The Race Wrangle

Another discussion of the Canadian race question by one who maintains that racial origins should be classified solely by color

J. B. MCGEACHY April 15 1931

The Race Wrangle

Another discussion of the Canadian race question by one who maintains that racial origins should be classified solely by color

J. B. MCGEACHY April 15 1931

The Race Wrangle

Another discussion of the Canadian race question by one who maintains that racial origins should be classified solely by color


Is THERE a Canadian race? "No," say the Ottawa experts who count and catalogue us every ten years.

“Yes,” say many Canadians of Canadian ancestry. “If there is an English race, a Dutch race, and a Polish race, there is certainly a Canadian race.”

That is the present state of a controversy which ought to be settled soon, for the national census will be under way in June.

In MacLean’s some time ago, Mr. Grattan O’Leary stated with clarity and vigor the official view. He confessed that he used to wax indignant at the census

bureau.......before he looked into the facts. Now he is

convinced that the Ottawa statisticians are right. He believes that the figures they gather on the racial origin of Canadians are properly founded, accurate and valuable.

The present writer believes they are based on an error, are inaccurate and worth very little. This article is in part a reply to Mr. O’Leary, but it will not maintain the impossible view that there is a Canadian race which ought to have a place in the official roster. The thesis here put forth is that the device of labelling Canadians as racially English, French, or something else European should be dropped, and the census query about race retained solely as a means of classifying the people by color.

Three Kinds of Canadians

THERE is a side issue to be cleared up first. Many Canadians suppose that because the existence of a Canadian race is denied, the census authorities put Canadians in the same class as centaurs and unicorns. Not so, as Mr. O’Leary pointed out. The Canadian race may be a myth. The Canadian nation not only exists but is defined in the Immigration Act. That statute mentions three kinds of Canadian nationals:

1. Natives of Canada who have not become citizens of any foreign state.

2. Other British-born people who have lived in Canada five years.

3. Foreign-born residents of Canada who are naturalized.

The census bureau, as Mr. O’Leary correctly says, does not relegate Canadian nationality to limbo. But he is wrong when he adds that the census classifies Canadian nationals as such. It does not. There is no way

of finding out just how many “Canadians” there were in Canada in 1921, the year of the last Dominion census.

The census shows how many residents of Canada were Canadians of the first category—native born. There were 6,832,747.

It shows also how many were Canadians of the third category—naturalized foreign-born. There were 514,182.

And it shows how many natives of other parts of the British Empire lived in Canada. There were 1,065,454. But the census does not say how many of these had lived in Canada five years, or, in other words, how many had acquired Canadian domicile and nationality.

The census bureau, in fact, though it does not deny there are Canadian nationals, does not affirm it either. Nowhere in the census reports is Canadian nationality mentioned at all. That, however, is a point by the way. The main issue is this vexatious question of race.

Only Four or Five Races

' I 'HE dictionaries are vague about the word, them says:

“Race: The descendants of a common ancestor; a family, tribe, people or nation, believed or presumed to belong to the same stock. Ethnol; A division of mankind possessing constant traits, transmissible by descent, sufficient to characterize it as a distinct human species; a permanent variety of the genus homo.”

That allows plenty of latitude. The Encyclopaedia Britannica attempts no definition. It says that races are classified by skull shapes or by outward characters like skin and hair.

In general speech, a race is one of the great divisions of mankind, recognizable at sight. On this basis, there are only four or five races. There is the Negro, notable for dark skin, woolly hair, broad lips and a cheerful disposition. There is the Mongolian or yellow. There is the Caucasian, signifying all the white-skinned people with their varied features and temperaments.

This is the common meaning of the word, and the census bureau accepts it in that sense up to a certain point. It recognizes the black-skinned people as forming one race, the Negroes; and the red-skinned people as forming another, the North American

Indian. There can be no dispute about an individual’s membership in either of these groups, except in border-line cases of mixed, blood. The census authorities are on safe and sound ground here.

