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St. Patrick’s Day and Sushi: The Importance of Immigration History to Modern Canada

Immigration History.

What was your reaction to those words? Did you cringe? Were you excited? Have you already fallen asleep? As I’m well aware, immigration history is not usually a subject people jump out of their chairs for. I’m sure you hear it all the time… “History is BOOOORING, that was my least favourite subject in school!” Believe me, when I tell people I am a Public Historian researching immigration to the Canadian Prairies from 1867 to 1914, faces contort and the questions start flying. My personal favourite: “Immigration history between 1867 and 1914? Is that relevant?”

Yes, it is.

History is not just something from an old textbook, it is not just taught in a classroom and it is certainly not boring. Here at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, for example, history doesn’t just come alive, it is still alive. You are not just being taught about the past, you are breathing the past, walking the footsteps of history, and seeing the view newcomers to Canada saw from 1928 to 1971, when Pier 21 was a booming port of international immigration.

Immigration history is just as alive now as it was 100 years ago—at Pier 21 and throughout the rest of Canada—and it is very relevant to our modern world.

I am a research intern here at the Museum, and immigration to the Canadian Prairies between 1867 and 1914 is, to me, the most interesting and exciting time period in Canadian immigration history. This critical period of immigration not only helped develop farming and industries so lasting to Canada’s economy, but also boosted the population of Canada by the millions. From 1896 to 1914 especially, ports of immigration were bursting with immigrants. With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, and economic prosperity after 1896, immigrants bound for both urban and rural areas in Canada were oozing out of train cars and creating cities from scratch. Prairie settlements became booming metropolises in the blink of an eye: Winnipeg, Manitoba’s population exploded from a population of 200 in 1871, to 20,000 in 1886, to a whopping 150,000 residents in 1911. While cities in central or eastern Canada grew from a settlement, to a village, to a town, then a city, the Canadian Prairies saw many locales jump from a settlement to a city in a few short years.

The Prairies became home to millions of settlers seeking economic prosperity and a better life in Canada. Most of these Prairie immigrants settled on a farm and helped develop Canada’s internationally known wheat and oil industries. Foreign-born populations brought with them ideas and practices from their homelands which helped turn the Prairies from a barren flatland into beautiful, arable farmland. Though most immigrants did not come to Canada with many material goods, the customs and practices that came with these immigrants have influenced this country’s culture immensely.

Canadian immigration culture is not ancient history, not even recent history, it is still alive. “Foreign” traditions and practices have become the norm in many parts of the country. Ramadan, St. Patrick’s Day, Chinese New Year and Hanukkah are all mainstays of Canadian calendars today. Undesirable areas of the Prairies are now arable because of irrigation solutions brought by immigrants. The famous Marquis variety of Canadian wheat was created in the early 1900s from two parent strains of wheat which originated in Scotland and India.

Immigrant histories are so important to understand because they continue to shape the future of this country. Canada is known around the globe as a country of immigrants—a physically enormous yet enormously peaceful country of acceptance. The reputation of Canada as an immigrant country is not new. Canada was created on immigration. In 1911, and now in 2013, about 20% of Canada’s current population was born outside of Canada. In the 20th century, Canada’s foreign-born population has never dipped below 15%; a truly amazing statistic during a century filled with two World Wars and major changes in Canadian immigration policy. That is pretty impressive, Canada.

Canadian immigration history is not a thing of the past; it is a thing of the present. It is happening all around us as more and more immigrants land in Canada, creating their own histories and bringing their own cultures with them. So when I hear, “Immigration history between 1867 and 1914? Is that relevant?” I explain how the perogies you’re having for dinner are a direct result of immigrant culture at that time period. I would explain how the sushi you’ll have tomorrow, while watching curling on television, are due to Japanese and Scottish immigration to Canada. I would also mention that K’naan, your favourite singer, and Michäelle Jean, former Governor General of Canada, are both immigrants to Canada.

Immigration to Canada through the decades has brought with it cultural resources we no longer perceive as “foreign,” they are now the norm. Immigration history is indeed, very, very relevant.

Updated on March 16, 2016