Nations lost, cities gained

Nations lost, cities gained McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 23, 2004 - Volume 37 Number 02
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > September 23, 2004 > Nations lost, cities gained

Nations lost, cities gained

A city is always more than the sum of its parts, and the Culture of Cities project teases apart this paradox. Since the cross-national research project began in 1999, researchers have been working on a cultural analysis of city life in all its diversity, and one of McGill's participants, art history and communications professor Jenny Burman, takes a worldly view of urban identity.

Burman says that she works in the narrow field of transnational cultural studies, which also looks at issues of globalization and diaspora. Departmental and project colleague Will Straw says that her work brings "a wonderful example of how globalization can be analyzed on a ground level, and not just in terms of big media structures like AOL and Time Warner."

Artistic photograph of feet on a city sidewalk
Kirsten Anderson

Burman says that the project "was designed to look at what are sometimes referred to as 'second tier' — although by no means 'second class' — cities: Toronto, Montreal, Berlin and Dublin. These aren't studied as often as the London–Tokyo–New York circuit." Burman concentrates on citizenship and diaspora, and the cultural transformations that Toronto and Montreal have undergone in the past 30 years.

Noticeable population swings often reflect an altered political climate. "Since the '60s, there was a relative liberalization of immigration policy in Canada," says Burman. "That created a demographic upheaval in Toronto, [and so] by the late '90s, the media was reporting that the population of Toronto was more than 50 percent non-white, non- anglo/franco–descended." Discourse has not kept up with the new reality. "It is no longer useful to talk about it in the language of multiculturalism," says Burman, who is "trying to make a case for talking about Toronto using the language of diaspora." She believes this reference to the displacement of peoples from their "homelands" and emplacement in new locales would provide a richer conceptual framework for the study of changing urban cultures in Canada.

Canadian language around multiculturalism stems from federal policy, says Burman. "We understand that its models are cultural mosaics. What it was initially designed to do was to allow people to retain their cultural traditions."

Artistic photograph of a man dragging a suitcase
Kirsten Anderson

In Quebec, Burman says, things played out differently. "Here you have more of a cultural assimilationist policy, or the 'Cultural Convergence Policy.' Because of language politics, there has been an emphasis on streaming new migrants into society through laws such as Bill 101, which requires all new immigrant children to be educated in French."

With the layering of new communities and the subsequent hybridization in cities such as Montreal and Toronto, fewer and fewer people are actually identifying with a single ethnic origin. Says Burman, "I have interviewed many people in their 20s who were born in Ontario but descended from Caribbean migrants who came here in the '60s. They had split allegiances, but no investment in 'Canada' per se. Their interests were in Toronto, where their parents came from, and sometimes in American cities where they had lots of relatives. So Canada was lost." Here again, the notion of multiculturalism is inadequate. "All that it is designed to handle is one national origin affiliation, along with 'Canadian.'"

Semantics aside, Burman is filled with hope over Canada's new cultural make-up. "I am not concerned that Canada is losing something here," she says. "What I am interested in is what we might be gaining." Burman believes people's transnational attachments can give cities much of their vitality.

Artistic photograph of a building reflecting in another
Kirsten Anderson

"It's a promising development, and it means that Toronto and Montreal have the potential for being cosmopolitan sites that are places of refuge for new immigrants, in a way that New York already is."

For this to comfortably occur, however, the Canadian mindset requires significant change. In Burman's other area of interest, detention and deportation as they affect various immigrant populations, Canada's track record is less than stellar, particularly in crisis moments.

"Certain communities are targeted at particular points in time. It happened to Afro-Caribbean men in Toronto in the '90s after the famous Just Desserts robbery and murder. There was a media panic about dangerous Jamaicans and how they all had to be deported. The Toronto Sun even had billboards with faces of black men and a stamp of the word 'deported' over them."

Burman sees history repeating itself in Montreal. "The Action Committee for Non-Status Algerians has done extensive work showing how Algerian men have been targeted here. Recently there have been numerous Algerians slotted for deportation, even though it is deemed too dangerous a place to send people back to."

Burman sees a shift in national policy as being responsible for the current conditions. "In 2002, the Immigration Act was rewritten. Legislation allowed government representatives to detain people without trial and to detain and deport people who 'might have been, are or someday might be' a danger to the public or a threat to the national security. This of course is all [seen as] justified and linked to 9/11."

Her work leads her to feel optimism and despair. Yet the success of projects like 2002's one-day symposium Diasporic City gives her the strength to believe in the possibilities Canada has to offer. Says Burman, "The event included hip hop artist YLook, First Nations playwright Daniel David Moses, as well as filmmakers, short story writers and academics. Besides relevant performances, there were discussions about how we might reconceptualize cultural differences in the Canadian urban landscape. It was a beautiful example of the convergence and harmonization of Canada's unique communities."

More information about the Culture of Cities project can be found at Amanda Holmes of Hispanic Studies is also an investigator.

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