosing our unstated and perhaps unconscious beliefs. Seldom in the history of TV stereotyping has a brief piece of tape said so much about the people who made it.

It's hard to imagine anyone perpetrating something that stupid today, but the gaucherie of W5 remains unforgotten. That broadcast convinced many Chinese Canadians that significant elements in Canada automatically consider them outsiders and, over the years, I have several times heard it called a turning point in their self-awareness. The story surfaces again in Peter S. Li's article about Chinese Canadians in the Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples (University of Toronto Press, $300), edited by Paul Robert Magocsi. Li explains that W5 inadvertently gave the community shape. The Chinese Canadians were not organized nationally until the protests against CTV evolved into the Chinese Canadian National Council for Equality, an educational and lobbying organization. It now has 33 chapters across Canada and an office in Toronto.

The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples, a work of ethnic history, symbolizes the new Canada created in recent decades, a place where that W5 item sounds like no more than a bad memory. The ECP deftly combines scholarship, intergroup diplomacy and intense self-consciousness. It's a thick, large-scale book, with 1,334 data-crammed pages; aside from production costs, the high price reflects a lengthy editorial process that began in 1991 and involved 132 authors, 182 advisers and a staff of about a dozen. No one will ever read all of it, but many of us will be consulting it for a long time to come.

Choosing which groups to describe (there are 119) was in itself a work of extreme delicacy, and will produce resentment in some quarters. In the introduction, Magocsi (who holds the chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Toronto) explains that process with all the jaunty confidence of an officer leading his men across a minefield.

What do the editors mean by a "people"? They mean a collection of disparate factors that add up to an identity. Race matters, also national origin, also religion, and don't forget language; but no single item is necessary except self-identification. If a group considers itself distinct, and functions as such, then the ECP considers that it qualifies for an entry.

The identity must be expressed inside Canada, however. Back home in Belgium, Flemings and Walloons emphasize their differences, but in Canada both identify themselves as Belgians, so they appear under that one heading. Some of the 199 groups have no recognizable homelands but were, as Magocsi says, "made" in Canada; these include Acadians, French Canadians, and Métis. Others, notably the Basques and Channel Islanders, are not prominent now but earn their entries by their roles in Canadian history.

The editors have decided to be arbitrary in several places. They stuff Sudeten Germans and Danube Swabians into the category headed Germans, though many of these people never lived in a territory calling itself Germany. Australians get their own entry, though not New Zealanders. Names of peoples, being changeable and often controversial, present problems in themselves. Magocsi cites the group that has at least four names "used by group members themselves: aboriginals, First Nations, Indians, and natives." The ECP settled on "aboriginals." That has the advantage of putting them alphabetically first in the book, which coincides with their place in history.

So far as I can see, only one editorial decision was a mistake: The authors usually give a potted history of each people's homeland before telling what they did in Canada; it's as if readers had access to no other encyclopedia. The article on Italians, for instance, begins in 500 BCE, then races down through history ("The fall of Rome in 476 made Italy a much contested prize among rival powers") until, two pages later, it arrives, out of breath, at the moment when Italians start moving to Canada.

Magocsi's contributors tend to avoid speculation: The reasons behind many events don't much interest them. Midge Michiko Ayukawa and Patricia E. Roy, in their article on Japanese Canadians, explain how wartime fear and bigotry led to the expulsion of all Japanese from the West Coast, and they add a few points that aren't widely known, such as the fact some Japanese still refuse to visit British Columbia, the place that kicked them out. But Ayukawa and Roy don't try to explain one of the sweet mysteries of modern Canada: How, in a mere quarter of a century, 1945 to 1970, did this most despised of minority groups (for surely that was their status in Canada at the end of the Second World War) turn itself into one of the most successful and accepted? Perhaps that's the sort of question that will engage the next generation of scholars working the rich fields of ethnic history.

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