Review: Orienting Canada

[John Price. Orienting Canada: Race, Empire, and the Transpacific. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2011.]

I have noted before on this site that when I go for a stretch of time without reading much history — by which I mean academic or lay writing that would be recognized as “history” by someone trained in that discipline, but not necessarily writing that engages with the past in some fundamentally different way — I often experience a sense of pleasant surprise and comfortable remembrance at how much I enjoy it. The experience of reading this book, which was another that entered my to-read and to-use pile during my year in grad school but which I did not end up opening, fits that description well.

However, though this is definitely legible as disciplinary history, and was written by an academic historian, it is of interest not only for the content but also because it is put together in a somewhat innovative way. I’m not sure I know enough to really assess how innovative it is with reference to disciplinary norms, but it does some pretty cool stuff.

The focus of the book is Canada’s early to mid 20th century participation in, impact on, and impact from the sphere of relations that Price defines as “the transpacific,” a term he invents to designate both “the geographic focus of the narrative as well as the notion of continuous movement and transformation. It best reflects the dynamic flow of ideas and people engaged in border-crossings on both sides of the Pacific” (1). In particular, he is interested in relations with China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, and to a lesser extent India. The particular way of defining his spatial focus and the attention to “continuous movement and transformation” are, I think, interesting and relatively novel.

As part of that commitment to understanding interaction, he pays particular attention to the relationship between empire and racism, and works to connect critical race theory and history. This conjunction sometimes feels a little clunky in terms of the writing but it is interesting and important work, from showing how different relationships to empire meant the experiences of racialization by Chinese and Japanese people in Western Canada were at points very different, to showing how racist assumptions about various Others in Asia shaped Canadian and U.S. American policy decisions in those years. I’m pretty sure it is an idea that I’ve encountered before, though I couldn’t tell you where, but I quite appreciated his careful demonstration of the ways in which anti-communism often functioned in the post-Second World War years as a kind of de-raced surrogate for the blatant white supremacy of the pre-war years, in that it framed Western opposition to self-determination among colonized and formerly colonized people of colour but it made it all look a bit more polite and noble to white Western eyes.

I also quite appreciated Price’s efforts to cast the Second World War in a less Eurocentric frame. Despite having read a great deal about the Second World War in my younger years, nothing I had ever encountered before pointed out that not only did the first strand of warfare that resulted in global conflagration begin with the Japanese invasion of China, but it was in fact the Chinese people that shouldered the lion’s share of the effort, the suffering, and the dying in the war that ultimately defeated the Japanese empire — in conventional North American history, the Pacific side of the war is told as a story almost exclusively about the United States.

I tend to agree, too, with Price’s analysis of Canada’s role in the West, in that Canadian elites were (and are) active participants in constructing liberal empire in Asia and elsewhere and not hapless pawns of the United States. He argues not only that “the Canadian government played a supporting role in the emerging global order in which US power would predominate” but also that “it actively encouraged the United States to take on this role, and that it did so due to the values shared by the men in the foreign policy establishment of both countries — values that reflected ideas about race and empire” (304). He shows numerous instance in the post-Second World War years when Canadian officials — including that oft-worshipped saint of smug Canadian liberals, Lester Pearson — had not only the inclination but also the space to take a moderately different position on some question than the U.S., but they chose not too, not because of Amur’can intimidation but because they realized it was in Canadian elite interest to do so.

While I think the scope, the dynamism, and the engagement with critical race theory are exciting aspects of this work, I hope that they are taken up as just a starting point for developing new ways of producing historical knowledge. For all of these interesting things, much of the core of the book remains lodged in what I think would be labelled as “diplomatic history.” That can certainly be one interesting window into what states were doing in a given period, but I wonder if more could be done to escape the smothering grip of the state-centric standpoint of ruling regimes in which such diplomatic and policy discourse is firmly entrenched. What is being assumed and reified in this approach that could be re-read in a more critical light if it were put in dialogue with some other approach, some other archive? I’m not sure, and it is certainly beyond my competency to even speculate. But I hope that others with the right expertise build on the theoretical explorations begun in this book. Also, how could considerations of gender be integrated into such work?

A final note closest to my own interests was the glimpse this book provides of struggle based in Asian-Canadian communities around questions of racism and empire, particularly in the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. Other than some of the responses to Japanese-Canadian internment and deportation in the ’40s, I had seen little mention of any of this before, and I want to know more.

Anyway, this is important work, and worth reading.

[Scott Neigh is a parent, activist, and writer based in Sudbury, Ontario. This post originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews. Scott recently published two books of Canadian history entered through the stories of activists with Fernwood Publishing.]

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