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Book by history professor wins national prize

by Mary Ann Gratton

History professor Franca Iacovetta has been awarded this year’s Sir John A. Macdonald Prize for the best non-fiction work in Canadian history, the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) announced recently.

Her book is titled Gatekeepers: Reshaping Immigrant Lives in Cold War Canada (Between the Lines Press, 2006). It is an in-depth study of European immigrants to Canada following the Second World War and during the Cold War. It explores interactions among immigrants and the “gatekeepers” – mostly middle-class individuals and institutions whose definitions of citizenship significantly shaped the immigrant experience. The book examines how dominant bourgeois gender and Cold War ideologies of the day shaped attitudes towards new Canadians and in turn how the newcomers influenced Canadian culture and society, even as their own behavior was being modified.

The publisher describes Gatekeepers as “exploring a side of Cold War history that has been left largely untapped. It offers a long overdue Canadian perspective on one of the defining eras of the last century.”

The prize was announced a few weeks ago at the CHA’s annual meeting, held at the University of British Columbia. Iacovetta said that she was thrilled to be presented with the prestigious prize while at a conference of her peers. She began working on the book 10 years ago, but had to set the research and writing aside numerous times due to the demands of her schedule and other book projects.

“I was surprised and delighted to hear about the prize, which is a significant one for a professional Canadian historian,” said Iacovetta. “It was great news following a much-interrupted project.”

The 370-page book is beautifully illustrated and contains more than 100 photos and photo illustrations. “The richness of this book lies in its analysis of rarely documented details of Canadian life during the Cold War, particularly among displaced persons from Eastern Europe,” writes a reviewer in The Beaver magazine. “Gatekeepers is a valuable resource regarding the history of anti-communism in Canada, postwar ethnicity, the roots of state sanctioned multiculturalism and the effects of forced assimilation.”

A writer in the Literary Review of Canada notes that “Iacovetta’s take on citizenship reflects a turn from might be thought of as a celebratory mood of struggle and achievement in immigration studies toward a more edgy, critical view of the whole process of integration … It should give hope to those seeking change in contemporary society.”

A feminist and historian of labour, gender and migration, Iacovetta has been with the University of Toronto Scarborough since 1990, and is also active in the graduate history program at the St. George campus. She was presented with a $1,000 prize and a certificate at the AHA meeting. “The prize was announced at the gala, which was nice because I’ve been very active in my professional organization, and I knew a lot of people there. It was satisfying to receive this while among colleagues and friends, and an affirmation that my professional peers considered my work worthy of praise.”

Researching and writing the book was a herculean task, she said, in which each chapter involved research into different thematic areas on everything from cultural food traditions to mental health among immigrants. “Each chapter could have been a book in itself, so after the writing was done, there was a huge process of cutting back,” she said. “Each thematic chapter allowed me to explore an entirely different historical discipline. I wanted to cast a wide net because my aim was not to produce a specialized project but rather a project that showed the extent to which this period affected the shaping of Canadian history as a whole.”

The book contains many stories told by immigrants to Canada during the period, she said. “I was trying to find and capture the complexity and optimism of the brave new world after the Second World War, which was also a period of fear over nuclear disaster and anti-communist paranoia, so I looked at both sides of an ongoing tension. Besides trying to explain it, I wanted to illustrate the human drama in all of this. I also explored the kinds of issues that mattered to people, and my aim was to centre women in the book.”

The 1950s were not just about June Cleaver, she said, but also about women laboring in the workforce. “My goal was to capture the many layers of human drama taking place, at a time when so many people faced huge challenges in rebuilding their lives in Canada, often after a great deal of loss and human pain.”

Following the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of immigrants came over to Canada from Europe, and Iacovetta’s book examines the changing face of cities such as Toronto as well, along with racial tensions that occurred. “The 1950s was a truly transformative period in Canadian society, and I tried to examine that.”

The John A. Macdonald Prize is awarded to a work of Canadian history “judged to have made the most significant contribution to an understanding of the Canadian past.” Iacovetta notes that it is ironic that Gatekeepers won the prize named after Canada’s first prime minister, because the country changed so significantly over the period examined in the book that “Sir John A. might not even recognize the Canada in my book.”

© University of Toronto Scarborough