College Quarterly
Summer 2008 - Volume 11 Number 3
Reviews Gatekeepers
Franca Iacovetta.
Toronto Between the Lines, 2006

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Ours is a nomadic species. Robert Redfield’s classic description of small, insular communities tied to well-defined territories and sharing a common culture over long periods of time is a bit of a myth. Yes, “folk” societies did and do exist, but they rarely stay put for extraordinarily large periods of time. Instead, experience with diasporas is commonplace among people today, in the past and in the foreseeable future. People may live in one place for many generations, but they inevitably move by choice, are forced out by others who covet their territory or by environmental shifts that make their habitats uninhabitable. So, even if Hitler’s Reich had lasted the promised thousand years, it would have been a single off-key note in the long song of human evolution. Migratory change rather than sedentary geographical stability is the norm in the larger, if not always grander scheme of things.

Those of us who live in North America, whether we crossed the land bridge from Asia ten or thirty thousand years ago, arrived by sailing ship a few hundred years ago, or landed at an international airport last week, should all be mindful of patterns of migration, for we all came from elsewhere else and, of course, all of us ultimately emerged from Africa—whether on foot 100,000 years ago to colonize Europe and Asia, on eighteenth-century slave ships, or on a jet aircraft just last year.

Our memories are short, however, and the progeny of Europeans with limited North American pedigrees of a scant two or three or four centuries sometimes suppose themselves entitled to possess the land and the brand, to be “pure laine” Quebeçois, “old stock” (or, at least “old money”) Anglo-Canadians, or Americans with putative ties to the Mayflower. They might also display the conceit of thinking that their bloodlines give them proprietary rights over matters of language, religion, popular culture and political ideology. More recent immigrants, in the alternative, must learn to adapt or be told to “go back where they came from.”

While a pervasive xenophobia persists, while people are besotted with notions of Blut und Boden (blood and soil), and while strident patriots of various sorts remain preoccupied with ideas of national character and exceptional or, worse, triumphalist national identities, there is cause for some worry. That worry, moreover, can escalate. When we take note of the massive migrations of people both from rural to urban areas within large countries such as India and China, and from poorer countries to wealthier ones, it is plain that the first reaction of established populations is rarely a warm welcome. Rather, there is often fear, resentment and occasional loathing. While not often overt conquerors, newcomers and outsiders are commonly looked upon with suspicion. They can be identified as official economic, social and cultural “problems.” They may come without appropriate skills or (even more upsetting), both with suitable skills and also a willingness to toil more for less, thus apparently threatening the job security of indigenous workers.

The antipathy to newcomers can be exacerbated by an array of non-economic factors. Recent arrivals sometimes come with odd-looking clothing, an indecipherable language, a strange cuisine and peculiar gods who command them to behave in ways that are unfamiliar and occasionally threatening. In large numbers, they may betoken a “clash of cultures”; in smaller groups they are, at best, a socio-economic challenge and a fit object for strategies for assimilation—unless, of course, their stubborn adherence to alternative practices and beliefs encourages them to exclude themselves from existing society, or their different physical appearance denies them the opportunity to assimilate, even if they wanted to. Or both.

Since the end of World War II, Canada has been the destination of choice or opportunity for a substantial number of immigrants—mainly from Europe in the first decade or two, and increasingly from China, southeast Asia and the Asian subcontinent on the one hand, and from Africa, the Middle East, Latin America and the Caribbean on the other.

During the past half-century, as well, there has been considerable discussion of the alleged difference between Canadian and American approaches to the matter of immigration. Popular perception has it that the USA is committed to a “melting pot” in which the traditions of the “home” nation would be set aside and the culture of the “new” land adopted. Enthusiastic acceptance of the elusive “American way of life” is deemed mandatory, lest the immigrant be exposed to the wrath of television personality Lou Dobbs or the scrutiny on one of the many components of the “Homeland Security” administration.

Canada, in the alternative, has chosen (officially since 1971) to embrace the model of the “mosaic,” a version of multiculturalism in which the traditions of the old homeland could be maintained, and sometimes financially supported by various grants for projects such as “heritage language” programs, “cultural centres” and so on. In exchange, immigrants were compelled only to swear allegiance to the Queen and respect the laws of their new country. No compulsory enrolment in pee-wee hockey was required.

School children learn little of this, of course, since the teaching of Canadian or any other kind of history has pretty much been abandoned. In Alberta, for example, it is possible to go from pre-school to postgraduate school without ever taking so much as a single semester-long class in history. Those who do learn anything of their country’s past may well be given a fragmented story of ethnic “tensions” from the eighteenth-century genocide against the Beothuk to incidents such as the turning away of 350 Indian immigrants aboard the Komagata Maru in 1914, the refusal to admit Jewish immigrants fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 or the internment of approximately 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during World War II.

