Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Review: Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean

[Brian Douglas Tennyson, editor. Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1988.]

This book is a collection of essays previously published in academic journals, and according to the book's introduction it includes most of the work published to that time on Canada and the Commonwealth Caribbean. The scant scholarly attention this area has received is attested to not only by this volume's modest size but by the fact that its introduction opens with a quote from and them proceeds to draw heavily on a non-academic book written more than a decade earlier (and recently reviewed by me).

I had expected this to be a rather boring read but was pleasantly surprised. Perhaps the least interesting pieces in the collection were those that were most contemporary in their focus, while those that were more purely historical tended to tell more interesting tales.

One of the more interesting essays, for example, focused on the Canadian Presbyterian mission to the South Asian community in Trinidad in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I actually found it kind of difficult to know what to make of the essay's tone -- it presents ample foundational information to construct a stinging indictment of colonial Christianity, yet it does not quite manage to do so in a direct way. It demonstrates that the success of the mission was in part due to its support by the Crown Colony government and the white planter class in Trinidad, support given because the mission provided benefits to them in return in terms of supporting rather nasty social relations from which they gained. Another factor to the advantage of the mission was summarized as "the achievements of contemporary white society", which seems to be a more academically acceptable way of talking about the impact that global white supremacy had on the choices and subjectivities of the colonized. In any case, it quite nicely demonstrates, perhaps without really intending to, the ways in which this exercise in Canadian so-called philanthropy fit in as one piece in the overall oppressive imperial/colonial project.

A number of essays touched on ongoing scheming for political union between Canada and some or all of the West Indies. This was raised as early as 1884 and I remember hearing something about it on the news (and being quite mystified by the whole thing) when I was a teenager, probably in the late 1980s or so. Most Canadian elites have always been ambivalent about this possibility, though early on the objections seemed to have been most strenuous from the British Colonial Office because of potential commercial impacts on the "mother country" and a bureaucratic investment in not surrendering their part of the "white man's burden". The closest it came to happening was in the late years of World War I, when Prime Minister Robert Borden was firmly convinced of the idea. Initially, though the Colonial Office continued to object, Prime Minister Lloyd George of Great Britain was favourable as were a few other powerful members of his Cabinet, but making it happen was never a priority for any of these imperialists, as busy as they were with imperialist war and its aftermath in Europe, and so momentum was lost. Canada also stationed troops in the Caribbean during both World Wars, ostensibly to guard against German attack but also to put down any uprising or agitation by disgruntled locals were it to occur, though this did not really arise in practice. By the end of World War II elements of the British government were asking Canada to keep its troops there and to assume "colonial responsibilities" for the West Indies, but at that point Canadian political elites had no interest whatsoever in taking on such a role.

A final essay of interest focused on immigration from the Caribbean to Canada in the early 20th century. It is a fine illustration of how selective enforcement, informal understandings, and straight-up deception can make race-neutral written rules work in racist ways. There was an order-in-coucil written and signed by the minister in 1914 but never put into effect that would have banned Black immigration. Despite this lack of formal textual authority, the Immigration Branch spent the next forty years doing whatever it could to keep African Caribbean people out of Canada. One common mechanism was by invoking a section of the regulations which allowed them to bar people that they judged might end up depending on public assistance of some kind -- the higher-ups in the department made it quite clear to the agents on the ground that all African Caribbean people were considered to meet this criterion. They also attempted to invoke the "continuous journey" clause that was used to keep immigrants from South Asia out of Canada, though this particular device did not hold up because of the much shorter distances involved. It is doubly fascinating to see that an element of this racist determination seemed to be a bureaucratic calcification of cultural prejudice that did not necessarily reflect immediate material interests of powerful people. For example, there were times when the coal mines in Cape Breton were short of workers and the mine owners wished to arrange for immigration from the West Indies, but they were denied permission. During World War I, there was even a nasty note from the Colonial Office, but to no effect. Throughout, the Immigration Branch continued to deny that this was its policy, but to nonetheless enforce it vigorously.

I doubt too many people will be interested in this book unless their work or some particular combination of personal experiences draws them to it. Nonetheless, it does have plenty of material that is interesting and useful to me, and helped shed light on a few more obscure corners of Canadian history.

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