It is when they get to the classification of whiteskinned Canadians that they leave the realm of certainty for the realm of speculation, controversy and doubt. For they recognize a whole host of “races” within the white European or Caucasian race to which ninety-seven per cent of Canadians belong. They recognize, for example, the Italian race, meaning the people who live in Italy, speak Italian, look somehow alike and show a general tendency to enjoy tenor singing. They recognize also a Swedish race, a Scottish race, a Swiss race and about thirty others.

On this understanding of the word, everyone in Canada was asked in 1921 to answer the question: What is your racial origin? And, if a parent, to answer it for the children.

This question differs from all the others on the census form. It differs in this way, that the answer to it may be uncertain and is often if not usually debatable. Filling out his questionnaire, a citizen can be in no doubt— barring loss of records or invincible stupidity—about his age, his citizenship, the place of his birth, his ability to read and write, his conjugal status, his occupation and so on. He knows these facts about himself as well as he knows his name. If he does not know them, at any rate they are ascertainable beyond debate. But when it comes to stating his racial origin, the odds are against

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The Race Wrangle

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; his being able to answer correctly without hesitation. He is off the firm ground of known or discoverable facts and into the probably uncharted sea of his genealogy.

Numerous Canadians sought to solve the problem in a simple way. Sprung from ancestors who came to Eastern Canada with the Loyalists in 1783, to the prairie with Lord Selkirk's Red River settlers in 1811, or to the Pacific Coast with James Douglas in 1843, they answered in confident and ringing tones:

“Canadian, of course!”

To this the enumerator replied:

“There are thirty-three races on our list, including the Scandinavian, but Canadian isn’t one of them. Your racial origin is the nationality of the nearest paternal ancestor who migrated to Canada.”

The citizen tried to recollect family history. His parents, maybe, were both born in Canada, and so possibly were both of his grandfathers and both of his grandmothers. If his knowledge gave out at that point, he guessed or allowed the enumerator to guess for him. If he was able to leap back mentally from the semifinals to the eights, perhaps he recalled ! a Scottish great-grandfather who came over in 1790.

"That makes you a Scotsman,” said the census taker triumphantly, and so the citizen was put down, though he had never seen Scotland and could not read a stanza of Burns without a glossary. He might be three parts English with a dash of French and a scruple of Dutch, but Scot he was on the enumerator’s blank sheet. Other native sons of the Dominion, some with a Canadian descent stretching back to the 1700’s, were called French, Dutch, German, Norwegian or something else European because of remote male ancestors whose racial legacy is now so diluted that it counts for no more than the pinch of salt in a plum pudding. Canadians so classified, especially those with a line of native-born forebears, resent this kind of description. They say it cannot be scientific because it is palpably inaccurate.

“Right in the Gross’’

r“PO THE charge of inaccuracy the ■L census bureau has a neat technical reply. It is cited by Mr. O’Leary. The census, he says, is “right in the gross” because of the “law of large numbers.” Now the law of large numbers works somehow like this: If you have to count a great heap of green, blue and red chips, you will probably make some mistakes. For instance, you will probably count some green ones as blue. But to make up for that you will probably (blessed word) count about the same number of blue ones as green. So the two sets of errors will cancel out, and in the end you will have an approximately right answer. In statistics two wrongs may make a right, and often do.

This rule is supposed to apply in census taking. If 5,000 Canadians mainly Scottish are put down, let us say. as German in racial origin, it is likely that about 5,000 mainly German will be put down as Scottish. The net result is the same as if ail had been correctly described. This is the optimistic theory of the census bureau and Mr. O’Leary. It is a tricky sort of argument when applied to something so complicated as finding out the racial origin of 9,000,000 people. You probably have to be nourished on statistics from an early age to appreciate its true beauty, but a lay critic might reply to it like this:

“The chips you are counting when you put down the racial origins of Canadians are not blue, green and red. They are multi-colored, patchwork or blended. Any system of classification which produces the result that you have so many blues, so many greens and so many reds,

when in fact most of the units are mixtures, is not scientific. It does not give a true picture of the whole collection. Besides, many Canadians of mixed ancestry answered the question on racial origin by guesswork or according to a personal preference, picking a nationality they liked. Inaccuracies of this kind cannot be set right by the law of large numbers or any other statistical metaphysics.”