Incidentally, Mackenzie King recorded in his diary that “any action permitting an appreciable number of Jews to settle in Canada would undermine the unity of the Nation. This is, he continued, “no time for Canada to act on humanitarian grounds”; instead, “Canada must be guided by realities and political considerations.” All such incidents, however, are commonly presented as singular and lamentable; rarely is historic, endemic and structural racism discussed in depth. Moreover, students are often said to have mastered the curriculum if they can demonstrate that they have “felt the pain” of others by writing a poem or a fake letter to imaginary relatives detailing their “experience” of racism.

Whether or not any serious analysis of history in general or multiculturalism in particular will ever be permitted in Canadian schools, it is required of adult Canadian citizens somehow to familiarize themselves with the history of immigration to Canada from the viewpoint of culture, law and political economy if they expect to be taken seriously when addressing the issue in public. It is, for example, instructive but insufficient to remind ourselves that even the saintly J. S. Woodsworth wrote Strangers within our Gates in 1909. It was a extensive tome about ethnic diversity and identified it as an urgent problem that cried out for resolution by means of tighter immigration restrictions and a massive government intervention to assist in the proper assimilation of newcomers.

Contrary to polite political opinion, it is certainly inadequate to make apologetic gestures for bad behaviour in the past, and then speak flatulently about “appreciating the contributions” of this or that ethnic community to our celebratory mosaic of cultures. Instead, matters of prejudice and discrimination—whether manifest in local social relations or latent in overarching government policies—need to be related to matters of political economy if any valid resolution is to take place. A necessary precondition for such a process is deep understanding based on meticulous, thoughtful, and theoretically sound research.

In Gatekeepers, Franca Iacovetta provides an example of such necessary scholarship. She chooses as her temporal focus, the post-World War II era, and she critically examines a topic that has not been sufficiently addressed by historians, sociologists and public policy and public administration experts; namely, the role of the people whom she calls “gatekeepers.” These include the government officials such as social workers and welfare administrators as well as educators and public commentators (largely newspaper columnists) who tried to transform recent immigrants into wholesome Canadians, and who were responsible for shaping the opinion of established immigrants toward those who had newly arrived.

Dr. Iacovetta is a full professor of history at the University of Toronto, whose faculty profile might be the envy of any progressive academic. She is advertised as a specialist in women and gender, immigrants, minorities and comparative migration, social and labour history and transnational labour militancy. Gender, race and class—the principal categories of inequality and inequity in our society—are her beat. Her book does not disappoint. Her expressed aim is to “shed new light on connections between the political, social, gender, sexual and immigrant history of early Cold War Canada and the politics of citizenship in a postwar capitalist democracy.”

No small ambition!

Iacovetta nonetheless pulls it off, mostly. Her research is certainly meticulous. She explores the standard archives, but also delves into more subjective oral and written accounts including the files of social workers and members of the “helping professions” who deal with immigrant issues largely associated with the gap between traditional cultures and the middle class Anglo-Celtic model to which the gatekeepers wished the newcomers to aspire. Of concern were all aspects of the attitudes and actions of the immigrants as reflected in their personal, domestic and social lives. The much touted Canadian mosaic, to the extent that it exists today, was certainly not much on the minds of the people entrusted to ease the immigrants into patterns of beliefs and behaviour deemed acceptable in Canada of the late 1940s and 1950s.

I recall those days vividly, if not always fondly. Canadian norms were cramped and visions narrow. Propriety was valued above all, and eccentricity was permitted only among the idle rich and among the undeserving poor (where, of course, it was called depravity). Benjamin Spock’s transformative “how-to” book, Baby and Child Care, was available, but not much appreciated. Corporal punishment flourished in the schools and penmanship required a deft hand with nibbed pens and ink wells—new-fangled ball point being considered a decadent and surely a transient fashion. Mental health and moral hygiene were treasured and often given a peculiarly political cast as, for example, in 1961 when the recently created NDP (New Democratic Party) was dismissed by a number of red-meat-and-root-vegetable-eaters in the congregation of my rural Presbyterian Church as the party of the New DPs (displaced persons). In short, the dominant English-speaking Canadian culture was distressingly smug, sanctimonious and stultifying.

