A critical look at Canada 150: Jordan Stranger-Ross

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Canada-150-Feature-TitleWe asked community leaders and educators about Canada’s sesquicentennial anniversary, to reflect on this country’s present, past, and future.

Jordan Stranger-Ross | Associate Professor of History and Project Director of the Landscapes of Injustice

The Martlet: What does it mean to you to be a Canadian, and what is a Canadian identity?

I guess I think and teach about Canada largely as a political structure. I’m a historian of migration, so the function of states in maintaining borders, and the impacts that those borders have on migration, make the Canadian state important to me in both how I understand the topics that I study and then how I think about myself and others. I guess that those of us who are descended from migrants [and] who dealt with the Canadian state all have a history of having come through that process and, having done so, constitutes us as Canadians living here [as] the descendants of settlers.

For me, beyond that fact of the state that’s had an impact on the lives of my family and the Canadians I study, then the rest for me would be questions, essentially. I’ve been interested in asking students what significance they attach to being Canadian. I’m interested in understanding the extent to which their Canadianness attaches to a passport or a language or geography that they inhabit. Certainly I have friends and acquaintances who express a stronger sense of attachment to, say, the natural environment of Canada or the culture of Canada; that’s not something for me that was a strong source of identity, but it is a site of interesting research inquiry for me. What does Canadianness mean in the history of Japanese Canadians? To me, that’s an interesting research question. But the formation of my own personal identity, I think it was more important to me that I’m Jewish, [or] that my family is Jewish, than it was that I was Canadian or my family was Canadian, at least in terms of the categories that inform my sense of myself growing up.

In the context of your work, what does Canada 150 mean to you?

Well maybe I’ll use this question to push another anniversary that’s been more on the forefront of my mind, which is the 75th anniversary of the uprooting and internment of Japanese-Canadians. So that’s an anniversary that our project and I have been working to remember — this year and also next year, when we’ll have the 75th anniversary of the forced sale of Japanese-Canadian-owned property, the decision of the federal government to sell all of the property of Japanese-Canadians, which was in January 1943 …  You know, for me, that anniversary is an occasion for remembering the history, for asking what lessons we should carry from that history to the questions that presently are of widespread concern. And I see a lot that still resonates today.

So the internment of Japanese-Canadians and the dispossession of their property is a story of wartime Canada; [a] Canada that perceives itself to face security threats. It’s about the intermingling of ideas about security with ideas about migration and diversity and race. So those are questions that I see as very present questions in our society as well. How do we deal with perceived threats to our security in a context where we want to respect human and civil rights? How do we ensure that when we respond to perceived insecurities, we do so in ways that genuinely reflect the needs of security? The dispossession of the properties of Japanese-Canadians did not make any Canadians safer. And there are measures that we could contemplate today that would restrict migration or otherwise harm people that also might not make Canadians safer. So, in the context of the celebrations and memories of the 150 anniversary, my mind turns to a halfway mark: that of the 75th anniversary of the internment of Japanese Canadians — one of the major state acts of racialized violence in Canadian history — the mass uprooting and displacement and theft of the homes of over 20,000 Canadians.  

What would you like to see Canada be like in the next 150 years?

I guess in my area of research, the history of migration, it seems inevitable that the next 150 years of Canadian history — or Canada’s future — will be ones in which we confront questions of major mass immigration to Canada. So the vast majority of young people in the world live in developing countries, and the economic imperatives of countries like Canada will mean that we will continue to see many thousands of immigrants every year from many diverse corners of the globe. And it seems likely that we’re going to continue also to see questions about non-state violence or terrorist violence in association with those migrations … So within my own niche of specialized concern, I hope that we deal with those questions of international migration in ways that enhance human rights. [I hope] that we’re part of — not only as an immigrant-receiving society but as global citizens [as well] — solving the challenges that present themselves globally in the context of international migration and human rights; rather than either just thinking narrowly in terms of national self-interest, or being part of the problem.

And then I share concerns probably with other people about what I think will be major concerns over the next 150 years: poverty, environmental degradation, violence against women. These are major areas that I’d like to see the country transform over the next 150 years, among others. Maybe a place where women are not disproportionately the victims of violence, a place where children don’t grow up in poverty, and a place where we live sustainably. That would be a nice place to arrive [at] in 150 years.

To read more interviews from the feature, click here.