Creating the Canadian Mosaic

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Ryan McKenney and Benjamin Bryce

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

Canadians often describe their country as a “mosaic.” This idea is present on government websites and in many contemporary articles in the media (on outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and the Huffington Post), and most importantly in the minds of people across the country. Though used in different contexts and with different goals, the mosaic almost always describes Canada as a multicultural landscape and symbolizes a national ideology of inclusion and diversity. Canadians hold great pride in this idea, placing it on the progressive end of a spectrum opposite to the American melting pot. Yet Canadians rarely question where the term comes from.

Many Canadians would likely be astonished to find that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to discuss the national character of Canada was in fact an American. In 1922 the travel writer Victoria Hayward published Romantic Canada, a piece of travel literature detailing her journey from the Maritimes to British Columbia. She uses the term to refer to both the variance in European church architecture found in the Prairie provinces and to the Japanese fishermen of the Fraser River in British Columbia who had “stepped out of the Far East to serve this river of the Far West.”  She painted a rather patronizing portrait of Canada, focusing on the welcoming Gaelic housewives of the Maritimes, the fusion of French and indigenous culture found in Huron villages, and the Swedish music carried on the winds of the Prairies. From Hayward’s American point of view, Canada’s population had distinctively “old world” characteristics, but incorporated smaller groups of Asians and Aboriginal peoples to create an exotic landscape, which she referred to as a mosaic.

“A Madonna of the Kootenays” from Victoria Hayward’s Romantic Canada

Indigenous “Madonna of the Kootenays” from Victoria Hayward’s Romantic Canada

Hayward’s concept was then adopted by the Canadian Kate Foster in her 1926 publication, Our Canadian Mosaic. She describes seventeen groups of immigrants from both Europe and Asia, and she details how they contribute to Canada as a whole. She concludes her book with a discussion of the Canadian mosaic as a “true painting for eternity,” composed of a human pattern cemented together by “good will and friendliness born of mutual respect and confidence between all peoples within our borders.”  While this may seem close to our contemporary definition of the mosaic, she also emphasized the importance of conformity and repetition because “a principle of order must prevail in every ornamental composition – otherwise the pattern is spoiled and there will be disturbing patches.” Her focus on structure suggests a desire for one group – Canadians of British heritage – to structure and mould the overall mosaic.

John Murray Gibbon pushed the mosaic into the Canadian mainstream in his 1938 book, Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation.  Gibbon was already an influential figure in Canadian culture, involved in founding the Canadian Authors’ Association and the creation of the Governor General’s Awards. In a similar fashion to Foster, Gibbon devoted seventeen of his nineteen chapters to discussions of individual European “races”, including descriptions of their countries of origin, a list of their common characteristics, and settlement patterns upon arriving in Canada. Like Foster, he emphasized the role of common community interests, such as churches and clubs, as the cement that joined both New and Old Canadians together. He also emphasized the role of education as an adhesive, arguing that the teaching of the English language and Canadian values in public schools was the best way to ensure that immigrants became “Canadianized” in an efficient manner. Gibbon argued that children were the best target for Canadianization because they were at a stage in their life when “their minds readily accept the life and thought of the country.”

A Scots Canadian in Gibbon’s Canadian Mosaic

A Scots Canadian in Gibbon’s Canadian Mosaic

In order to create this ideal Canadian, Gibbon praised only very specific ethnic traits and traditions, ones that he believed would fit into his definition of Canadian national identity. This can be seen most clearly not in what he included in Canadian Mosaic, but rather what he did not. He discussed a large number of “racial groups”, but every single one hailed from Europe. Asian immigrants, Aboriginal peoples, and people of African descent were completely absent from Gibbon’s definition of belonging in the northern nation.

Gibbon also believed that Canada should ultimately become British. In fact, the first thing he did when describing any ethnic group was to link them to Britain, whether it be the similar traits in the case of Scandinavians or historical ties in the case of Czechoslovakians. It was these specific traits and historical links that he sought to use as materials for the mosaic, while either replacing unwanted characteristics with Canadian values or leaving them in the Old World by discouraging the entrance of certain groups. He viewed “the Canadian race of the future” as being “made up of over thirty European racial groups,” which would apparently continue the development of the Anglo-Saxon race, which itself was a “product of the commingling of perhaps a half dozen primitive stocks.” If Gibbon’s mosaic was a piece of art that illustrated the Canadian nation, then the frame which surrounded it was British. And if he praised diversity, he also did so in distinctly 1930s ways that emphasized the biological traits of European ethnic groups and that looked to eugenic thoughts about selecting what groups should be incorporated into the national body.

When analyzed alongside the common contemporary perception of the mosaic as something synonymous with progressive multiculturalism, Gibbon’s model seems to lack several important elements of diversity. Twenty-first century conceptions of the mosaic have clearly evolved since Gibbon’s 1938 book, just as his theories were different than Hayward’s and Foster’s. Yet the definition of the mosaic has always revolved around how Canadians regard difference, with Hayward viewing it as exotic, Foster as a way to build a stronger nation, and Gibbon as something to change and fuse into the Anglo-Saxon race.

Evolving visions of the mosaic reflect how Canadians have understood immigration, belonging, and more recently multiculturalism. While some scholars, such as John Porter in his 1965 The Vertical Mosaic, have critically analyzed the mosaic, there continues to be a lack of discussion about how contemporary Canadians understand and engage with this powerful image of a society. The term is often batted around in the media and at citizenship ceremonies as an unquestionable marker of Canadian values. In the context of public debates about refugees, temporary workers, multiculturalism, and reasonable accommodation, Canadians would perhaps like to know where the term mosaic came from, and to reflect on its value as a positive metaphor about pluralism and citizenship.

Ryan McKenney is an undergraduate student in the Honours BA program in the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia. His thesis project examines Asian exclusion in British Columbia and Washington in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Benjamin Bryce is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at the University of Northern British Columbia. He is the co-editor, with Alexander Freund, of Entangling Migration History: Borderlands and Transnationalism in the United States and Canada (Florida, 2015). He is presently completing a book entitled Citizenship and Belonging: Germans, Argentines, and the Meaning of Ethnicity in Buenos Aires, 1880-1930


Further Reading

Bryce, Benjamin. “The Mosaic vs. the Melting Pot? A Roundtable and Podcast.” Active History. 23 Nov 2012.

Foster, Kate. A.. Our Canadian Mosaic. Toronto: The Dominion Council, 1926.

Gibbon, John Murray. Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation. Toronto: McClelland &  Stewart Limited, 1938.

Victoria Hayward. Romantic Canada. Toronto: The MacMillan Company, 1922.

Porter, John. The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada. Toronto:    University of Toronto Press, 1965.

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