Culture, Identity, and Exile

Ben Rempel (brempel@CC.UMANITOBA.CA)
Tue, 13 Feb 1996 11:28:44 -0600

My current research involves some discussion of the inter-relationship
between exile, community organization, and ethnic identity among recently
resettled refugees in Canada and the United States.

I came across an interesting quotation regarding refugees from El
Salvador in Melbourne, Australia by Beryl Langer (in _Journal of
Intercultural Studies_; 1990, 11(2), pp. 1-13) which struck me as relevant
to the situation on this continent among other cultural groups as well.

Here is the quote from the abstract of the paper; it follows a statement
describing the social and political divisions underlying the civil war
in El Salvador and concerns how those divisions effect the discourse over
identity in the context of resettlement:

"These divisions are glossed within the discourse & practices of
multiculturalism, which constructs immigrants not as bearers of history,
but as members of ethnic groups defined in terms of language & culture.
In the Salvadoran case, the multicultural fiction of ethnic community
is challenged by the continuing commitment of many refugees to the
political struggle in El Salvador, & a general reluctance to extend the
boundaries of imagined community to include people from the "other" side
of El Salvadoran politics."

Canada's offical Multiculturalism also sustains a 'fiction of
ethnic community' where culture is firmly separated from politics.
An individual leaves his or her home as 'bearer of history', Salvadoran
history, the history of the Punjab, or of Kurdistan, and receives a new
status ('refugee', 'landed immigrant' etc), a 'liminal' identity
indicating a loss of historical identity and an eventual transition to
being a 'member of an ethnic group'.

I would be interested in discussing the dynamics of this process with
others who have some interest or experience in this area. For many of those
I know who came to Canada as refugees, culture is impossible to separate
from politics. In the case of the Kurds for example, that identity itself
is a political act which can make one a target for state oppression. At the
same time an ethnic label can obscure on the one hand, cultural practices
held in common with other minorities (Turkomen, Arab, Persian) from the same
region, and on the other, political divisions within the same ethnic group.
There has been a debate in anthropology for some time between (among others)
those who approach ethnicity as a 'cultural container' (essentialist or
primordialist perspectives) and those who take a more 'instrumentalist' or
'situational' approach.

Any comments?


Ben Rempel