Layers of Diaspora

November 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

Perhaps as a means of avoiding my current research project, which is to turn my dissertation into a monograph, I have been thinking about my next project, the one that will examine diaspora and its multiple layers on the urban landscape.  Really, this is a mobile project, can be fit onto any large city with multiple diasporas, but Montréal is where the idea came from, and Montréal appeals to me because of the bifurcated nature of the host cultures here.

Back in the winter of 2006, I taught the History of Montréal, an upper-level course at Concordia.  I think this is where this idea comes from for me, I taught that course as an ethnic history of the city.  I traced the history of the landscape that is Montréal through the various ethno-religious groups that have called the area home, dating back to the pre-Contact Mohawk populations in the St. Lawrence River Valley, right through to the Vietnamese and various African and Arab diasporas today.  As we moved through history, we dealt with the aboriginals, the Contact era, the French colonial culture here, then the onslaught of the British.  This set the city up as a multi-layered, bifurcated location, French and English, the aboriginals more or less marginalised on reserves that ring the Île-de-Montréal.  French and English were equal but different, though the British were dominant, they being the conquering colonial power.

It was into this milieu that the Irish arrived, becoming the first immigrant group in Montréal.  Whilst the other groups, including the aboriginals, arrived at the location, they had done so as colonisers and conquerers, not as immigrants.  The Irish set themselves up, established a model of negotiating space for themselves on the emergent urban landscape of Montréal.  They found a niche for themselves in the Catholic Church (indeed, it is due to the Irish that there is an Anglo Catholic Church in Montréal today), established various community organisations, etc.  Other immigrant groups that followed the Irish to Montréal all copied this model: Jews, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, African Americans (and Canadians), Arabs, Africans, South Asians, Southeast Asians, etc.

So I visualise these waves of immigration on the urban landscape of Montréal as successive layers building the landscape. I think of this as an archaeology of diasporic Montréal, not unlike Pointe-à-Callière, the archaeological museum down in the Vieux-Port (and, I might add, one of only a very few museums that can hold my attention).  But it is not as simple as this, as each successive wave of immigration didn’t further bury the French and British (though aboriginal culture in Montréal seems to have gone further subterranean over the past century, though that is due more to Canadian government policy than immigration), as both have managed to establish and maintain their hold on the city’s culture and landscape.

But, as these immigrant groups are Montréalised, Québcised, or Canadianised (depending on your politics), there is a sanding down of their edges, of their distinct voices, as they are made more and more part of the urban landscape of the city.  For some groups, this is a simpler process, like the Irish in the 20th century (before they re-discovered their separate ethnic identity in the mid-to-late 1990s), due to skin colour, language, and/or religion.  For other groups, it isn’t so simple, for religious reasons (Jews) or skin colour (Jamaicans, Haitians), or language, or a combination of all three (Arabs).  Indeed, of all the constituent elements of “Angl0-Montréal” throughout the last half of the 20th century, only the old-stock Anglo-Irish fully subsumed themselves into this identity/community. Other groups, most notably Jews, maintained their separate identity, in many ways due to the fact that they were never fully welcomed into the Anglo-Irish core of Anglo-Montréal.  Nevertheless, there is a process of acculturation and Canadianisation going on here.

But, however one thinks of this process of immigration, retrenchment, and acculturation, I do think that the layer metaphor helps to make sense of the city and its myriad diasporic populations, and the ways in which they interact and influence each other on the urban landscape of the city.

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