But even supposing that all the errors do in fact cancel out, as officially argued, the main question still remains unanswered. Canadian objectors to the census do not complain that citizens are called Irish when they are really English, or German when they are really Dutch. These mistakes are not the cause of criticism. The complaint is that it would be inherently absurd, even if every citizen’s family history could be studied with a microscope, to catalogue the Canadian people into European racial groups.

Admittedly, it would not solve the difficulty to recognize a Canadian race. Professor Burton Hurd, of Brandon College, a student of the question, writes that a Canadian race would be “a scientific monstrosity.” He adds:

“There is an American ‘nation’ but even the Government of the United States does not claim that there is as yet an American ‘race.’ Surely our newfound nationalism will not lead us into the absurdity of postulating a Canadian race at this early date.”

Let it be agreed that the “Canadian race” is not yet in being. The argument for that view has been stated by Mr. O’Leary and need not be reiterated.

Disputable Matters

"DUT the question may at once be put: If there is no Canadian race, by what process do the census authorities and Mr. O’Leary arrive at the belief that there is an English race, a Dutch race,

a Swiss race and so on?

Mr. O’Leary emphasized the distinction between nationality and race. They are, he said, “two things absolutely diverse and distinct.” Exactly. A nation is a political unit. A race is a group of people with common ancestry. They are not the same thing at all. If this is true in Canada, it is true in Europe as well. Yet Mr. O’Leary is content to have the “race” of Canadians determined by the “nationality” of ancestors who migrated from the Old World.

There is a flaw in the logic somewhere. England, France, Sweden and Switzerland are political entities. The people in each of them are united by citizenship but not necessarily by biology or culture. The Swiss, for instance, are German, French and Italian in their social inheritance: each of the three groups keeping its own language and manners. In other words, the Swiss are a nation and not a race, just as the Canadians are a nation and not a race. And why in the name of common sense should Canadians be classified into “races” which are not races at all but political associations, nations in short, in the Old World?

A Canadian critic of the census plan might put it this way:

“It is easy to tell between whites, blacks, yellows and reds. But within the white race the ramifications are too many to permit more than an arbitrary description. You cannot find the ultimate racial origin of anyone of European extraction. The man with the longest pedigree in Europe finds there is a point where it is lost in the mists of time. He may be able, if he is an Englishman, to pick up the thread as far back as 1066 and show that a kinsman of his was first mate to William the Conqueror. But that still leaves a long vista unsearched. There were ancestors of all of us living in the time of King

Tutankhamen, millenniums before the Christian era. Who knows what manner of men they were? They may have been Scythians, Hittites, Piets, Etruscans or plain cave men.

“All of which means that you have to stop, if you want to fix racial origin, at some arbitrary point on the way back to the chimpanzee. And that arbitrary point will always be nothing more than the political allegiance of an ancestor. To call a citizen of Canada Canadian in race would be simply to state his nationality. But to call him English in race is simply to state, or to guess, the nationality of his father, grandfather or other forefather more remote. It does not say whether he is Saxon, Celtic, Norman or Dane. It does not indicate whether he is a Cornishman or a Yorkshireman. Yet they are certainly just as different from one another as Irish are from Scotch or Dutch from Germans, to mention four ‘races’ on the official list.

“The truth is that when census enumerators begin exploring into ‘racial origin’ they get beyond their depth if they go farther than the color of the skin. For then they are no longer dealing with certainties but with disputable matters, leaving an enormously greater margin of error than any good statistician should allow himself.”

