Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945
by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson
University of Manitoba Press
293 pages, $27.95
As the title of this book implies, English-born immigrants to Canada have often been overlooked. Unlike immigrants from non- English-speaking countries, they didn’t have to struggle to learn the language. Yet their British identity posed unique challenges, as the people inter-viewed for this book reveal.
The last great wave of English immigration to Canada took place from 1945 to the mid-1970s. In that period about half a million English immigrants started new lives in “the colony.” Their departure, especially immediately after the Second World War, when England was struggling to rebuild, was not always appreciated. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called them “rats leaving a sinking ship.”
Their reasons for pulling up roots usually had to do with improving their lot. For instance, several years after the war was over, England was still rationing items such as meat, sugar, and fuel. In contrast, food and consumer goods were relatively abundant in Canada. In Britain, severe housing shortages also persisted long after the war, whereas in Canada housing was plentiful and reasonably affordable.
Like all new immigrants, the English had to adjust. Many experienced the humiliation of not being understood — or not understanding — because their accents and regional dialects set them apart. Some went so far as to take lessons to help to lose their British accents — usually without success.
A few faced open discrimination. Some Canadian employers, especially in the West, regarded them as unsuitable because of the perception that the English held superior attitudes, were work-shy, and were inflexible. However, most had positive experiences when it came to finding work and getting ahead. Their biggest challenge was often homesickness. The “$1,000 cure” — a return visit to England — often relieved that malady because it reminded them of why they had left.
Invisible Immigrants is somewhat academic in tone but is made highly readable by the voices of the many people the authors interviewed.