Towards a History of the Americas: Thoughts and a Podcast

By Benjamin Bryce

Canadians frequently draw comparisons to the United States, but they rarely extend their gaze further south. Nevertheless, in a number of areas, Canadian history has been connected to that of several other countries in the Americas. For example, the Canadian government’s policies toward aboriginal people find many analogies in other parts of the Western Hemisphere. In areas ranging from land dispossession under the auspices of nineteenth-century liberalism to assimilationist education efforts driven by a civilizing mission, Canada stands beside Chile, Peru, and Mexico almost as much as the United States. In addition, the idea that an emergent network of public schools would promote civic cohesion and ethnic homogeneity in the late-nineteenth century links Canada not only to the United States but also Argentina.

Canadians’ interest in and reaction to mass migration in the early-twentieth century integrated the country into larger North American system. Yet just as playwright Israel Zangwill coined the phrase “the melting pot” in his 1908 play, elites, politicians, and educators in Argentina and Brazil articulated very similar ideas. Zangwill’s protagonist proclaimed that “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming.” It is indeed revealing that José María Ramos Mejía, a prominent Argentine intellectual and politician, made similar references to crucibles and racialized European ethnicity when he declared in 1910, “It is in the school that we can find the necessary strength to melt and amalgamate the different races that are constantly flooding the country.”

In a public lecture given at Glendon College, York University, Erika Lee, Professor of History and Director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota, elucidates another aspect of the entangled history of the Americas. In “Local, National, and Transnational Histories of Immigration to the Americas,” Lee discusses the development of a series of Asian exclusion laws that spread from British Columbia to Peru. By tracing both the circulation of ideas and the implementation of exclusionary policies, Lee demonstrates the interconnected nature of a history that has typically been framed in national terms. Lee outlines her transnational research methodology that integrates local and national scales in order to offer a more complete understanding of transpacific migration to North America. Her public lecture was part of a SSHRC-funded workshop held at Glendon College in late October 2012.

To listen to a podcast of Lee’s lecture, click here.

Below are two YouTube videos of the lecture and question period:

Benjamin Bryce is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at York University. He has published articles and book chapters on questions of migration, ethnicity, and language policy in Canada and Argentina.

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