According to Iacovetta, the problem was more than the self-satisfied provincial complacency which permeated official and unofficial Canadian culture. Increasing ethnic diversity gave rise to “a modest and hypocritical form of cultural pluralism,” but this liberal veneer covered a classist, racist and sexist society that was also in the grip of a panicky anti-communism. Canadians retrospectively claim that the excesses of American McCarthyism were largely absent in what they were pleased to call the “peaceable kingdom,” but political conformism, duly underscored by repressive institutions and the constant threat of the invocation of the infamous War Measures Act made the difference more a matter of degree than of kind.

The Cold War setting is emphasized in Iacovetta’s narrative. Canadians are not now well informed (nor were they at the time) about Order-in-Council P.C.# 6444 of Sept. 1945, which gave the RCMP extraordinary powers of arrest and detention without due process of law, and P.C. # 411 which established a secretive Royal Commission with authority to summon suspected communists for questioning. Insight into the prevailing mood of the Cold War is, according to Iacovetta, essential for a complete understanding of the circumstances faced by immigrants.

It must be acknowledged, of course, Canada encouraged a steady stream of immigrants, but only as a result of a number of factors not least of which was a growing need for skilled artisans and professionals needed to take advantage of postwar expansion and the transition from a rural, resource-based to an increasingly urban-industrial economy. Inviting foreign workers did not much alter the race-based practice of preferring Europeans, not did it lessen suspicions about “southern” and especially “eastern” Europeans, who often came as refugees from behind the Iron Curtain. Many desperate people were subjected to particularly close inspection and monitoring by social workers and mental health professionals eager to enforce cultural conformity and to inculcate North American middle-class values that, among other things, stressed possessive individualism, the dominance of the nuclear family and the strict imposition of a relentlessly Protestant sexual morality. One can imagine Edward C. Banfield’s ultra-conservative “analysis” of social life in poor southern Italy, The Moral Basis of a Backward Society, which excoriated the communalism associated with extended families, being required reading for the helping professionals of the day.

In addition to encouraging rapid assimilation, Iacovetta also points to recreational and ornamental ethnicity as part of the veneer of “tolerance.” Immigrants were permitted to put their folk costumes on display, to perform their folk dances and to serve their gulyás (goulash) and pyrohy (perogies) for their own entertainment and the amusement of their new hosts—provided that they did not go to extremes and were careful to show up for work on time.

An essential element in the project of assimilation, of course, was the process of depoliticization. Old squabbles and divisions were to be forgotten. Radical ideas were to be purged. Ideological politics were “verboten.” Liberal capitalism with its emphasis on representative democracy and the retreat into what some have called the idiocy of private life were the orders of the day. Ethnic communities were put under informal surveillance. Bright young folk with entrepreneurial potential and political savvy were recruited into the lower echelons of the ruling elites, and alien pro-communist newspapers and social clubs were discouraged where possible and infiltrated when necessary. Bureaucrats and operatives of federal and provincial departments concerned with culture and citizenship pointed to the preferred paths to success in the new land and old-world ideologies and resentment were decidedly unwelcome. In time, the official policy of multiculturalism would facilitate financial and other rewards for supportive individuals and organizations within ethnic communities.

Even Iacovetta’s critics are happy to acknowledge that this is something of a ground-breaking book. In particular, her discussion of women as special objects of interest to the authorities has been widely praised.  According to James D. Cameron of St. Francis Xavier University, for example, Iacovetta presents “a very insightful section about the psychological and sexual experiences of European women who suffered through the horrors of war, Nazi labor camps, and refugee centers. These experiences,” he contends, “were little understood by Canadians,” and the gatekeepers “worked to contain sexual delinquencies” in order to ensure that European immigrants learned to be “responsible wives and mothers capable of making a good partnership with a responsible man and raising a future generation of healthy and well-adjusted Canadian children.” At the same time, he finds her assessment of the policies and practices of Canadian gatekeepers to be “harsh and relentless.” Her judgments are “unflattering” in their portrayal of a cohort of “hypocritical, insensitive, anti-Semitic, racist, prejudiced, homophobic, middle-class, alarmist, victim-blamers, sexist, controlling, intrusive, meddling, moralizing and pro-capitalist.” Well, if the shoe fits.

For my part, I am certainly willing to cut Franca Iacovetta more slack than Canadian officials and Canadian society afforded the immigrants who were grudgingly accepted, but less often made to feel immediately welcome in their new homes. She opens up lines of inquiry studiously avoided by the majority of historians and social scientists, while steering clear of the arcane theoretical abstractions, impenetrable and turgid prose too often deployed by her colleagues on the left. Gatekeepers is a work of commendable and politically committed scholarship that can serve as an example of the kind of academic work needed to put our own policies, procedures and practices in context and, incidentally, to the test.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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