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Making Canada Home: How Immigrants Shaped This Country

by Susan Hughes

In a year when immigration to Canada has reached its highest levels since 1971, and as political talk south of the border focuses heavily on stemming the flow of newcomers, Susan Hughes’s latest book for young readers offers a timely reflection on the centrality of the immigrant experience to Canada’s national identity. With one in five Canadians born in another country (and half the population of Toronto born outside of Canada), ours is a uniquely diverse nation. But the evolution of our celebrated cultural mosaic – or kaleidoscope, with its constantly shifting patterns – hasn’t always been easy.

91u79C6ckCLAs Canadians come together to celebrate the country’s sesquicentennial, many will note that our shared history predates Confederation by thousands of years. Hughes’s opening chapters remind readers that the land now known as Canada had been home to self-governing communities for millennia, with at least 500,000 indigenous people living here when Europeans first landed in the 1500s.

From this initial contact, Hughes chronicles the major waves of immigration that have shaped our history, including the exploits of the early fur traders, stories of Irish orphans adopted into Quebec families, the birth of Chinatowns as communities for men separated from their families by the head tax, and the emergence of Pier 21 as the “Gateway to Canada.” In clear and accessible language, Making Canada Home explains how each period shaped Canada’s laws, values, and makeup, while primary sources including personal
accounts and archival photographs help bring the text to life.

Fascinating revelations are woven throughout. Birchtown, near Shelburne, Nova Scotia, was once the largest settlement of free blacks outside of Africa; Samuel de Champlain’s West African-born interpreter, Mathieu da Costa, spoke both Mi’kmaq and French. Readers may also be surprised to learn that between 1867 and 1914, Canada’s population leapt from 3.5 million to more than seven million – only for immigration to slow almost to a halt as a result of the two world wars and the Great Depression.

Hughes is also careful to acknowledge the times when Canada has not been welcoming. Her book includes sections on the internment camps introduced during the First and Second World Wars, and the refusal of permission to allow the SS St. Louis to dock here in 1939, thereby condemning more than 250 of its Jewish passengers to death in Nazi concentration camps.

The Second World War prompted a change in attitude toward refugees, and the book’s final chapters focus on the reopening of our borders to people fleeing conflict, persecution, and upheaval in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere (a section on American draft dodgers suggests that as many as 125,000 came to Canada between 1964 and 1977 – the most highly educated immigrant cohort in Canadian history).

Maps, sidebars, and timelines make for a visually appealing layout, although history nuts may be disappointed to find that the earliest quoted primary source – the recollection of a Loyalist who fled the upheaval of the American Revolution – only dates from 1783. Older documents could have helped animate the opening chapters. There is scant information on L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, the site of the earliest known European settlement in North America, and there are a few missed opportunities to draw interesting historical parallels – between the 17th-century filles du roi and 20th-century war brides, for instance – which might have brought fresh perspective and depth to a linear narrative.

On the whole, however, Hughes has produced an impressively comprehensive and forward-looking text that will be a welcome addition to classrooms and libraries across Canada. The stories told here are by turns inspiring and troubling, but always deeply human, and should spark animated conversations and deeper explorations of the vast range of experiences that enrich the country we all call home.