German Migrants in Montreal: Uses and Meanings of an Ethnic Category

Maike Storks
Over the last two years, I conducted a research project on German migrants in Montreal. During the three-month long qualitative research project I worked closely with a small number of people in order to gain an in-depth understanding of their experiences, practices, and attitudes. I interviewed 17 German migrants and accompanied them in some of their activities. My interlocutors came from various regions in Germany, had immigrated between 1952 and 2006, and ranged in age between 25 and 79. As an anthropologist, I wished to learn how these German migrants experienced their migration, what being German meant to different German migrants, for whom it was significant, and how and when they lived their Germanness.
I explored two different ways of being German. First, German migrants enacted their Germanness locally in German associations and institutions in Montreal. These associations and institutions such as a card playing club or a parish constituted a meeting place for German migrants in Montreal and presented opportunities for practicing certain customs and traditions known from the homeland. For many, they evoked a feeling of belonging to a German community.
Second, Germanness was enacted transnationally (crossing national boundaries) through ties to friends and family members in Germany or Austria for example by video-calling or visiting each other. Being German might be part of people’s ordinary background and day-to-day life where German values, norms, and customs might be relevant. My research demonstrated that being German is not – as often presumed – necessarily confined to ethnic communities or ethnic groups. German migrants may also live their Germanness through their personal relationships to family members or friends overseas.
In addition to the fact that living one’s Germanness is not limited to ethnic groups, I found that there were also considerable limitations to the mobilization of such local groups or communities. Thus, many of my younger interlocutors could not identify with German customs that were practiced in German clubs and associations and they had no interest in participating in club activities and events. They expressed their Germanness in different ways. For this reason, a German ethnic group or community cannot automatically or even easily be drawn on.
In fact, most of the German migrants I worked with strived for invisibility and inaudibility: They did not want to be recognized as German migrants in Montreal. Therefore they kept a low profile by de-emphasizing markers that might indicate their Germanness such as food, clothing, and – most importantly – language. This was particularly the case in the domains of work and settlement. It was not a priority for most of my interlocutors to settle close to other Germans or to work with them. In the private realm and the domain of leisure, by contrast, the German background was more relevant. Therefore, the relevance of being German varied by domain of life.
Indeed, respondents seemed to seek a balance, identifying as German only in private but not in public. This balance, however, was fragile. On the one hand, many German migrants who used transnational ties in order to enact their Germanness in their every-day lives realized that these ties had become weaker over time due to prolonged periods of absence and new, changing experiences. On the other hand, many German migrants who used local associations to enact their Germanness were aware of the precariousness of their associations and institutions in Montreal which see their membership numbers decline. In conclusion, the German migrants I talked to considered their German background as relevant. But in the long term this relevance decreased weakening German associations and personal transnational ties.
Maike Storks conducted this research for her Master’s thesis in social and cultural anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, which she completed in December 2011. Her research was funded by the Spletzer Family Foundation and the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Fonds de recherche sur la société et la culture, and Concordia University and its donors. Ms Storks is currently planning to publish her research and thus to make it available more broadly.