The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada by John Porter

Reviewed by George Elliott Clarke

John Porter

The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada. 50th Anniversary Edition. University of Toronto Press, 2015

688 pp.


Arguably, The Vertical Mosaic: An Analysis of Social Class and Power in Canada, by John Porter (1921-79), with George Grant’s Lament for a Nation: The Defeat of Canadian Nationalism and Stephen Vizinczey’s ribald novel, In Praise of Older Women, all 1965-issued, is one of the catalysts of English-Canadian modernity, that weird amalgam of Red Toryism, Liberal reformism, social-uplift socialism, and Montreal-set jazz chic and cool style. Of this textual trio, however, Porter’s is the academic title, the empirical sociologist’s formal study—with graphs and percentage signs providing the chorus of affirmations—of the ethnic-basis (one might even say “ethic”) of Canadian elite public power and private plutocracy. While Grant’s philosophical rant made him a campus guru and Vizinczey’s erotic romp became a bestseller and a feature film, Porter’s 626-page tome never did become a book beside every bed. However, its title has become a catchy, picturesque shorthand for understanding the interlocking statuses of ‘race,’ religion, language, and ethnicity and how they determine, by and large, which groups of Canadians become the wielders of influence (backroom boys) and the accumulators of wealth (robber-barons).

According to Porter’s research of fifty-two years ago, the dominant group in Canada was, essentially, ABC—Anglican, British, and Caucasian. Canadians belonging to this so-called charter group (or “founding people”) dominated business, politics, mass media, universities, law establishment, clergy, and most opinion-forming, legislative-proposing, policy-enacting, justice-enforcement, wealth-accumulating, and taxation/governmental-distributive regimens. They achieved their power and influence through hobnobbing within networks of law schools, boards of directors, kinship ties, golf and social clubs, and religious and ethnic affiliation. Porter also found that “French Canadians” (mainly Québécois) were very secondary—actually second-class—wielders of political authority and cultural influence being inhibited—according to his sensibility—by their ascription to Catholicism and classicism as opposed to capitalism and modernism (managerial sciences—sociology, political science, business administration, and/or marketing). In Porter’s view, most other groups—meaning, mainly, European ethnicities, First Nations, and Asians—were perpetually outsiders, marginal, add-ons, mostly valued, enriched, and empowered insofar as they assimilated into—especially—the “Anglo,” mainstream norms.

Notably, Porter says little about gender—perhaps because the Canada of 1960 was so principally patriarchal. Even his discussion of “race” is somewhat blinkered, for he deems the English and the French as themselves constituting “races,” and seldom does he contemplate First Nations, Inuit, and Métis as racialized subjects (as opposed to “conquered” peoples). Too, he gives Asians short-shrift as a West Coast-situated minority, and he ignores the African-Canadians presence and history. While Porter’s analysis—plus-fifty years old as it is—cannot be considered news, it is also, not necessarily, “old” news. Indeed, First Nations self-government proponents, anti-racism activists, and pro-multiculturalism and pro-immigration advocates may still produce anthologies of commentaries, from Neil Bissoondath’s Selling Illusions (1994) and its denunciation of multiculturalism to op-ed disavowals of the salience of the Idle No More and Black Lives Matter protests.

Despite his lacunae, Porter’s work remains essential given his pointing toward the strange salience of the word status in Canadian socio-political discourse. Although Porter includes “Stratification”—as in social (or class) stratification—in the index to The Vertical Mosaic, he ignores status (though he does use the word elsewhere in the text) as the subtle and supple discriminatory categorization in Canadian life. He cannot be faulted for this omission, for other sociologists—Clement and Helmes-Hayes—and, in their Introductory Essay to the 2015 Vertical Mosaic, Jack Jedwab and Vic Satzewich—also fail to dissect the prevalence of status in our socio-political speech, although the latter pair do refer to “high-status” and “low-status” ethnic groups (xxxii) as well as to “group status” (xxvi). However, the word status is the vivid—if silent—sign that Canadian society is structurally hierarchical. Thus, one can be a Registered or Status Indian under the terms of the federal Indian Act of 1876, therefore entitling one to “a wide range of programs and services offered by federal agencies and provincial governments” (Indigenous and Northern Affairs website). In contrast, “a non-status Indian is a legal term referring to any First Nations individual who for whatever reason is not registered with the federal government, or is not registered to a band which signed a treaty with the Crown” (; see also Indigenous and Northern Affairs: An additionally important element here is Section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982, which affirms “(1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada” and further defines Indigenous Canadians as numbering “the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.” (See: This recognition confers constitutional recognition upon mixed-race people, thus providing a potential for recognition of Métis who are not part-Indigenous, but part-something-else. If we consider Canadian citizenship more broadly, there are various forms of contingent statuses available, according to the Duhaime Law Library website:

