Notes on 33d Text for Reading Field: Hillmer, Kordan, & Luciuk

Canadian History, Week 6

war at door

“See Where Canada Stands – the War is at Our Door! Get Ready to Buy the New Victory Bonds.” Courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-1001.

Norman Hillmer,  Bohdan Kordan, and Lubomyr Luciuk, eds. On guard for Thee: War, Ethnicity and the Canadian State, 1939-1945. Ottawa: Canadian Committee for the History of the Second World War, 1988.

Hillmer, Kordan, and Luciuk, supply a collection of articles that details the treatment of ‘other’ Canadians during wartime. During the Second World War there was uncertainty among the political elite about who ‘ethnics’ were, and no clear understanding of what exactly their relation was to the country and its preferred polity (in other words, individuals who supposedly belonged to the ‘two founding races’). The threat of an enemy nation without the country’s borders brought to light latent fears of potential enemy nationals within. People, who were not ancestrally British or who could not trace a lineage with an ancestral stake in Quebec, were assumed to be incapable of committing unequivocally to Canada. There was unease that such ‘quasi-Canadians’ were unknown qualitatively. That unknown meant that whether and how their loyalties were qualified was also unknown. Thus, Hillmer, Kordan, and Luciuk argue that war was not as unifying and nationalizing an event in Canada’s history as other historians have presented it to be. If some Canadians felt their country had proved itself to be composed of a mature and competent nation, other Canadians felt decidedly cast outside of, and even trampled beneath, any nation so conceived.

japanese internmant

“Japanese-Canadians being relocated to camps in the interior of British Columbia, 1942-46,” courtesy B.C. Securities Commission / Library and Archives Canada / C-047402.

As Hillmer points out (and as Paula Jean Draper’s, Kordan’s and Luciuk’s descriptions reinforce), Canada adopted a multi-faceted and less-than-laudatory approach to protecting its citizenry while grappling with what its leaders, and those of preferred status, perceived to be a problematically diverse nation.

First, Canada’s immigration policies had created “a parcel of national experiences … not a single nationalism,” and no effective understanding of this circumstance had been devised.[1] Robert Bothwell’s, Draper’s, and Donald Avery’s discussions of how refugees were sorted, into ‘those who could be immigrant Canadians’ and ‘those who could not,’ elaborate on the point.[2] As William R. Young illustrates — and again as Draper makes clear, closely seconded by Avery — Government policy, though it might voice a desire for assimilation of all into one unified polity, nevertheless proceeded purposefully to set boundaries that ensured some groups remained unassimilable.[3]

Second, the war was prosecuted amongst a large enough collection of countries championing different ideologies, over a long enough period of time, that some changes in alliances called for rather drastic shifts in ideologically-based rhetoric and conceptions of who was an enemy and who was not.

Third, as N.F. Dreitsziger and Robert H. Keyserlingk show, Canada did not have a sophisticated system in place for monitoring the values and attitudes of its citizenry, or of controlling their behavior. It therefore could do little to police said citizenry without resorting to incarceration.[4] Further to this point, Bruno Ramirez and David Fransen detail the existence of a pronounced tendency to support racialized public opinion, in that, if one group accused another of disloyalty loudly enough, it was deemed safest for all concerned for men belonging to the smaller of the two groups to be removed from view.[5]

J.L. Granastein and Gregory Johnson supply what is essentially a dissenting view – and are taken to task for it by Howard Palmer.[6] Granastein and Johnson argue that some Canadians were in fact carriers of treasonous tendencies, and therefore a no-tolerance policy directed at all immigrant Canadians whose families of origin could be traced back to a similar geographic region was justified. Their argument is somewhat surprising, given the ways in which the other articles reinforce the findings presented in each. The greatest weakness of the argument put forward by Granastein and Johnson is that it does not address the critique of racialized thinking that is central to the rest of the collection, but proceeds as though no such critique existed.

Harold Troper and John English’s comments on the volume bring it towards a conclusion. Troper, sounding his frustration that Canadian historiography has not moved at a brisker pace in terms of theorizing nations, observes that what is detailed throughout is a “top-down gatekeeper’s history” that is in need of a clearer conception of who is ethnic and who is not. John English has a more positive take: in his view, deplorable or haphazard as any aspect of Canada’s wartime history may appear to be in retrospect, that same retrospect allows one to see that positive changes resulted – and continue to result. Canadians, in re-evaluating their past, do have a demonstrable capacity to insist that things can and should be handled better.[7]

Additional Sources:

A search of Archives Canada, (15 September 2009), for photographs of ‘enemy aliens’ and ‘fifth column’ brought up references to 8 images, however none were available online.

[1] Norman Hillmer, “The Second World War as an (Un) National Experience, xvii; Paula Jean Draper, “Fragmented Loyalties: Canadian Jewry, the King Government and the Refugee Dilemma,” 151-178; S. Kordan and Lubomyr Y. Luciuk, “A Prescription for Nation building: Ukrainian Canadians and the Canadian State, 1939-1945,” 85-100.

[2] Robert Bothwell, “Weird Science: Scientific Refugees and the Montreal Laboratory,” 217-232; Donald Avery, “Canada’s Response to European Refugees, 1939-1945: The Security Dimension,” 179-216.

[3] William R. Young, “Chauvinism and Canadianism: Canadian Ethnic Groups and the Failure of Wartime Information,” 31-51.

[4] N.F. Dreisziger, “The Rise of a Bureaucracy for Multiculturalism: The Origins of the Nationalities Branch, 1939-1941,” 1-29; Robert H. Keyserlingk, “Breaking the Nazi Plot: Canadian Government Attitudes Towards German Canadians, 1939-1945,” 53-69.

[5] Bruno Ramirez, “Ethnicity on Trial: The Italians of Montreal and the Second World War,” 71-84; David Fransen, “‘As Far as Conscience will Allow’: Mennonites in Canada during the Second World War,” 131-150.

[6] J.L. Granatstein and Gregory Johnson, “The evacuation of the Japanese Canadians, 1942: A Realist Critique of the Received Version,” 101-130; Howard Palmer, “Commentary,” 233-240.

[7] Harold Troper, “Commentary,” 241-246; John English, “Commentary,” 247-250.


“It Might Happen Here… Unless,” image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1983-30-976.

About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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