Brits in Toronto Book Club — “Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945”

Caption here

It’s like a Pink Floyd album cover

The Brits in Toronto crew are always on the lookout for cool books to read on the TTC, when it’s running. We heard about this one today — “Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945”.

From the PR blurb …

“Despite being one of the largest immigrant groups contributing to the development of modern Canada, the story of the English has been all but untold. In Invisible Immigrants, Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson document the experiences of English-born immigrants who chose to come to Canada during England’s last major wave of emigration between the 1940s and the 1970s. Engaging life story oral histories reveal the aspirations, adventures, occasional naiveté, and challenges of these hidden immigrants.

“Postwar English immigrants believed they were moving to a familiar British country. Instead, like other immigrants, they found they had to deal with separation from home and family while adapting to a new country, a new landscape, and a new culture. Although English immigrants did not appear visibly different from their new neighbours, as soon as they spoke they were immediately identified as ‘foreign.’

“Barber and Watson reveal the personal nature of the migration experience and how socio-economic structures, gender expectations, and marital status shaped possibilities and responses. In postwar North America dramatic changes in both technology and the formation of national identities influenced their new lives and helped shape their memories. Their stories contribute to our understanding of postwar immigration and fill a significant gap in the history of English migration to Canada.”

Are things the same today as they were then? Do we identify as “foreign” when we say “settee” instead of “Chesterfield”?

Grab the book, give it a butcher’s and send us a review if you like. We’ll post it. Promise.

Update April 22, 2015
The publishers kindly gave permission for us to print an excerpt and supplied a couple of nostalgic photos.

A traditional English pub was often the first port of call when visiting family back in England. By permission Rosemary Sloan

A traditional English pub was often the first port of call when visiting family back in England. By permission Rosemary Sloan

Suburban backyard potlucks helped English immigrants integrate into the community. By permission Rosemary Sloan

Suburban backyard potlucks helped English immigrants integrate into the community. By permission Rosemary Sloan

Ye olde English pubs were a nostalgic memory for many landed immigrants from England. This extract from “Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945” reveals what the English thought about Canadian drinking habits and “puritanical” liquor laws.

As many English immigrants realized soon after arriving in Canada, the variety of food in part reflected contributions made by diverse immigrant groups to the country. Although they had to learn new methods and products for cooking, English immigrants could choose the extent to which they wished to partake of the variety of food in Canada. No interviewee mentioned feeling deprived of traditional English fare.

What many of the interviewees did miss were English pubs. It was not English beer that they missed; rather, it was the experience of neighbourhood or community that they associated with English pubs. Noel Taylor expressed the nostalgia for the institution he had left behind: “There are things I miss in England, and anybody will tell you what they are, mainly the pubs …. I miss the pub. We have pubs here but they are not the same, because they’re inhabited by young people, and pubs to me in England are where all generations meet. You might see us [less youthful people] in a pub in the lunchtime crowd, but in the evenings you wouldn’t go to a pub, an older person, you just wouldn’t be part of the crowd in a pub.”

He noted that pubs in England had changed over the years — many were now more restaurants than pubs — but the warm feeling for the English pub that he had known remained with him. Peter Semple was one who frequented the pub opposite his Toronto workplace for lunch and sometimes also immediately after work at six o’clock, but even this regular attendance was not the same as taking the cat on his shoulder down the road to the pub for the evening. A pub could become a meeting place for English immigrants.

Peter Robinson, the popular mystery writer who came to Toronto in 1974, recalled that in his early years in Toronto he felt culturally isolated, surrounded by Portuguese and Greek neighbourhoods. To compensate, he regularly drank at the Feathers’ Pub, which was frequented by expats; their accents “provided a comfort zone” that made him feel English.

More often, the interviewees emphasized the contrast between Canadian drinking places and the English pub. Charles Hall had not gone to a pub regularly in England but liked to have pubs available as a place to go and have a few leisurely drinks; living in Montreal, he found that people who went to Canadian night clubs drank much more and finished the bottle.

Ron Inch had an even more negative opinion of Toronto beer parlours, which in no way could replace the English pubs that he missed: “I hated what they called their ‘beer parlours.’ They were disgusting, I thought, so I would do anything to avoid going in them. But the British pub where you go in and take a pint and talk, or play darts, or some other card game or something, you’d spend all night drinking two pints.”

In 1950s Ontario, female English immigrants felt particularly excluded by the restrictions imposed on Ontario bars following the prohibition period of the earlier twentieth century.

Isobel Sinclair remembered: “The first thing that struck me about Toronto were these strange drinking places because they didn’t look like London pubs at all …. We found a room in Summerhill and, next to the subway station, there was one of the places, and there were two doors and one said ‘Gentlemen’ and the other said ‘women [sic] and escorts’ [Ladies and escorts]. I used to think, ‘Oh, we go in there to rent an escort or something.’ We never went to those places, and somebody told me years after, women weren’t supposed to go in the main door and they had to go to this side door. Very, very, peculiar.”

When she experienced other rules imposed in the post-prohibition era, Norma Inch thought similarly: “The attitudes were so old-fashioned, the things you couldn’t do!” She was amazed that “you couldn’t stand up for a drink, you had to sit at a table. You had to have food with it, and you couldn’t have more than one drink at a time.”

Mary Irvine also recalled her astonishment regarding the “puritanical” culture surrounding alcohol in 1950s Ontario: “When you used to buy anything from the Liquor Control Board you had to have a licence and I’ve still got my licence. It’s a little booklet that they used to sign. It was so puritanical we couldn’t believe it. You weren’t allowed to have it in the car; you had to have it in the trunk, and of course it could never be opened. It was the last thing that you bought when you were out shopping …. You picked up the bottle that you wanted and it was wrapped in a brown paper bag, and you put it in the trunk of your car and you had to go straight home. That amazed us.”

Gradual modifications of Ontario’s drinking laws eventually eased the restrictions, and such laws were never imposed in Quebec, but English immigrants continued to miss the English pub.

Arriving in Ottawa in 1970, Arthur Wood, a mechanic from Nottingham, complained that the backyard barbecue in Canada replaced the community social life that the pub had helped to provide in England: “I was very disappointed. I was a total stranger, but I like a social life. I like to socialize and the Canadian way to socialize is to have a barbecue in the back yard and that’s it, but in England we went out, we got dressed, we went out and we went to the pub, to the dances, we went to the theatre, we went to the shows, and we did all kinds of things to socialize with our circle of friends …. When you’re an immigrant, you don’t have a circle of friends, so it’s kind of restricted. That was one disappointment. The social life was a big, big adjustment to make.”

Excerpt from “Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945” by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson, published by University of Manitoba Press.


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