The objector in these terms can turn to other countries for confirmation of the argument. The question asked of Canadians about their racial origin is apparently peculiar to Canada. It does not appear in the census questionnaires of other countries.

Take Great Britain, for instance. Great Britain, like Canada, had a census in 1921. In Britain the citizen was asked to name his birthplace and, if foreign, his nationality—that and nothing more about his origin. So if he was born in England of French parents, nothing was recorded about the Gallic ancestry. Like thousands of other natives of Britain with foreign fathers and mothers, he was registered simply as British by birth.

Perhaps Britain, not being bothered by an immigration problem, is a poor example. Take the United States. A census was held in that country last summer. There if anywhere, because of doubts and fears about the melting pot, an analysis of racial strains should be useful. The census bureau did not attempt it; or not, at any rate, in the Canadian way. One question on the American census form was: What is your race or color? The reply expected had to do with pigmentation of the skin. All people of European extraction were included in the one classification “white.”

The only other American questions bearing on the point were these: Where were you born? Where was your father born? Where was your mother born? Nothing was asked about grandparents, or about the nationality of the male ancestor who took ship to the New World. People with a Mayflower background did not get it into the records. The Washington authorities consider they have all the information they need, or can accurately gather, when they classify the people:

As to color;

As to birthplace; and

As to parentage, discovering how many of the inhabitants had foreign fathers or mothers, or both.

Mr. O’Leary declares that the United States would be very glad indeed to have

data on the racial origin of Americans j such as Canada luis gathered about Canadians. If that is so, why does not the American Government put a query about origin in its census form? If the American authorities really want the information, there is nothing in the world to prevent them going after it now.

Effect of Racial Classification

HPAKE another country at about the

same stage of growth as Canada. When Australia undergoes a census, as it did in 1921, the citizen is asked about his color, his birthplace, the birthplaces of his parents, and no more about lineage. Part five of the Australian census report of 1921 deals with race. It splits the people into three grand divisions: European, non-European and half-caste. The nonEuropeans and half-castes are classified as Afghan, Arab, Chinese, Filipino and so forth, but the Europeans are not subdivided.

So it appears that in other countries, or in three at least, the census authorities do not go in for the biological explorations which are deemed essential at Ottawa. They are content to discover each inhabitant’s color, birthplace and parentage.

Are they all out of step but Canada?

The first census of modern times was taken in Canada in 1666, but even scientific pioneers can make mistakes. The question on racial origins is open to these objections:

It is founded on an unscientific assumption that the European nationalities are “races” of mankind.

It ignores, or at least obscures, the fact that most Canadians are of mixed ancestry.

It produces grotesque errors in the description of individuals, errors which cannot be righted by the “law of large numbers” since most of them are due to plain ignorance. And these errors will be more and more numerous at each successive census. Why? Because Canadians with Canadian forebears are the hardest to classify “racially” and the proportion of such citizens in Canada is growing. There will be more mistakes about origin in 1931 than there were in 1921, and there will be still more in 1941 —if the question remains on the census I form.

And finally, the psychological effect of the racial classification is bad. A youth born in Canada of foreign parents or grandparents, adjured by teachers and political speakers to think and feel as a Canadian, is not helped to that end by knowing that he is officially described in a blue book as Russian, German or Polish.

The conclusion, then, is a proposal that the query, “What is your racial origin?” be dropped and replaced by another, “What is your race or color?” to which Canadians of European extraction would answer simply “White” or “European.”

Other questions on the census form yield data about the makeup of the Canadian people. There are queries about language, citizenship, year of immigration, birthplace and birthplace of parents. These produce statistics of unchallengeable veracity and genuine value. They tell everything that can be accurately found out about the “origins” of the Canadian people by the statistical method. If more is wanted, the students of anthropology, history and sociology must be called in.