Monday, 7 August 2017

Our Common Immigrant Origins

We all descend from immigrants!

That’s not really an astounding or radical viewpoint. Humans have migrated to areas where they could find better conditions to live and survive since there were humans. Whatever we might think in North America, everyone here descends from someone who moved here, whether during last year or in the last 15,000 years.

I am a second generation Canadian. My ancestors, not so far back, were immigrants. I am just starting to learn why they packed up and moved themselves and, in many cases, their entire families to North America.

Most of us don’t usually think of English-speaking people (or early French-speaking people in Canada) as immigrants but they were – every bit as much as more recent additions to our national mosaic of Asians, Africans or other Europeans. We reserve that distinction to those displaced by wars or Mother Nature. Some of them we have called them refugees.

When I was growing up, people coming to Canada were mainly from Eastern Europe, parts of which had been devastated by a long and dirty war. Many were fleeing despotic, primarily Communist regimes set up following the conflict and that inflicted even more calamity. The migrants sought safety, opportunity and freedom.

Recent arrivals to Canada and the US in the 1950s were often given unflattering labels, first because they did not speak the common language of the regions they settled in, but also, I suspect, from locals’ fear about how their communities might change and whether jobs would be lost to those who might work for less. Or maybe just from plain bigotry.

What we refer to as aboriginal groups – or First Nations in Canada – did not actually originate in the Americas either. They migrated from Asia when conditions permitted during the last major Ice Age. That only makes their ancestors immigrants of a much earlier period, not different or better. In many parts of the New World, existing societies were demolished by invaders, largely from Europe, who came much later.

Of course present-day Europeans also descend from immigrants who came into the region from Southwest Asia and Africa a few hundred thousand years ago, as the climate and physical environment of those regions changed for the worse. East Asians also originated in Africa.

Within Europe there has also been a great deal of internal migration during the past few thousand years again, when degradation of habitat necessitated moves. The event called the Migration Period or the Barbarian Invasion occurred when climate changed from warm (Roman Climate Optimum) to cold (Dark Ages Cold Period).

Some newcomers made uneasy peace with groups that were inhabitants of the lands wanted for settlement; most, though, took the areas by force. That’s not unusual in terms of human history. There have always been conflicts between migrants and inhabitants going back thousands of years. Perhaps distrust of people coming later is ingrained in our DNA, as part of a survival mechanism. Or maybe it’s just that fear factor humans seem to have in abundance. Such attitudes are certainly part of many cultures around the world. These days, established citizens use the ruse that newly arrived groups will be a burden on social programs.

The facts are clear for North America in particular, though – incoming groups of people have always added to the culture, wealth and development of regions in which they have settled.

Family history studies, besides incorporating analyses of genetic relationships, are really the study of immigration – when did people move, why did they move, where did they go, what method of travel did they employ and how long did they stay. While this is more apropos for the Americas or Australia, even local regions in Europe share similar stories as people migrated within their country of origin to places where work was more plentiful and life might be better.

So – we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants. The only distinction between us in that regard is when our forebears arrived in the places where we live.

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