Canadian Centre for Ethnomusicology University of Alberta

Chapter 1: Immigration, Multiculturalism & Music

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The roots of Canada’s rich South Asian musical culture can be traced back to the living rooms, kitchens, and basements of the first wave of immigrants. In the second half of the twentieth century an exponential growth in immigration and Canada’s commitment to celebrate multiculturalism have created strong communities in which this musical culture has thrived.

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In depth: Immigration, Multiculturalism & Music

  • Q&A

    What are the trends in Canada's immigration history?
    • 1900-1915: In these early years after Canada’s confederation, the Canadian government was aggressively advertising in Europe and the United States to entice immigrant workers to com and share in the booming economy. Close to 3 million people immigrated to Canada between 1900 and 1914, coming primarily from Western Europe and initially settling in Ontario and Québec urban centres, but later moving westward and settling the prime farmland on the prairies. During this time, men greatly outnumbered women due to labour recruitment efforts targeted more strongly at men than women. During this period several acts were put in place restricting immigration by people from Asian countries.
    • 1915-1946: During WWI immigration dropped sharply and would never again reach the record numbers of the 15 previous years. The number of immigrants rose during the boom of the 1920s, but then fell again during the Great Depression of the 1930s and stayed low through WWII. During the 1930s and 1940s, the number of female immigrants outnumbered the male by a small margin, tipping the overall gender ratio of the immigrant population. While immigration from Western European countries remained strong, immigration continued to rise from other European countries in the aftermath of the wars, however further legislation was enacted to restrict Asian immigration.
    • 1946-1970: During this period immigration numbers rose and fell several times based on legislative policies introduced to slow immigration when the economy slowed that were raised when the economy improved. Also, a trend towards settlement in urban areas rather than rural areas grew as Canada’s economy moved from being resource-based to being manufacturing and service-based. The current point-based system for immigration admission was introduced in 1967, removing a number of legislative acts restricting the countries that people could immigrate to Canada from. This act encouraged family reunification and opened the doors to immigrants from across Asia and other parts of the world who could make valuable contributions to the labour market.
    • 1970-1996: In 1978 a new Immigration Act based on the 1967 act was introduced that, for the first time, included immigration based on humanitarian principles, creating a much more inviting environment for refugees from war-torn countries around the world. Canada opened its doors to the world, and during this period the numbers of immigrants from Asia and other non-Western European places climbed dramatically. These immigrants largely settled in the urban areas of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montréal.
    • Current trends: Immigration continues to bring culturally and ethnically diverse people to Canada in large numbers each year. From 2000 to 2006 immigration numbers averaged around 250 000 people each year. Find more information about immigration trends based on census information from the Statistics Canada Web site.
    What is Canada's multiculturalism policy?
    Canada’s Multiculturalism Act declares that it is the policy of the Government of Canada to recognise and promote cultural diversity and heritage, that multiculturalism is a fundamental and defining characteristic of Canadian society, to recognise the existence of communities whose members share a common cultural heritage and enhance their development, and to foster the recognition and appreciation for the diverse cultures of Canadian society and to preserve and enhance multiculturalism while maintaining the national identity. It is the responsibility of the Federal Government to support and promote these endeavors and ensure equal rights and opportunities for all individuals. For more information, see the Government of Canada Multiculturalism Web site.
    What is meant by the phrase "South Asian Diaspora?"
    The South Asian diaspora refers to immigrants from South Asian countries who maintain close ties to their countries of origin. Originally, Diaspora (capitalised) referred to Jewish people living outside of Israel and implied a sense of longing and desire to return to the homeland. However, in contemporary usage, diaspora (uncapitalised) refers to any cultural group that maintains strong connections to the homeland, whether cultural, social, financial, or some mixture of these ways.
    What are the current requirements and conditions for new South Asian immigrants to Canada?
    There are no longer any restrictions on the countries from which people can immigrate to Canada from, and there are a variety of categories that applicants may fit into, such as skilled worker or entrepreneur. Applicants are judged based on a system in which they are awarded points in each of several categories considered to be important for naturalisation into Canadian culture by the Canadian government. If the applicant meets the required minimum of points they may be allowed to immigrate to Canada. For more information, visit the official Government of Canada Citizenship and Immigration Web site.
  • The Collection

    This video was created using the following objects from the South Asian Music and Culture in Canada Collection.

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    For more on this topic see the following related collection objects

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  • Discussion

    Making Music as Immigrants

    For members of the diaspora, music making takes on new meaning and new challenges. South Asian immigrants in Canada must actively seek out other South Asians and go out of their way to make music that may have previously been taken for granted as part of the broader culture in the homeland.

    For Canada’s earliest South Asian immigrants, the process of connecting with other South Asians involved introducing oneself randomly to strangers on the street or over the telephone, but immigrants looking to connect with people who share their own culture welcomed each other into their homes where they could speak in familiar languages and eat traditional food together. Bearing rich musical traditions, South Asian immigrants have sought to play, sing, dance, and listen to South Asian music of a variety of genres ranging from classical to religious to film songs to contemporary popular music with others who share an appreciation for these musics.

    Often, particularly in smaller communities, immigrants must make compromises within their musical communities because the members do not necessarily come from the same regions in India. Differences often exist in style, repertoire, and language that must be accommodated if the community members wish to make music together. The result is music-making in non-traditional settings by individuals who would have been unlikely to ever have played together in their home countries.

    Another challenge faced by South Asian immigrants in Canada is that of keeping in touch with musical trends and practices in the homeland. For example, traditionally if a young person wanted to learn Indian classical music, he or she would be sent to regular lessons with a guru—a great teacher of the instrument. However, in Canada great teachers of Indian classical music are few and far between, so students study intermittently with traveling teachers or regularly with less prestigious teachers.

    In looking at the photographs linked under Collection Objects, notice the virtual absence of musical instruments. The young individuals who immigrated to Edmonton with the early wave of South Asians in the 1960s and 1970s did not bring instruments but they were familiar with songs—especially with Urdu poetry and its musical recitation, because this is something that educated people shared across professions in Northern India and Pakistan. Some even composed poetry themselves. So they gathered after dinner, sat on the floor in a circle singing popular songs and poems they remembered, while applauding and chatting about life back home. When you have no “things” from home, you carry songs and poems in your head. All you need is someone who understands them, and their message from home comes to life.

    Making Music in Multicultural Canada

    Canada’s multiculturalism policy primarily influences the music-making of immigrants through federal funding for cultural festivals, events, and centres. These organizations produce expositions of cultural traditions for other members of the community and for broader Canadian audiences and provide a means by which the traditions can be passed on to younger generations.

    Festivals such as Edmonton’s Heritage Days Festival offer opportunities for immigrant groups new and old representing cultures from around the world to wear traditional clothing, serve their traditional ethnic foods, and perform their music and dance traditions alongside each other. While this setting removes these practices even further from their traditional settings, they provide a valuable arena for intercultural dialogue and for building awareness of Canada’s rich cultural heritage among the Canadian population.

    Organisations such as our partners Bazm-e-Sukhan Literary Society and Edmonton Raga-Mala Music Society create year-round opportunities for members of the South Asian diaspora to participate in musical events as audience members or performers. These organisations also support the South Asian community by presenting world-class artists and providing educational materials. Also, temples, mosques, and gurdwaras serve not only as places of worship but also as sites for community members to gather, make music, speak native languages, dress in traditional clothes and eat traditional foods.

    While these events and organisations could certainly exist without a formal federal policy on multiculturalism, such a policy creates opportunities for official recognition and financial support from the government.

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