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Conceptual Baggage, Example II: Ethnic Assimilation

For the Caribbean interviews, issues of integration and ethnic identity are explored by asking to what extent the Caribbean immigrants have participated in the "dominant" groups' institutions, and to what extent they remain in their own "ethnic" enclave. Specific questions include, for example:

These questions assume a dichotomy between the "Canadian" and Vincentian organizations, newspapers, and communities. Implicit in the dichotomy is an assimilationist bias: Caribbean immigrants' association with non-dominant institutions is conceptualized as being "non-Canadian." The following excerpts illustrate how the rigid dichotomy fails to adequately capture immigrants' "Canadian" experiences.

Interviewer: Are you a member of any Canadian clubs, like Rotary, or political parties?

Paul: No, no, definitely not. Most of these associations want to have an African Canadian as a token person, these groups use us as tokens. They don't want to give you a role on the basis of your qualifications. People who become tokens may do well for themselves but they can't do anything for their community from that position.

The answer illustrates that politics of integration are complex, and cannot be measured the notion of "belonging to any Canadian clubs."

Caribbean Interview #4

Interviewer: What kind of newspapers do you read?

Diane: I read Parents magazine, and child care magazines and I read my newspaper from St. Vincent [which I get] every week so I know what's going on.

Comment: In quantitative methodology, we might take reading "ethnic" newspapers as an indicator of ethnic retention, and reading "Canadian" newspapers as an indicator of assimilation into the dominant culture. In qualitative research, however, we are more interested in knowing the meaning and value of these choices for respondents. For example, Diane is the mother of a 14 year old son. Her reading Parent magazine says as much about her identity as a mother as her ethnic identity.

Caribbean Interview # 2

Interviewer: What kind of newspapers do you read?

Judy: We read everything, the Gazette, my daughter picks up the French paper, I read the West Island paper, all the free papers like the Monitor..., the African Canadian... My friends get papers from St. Vincent and they pass it along.

In this case, the "Canadian" and "ethnic" newspapers are not mutually exclusive categories.

Caribbean Interview #5

Interviewer: Before you came, did you think you would become a Canadian or do you think you would live with St. Vincentians?

Lionel: Well, some of both, we have all gained some social contact especially with other African groups, but we don't see the others much.

Interviewer: … What is your personal identity. Who are you?

Lionel: I would say that I am an Afro-Canadian citizen, from St. Vincent but with an African background. I used to think that I was mostly just English but now I would say that I am Afro-Canadian. If I were in Europe I would say that I am a Canadian citizen.

The "Canadian" and "St. Vincentian" communities are inter-connected in an immigrant's self-concept and everyday experience. Immigrants' ethnic identities are fluid, multifaceted, and situated.

Caribbean Interview #3

From these excerpts, it becomes clear that a dichotomous conceptual approach is problematic. Although "ethnic communities" may be segregated or excluded from the dominant cultural institutions, they may also be considered an integral part of the "Canadian community." As qualitative researchers, we are interested in understanding experiences of segregation and exclusion, but we cannot assume them a priori. Questions exploring integration as an evolving process would better capture the complicity of immigration. Rather than measuring experience against a set of pre-determined indicators, qualitative interviewers should elicit respondents' own accounts of segregation, exclusion and integration.

Exercise: "Becoming a Canadian"

In the following excerpt, the interviewer did a better job of following the respondnet's train of thought rather than using standardized questions. Still, quite a few "clashes" occur. What do you learn from the respondent's answers? How would you re-frame the questions?

Interviewer: Did you find it hard integrating into the Montreal community?

Andy: I don't know if I was fortunate but I never had a problem in Montreal in that I came here right into my uncle's business (automotive repairs) so I stayed more or less within my own community. After he went back home I opened my own business. We didn't make a lot of money but enough. I didn't have cause to go looking for a job, interviews,… I haven't been exposed to the kind of things other people have been exposed to, like discriminatory practices against Blacks or minorities.

Interviewer: How did you find your first residence after your uncle moved back?

Andy: I was around 24 (in 1979-80) and I rented in Cote de Neige from the same guy I rented from with my uncle.

Interviewer: What kind of social events were you going to?

Andy: Caribbean parties.

Interviewer: Who organised them?

Andy: Different Caribbean organizations or individuals.

Interviewer: So who makes up this community that you say you've been 'within' since you're here?

Andy: I'm a West Indian first and foremost, who happens to be from St. Vincent. Like you have Canadians who happen to be born in Quebec or Vancouver. To me personally it doesn't matter what island you're from because there are so many similarities.

Interviewer: Is my friend from Nairobi a part of your community?

Andy: By extension, sure. We all came from one place, from Africa. So my community is not necessarily West Indians only but back then there weren't many Africans here. A lot came here because of Idi Amin… but that was later.

Interviewer: So then your community is anyone who is Black?

Andy: Yes.

Interviewer: What about the Ethiopian Jews in Snowdon?

Andy: Now we are getting into religion. I don't want to discuss it because it's a never ending story.

Interviewer: Are you a religious person yourself?

Andy: I am in that I accept the theory of creation which is questionable and I believe in God because you can't afford to live life aimlessly everyday. So I'm not really concerned about what people believe in because certain things were imposed on certain people. In my case Christianity was imposed on me and so it becomes a part of you, but to me they're my brothers. If they think differently I'm not prepared to argue with them… But since I'm in Montreal then I'm part of a community which has many different people, Indians, Cambodians, whatever,… But you keep close to those people that you know and understand… because I feel more comfortable with them.

Interviewer: So how much contact do you have with your community then?

Andy: I'm very involved. I'm treasurer of the Cote de Neige Black Community Centre. It's a very vibrant organization, active but not very visible. I'm also active in a Black Lodge, called Prince Hall (started by a Barbadian, a Masonic order). We help to sponsor things in the community, college tuitions, book funds,..

Interviewer: Were you ever involved in any non specifically Black organizations, like Rotary or a political party?

Andy: I was a member of the J.C.s (Junior Chamber International) in the Caribbean. It's a leadership training organization, big in the States. They have chapters here too. But when you come from the Caribbean you're not accepted here…

Interviewer: Do you have any non West Indian friends…

Andy: I don't have any White friends.

Caribbean Interview #11


Lay down any possible advantages and barriers your specific identification may bear upon your investigation of the issue of integration and assimilation. In two or three paragraphs, use your lived experience to explain one particular aspect of the advantage or barrier.

IdentificationPersonal LocationPossible AdvantagePossible Barriers
Research interest
Personal agenda
Biography and/or beliefs
Socio-economic position

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