In Canada, circa 1998, the term [permanent resident] had no legal significance and was not used either within immigration or citizenship law but in Writers Union of Canada v Certification Application, cited at 84 CPR 3d 329, it was stated that:

"There are a number of types of status recognized in Canada other than citizenship: persons registered under the Indian Act, permanent residents, Convention refugees, visitors and Minister's permit holders may all lawfully be in Canada.

"The term landed immigrant is often used in lay terms to refer to those who have permanent resident status; to be "landed" is to have lawful permission to establish permanent residence in Canada." (, “landed immigrant”)[i]*

According to The Charter of Rights and Freedoms, “Every citizen and every person who has the status of a permanent resident of Canada has [mobility rights]” (Charter 6.2). In addition to these citizenship—or non-citizenship—applications of the idea of status, we should observe that, since 1971, the Government of Canada maintains a Cabinet position for a Minister of Status of Women, whose office oversees the Status of Women Canada. Says Statistics Canada, a “visible minority” is a category designating “persons who are non-Caucasian in race or non-white in colour and who do not report being Aboriginal” (Statistics Canada website). Though this definition avoids the term status, we may impute this terminology as a bureaucratic euphemism that has the effect of rendering the “visible” minority group as visually other than the majority of Canadians, that is to say, “White.” But this terminology also renders Canadians of colour as citizens of suspect status because they are not the same complexion as the so-called mainstream, whose citizenship status is seldom questioned—unless they speak with a non-Anglo or non-Franco accent. It is for this reason—the inferred belief that the “visible minority” personage is likely a New Canadian—or not Canadian at all—that the question, “Where are you from?” is raised. (It is possible and necessary to align racial profiling—such as the late, Toronto police practice of “carding”—especially of young black males—as an overt expression of this objectionable, status-interrogation technique.) While those who put the interrogative may do so in utter innocence, it is often heard by the intended recipients as an attempt to ferret out their national origin or length of Canadian residency, thus deciding the relative legitimacy of their claim upon citizenship. (Intriguingly, “The category of ‘not a visible minority’ is made up of those who respond ‘White’ to the [census] question that asks them to indicate their racial origin” [Jedwab and Satzewich xxi]). I want to suggest now that our society—given its predilection for defining citizenship status, Indigenous status, and gender status—is status-conscious through-and-through. Indeed, that Aboriginal Canadians and Métis are considered “Status” or “Non-Status,” and that proto-Canadians have status or do not, underlines the truth that race and ethnicity are arranged hierarchically in our nation.

Porter tells us that the popular image of Canada as “classless” is based on “the absence of formal aristocracy and aristocratic institutions,” so that Canadians conceive ourselves as a nation wherein “equalitarian values have asserted themselves over authoritarian values” (3). Yet, a glance at the Constitution should remind us that this precept is a myth. Our fundamental law holds that “Executive Power”—including military command—is “vested in the Queen” (III.9 & III.15). In short, whether anyone likes it or not, Canada is a monarchy, and this basic element of the state defines it as hierarchical. The reason is plain: only one person from one family (or lineage) may ever be absolute sovereign, even if that authority’s power seems delegated to elected officials, primarily premiers and the prime minister. Nevertheless, all legislation assumes legal force only as it achieves Royal Assent, thanks to the pen of The Governor-General federally or the Lieutenants-Governor provincially.

In any event, Porter’s observation that “class differences create very great differences in life chances, among which are the chances of individuals’ reaching the higher levels of political, economic, and other forms of power” (6), as true now as it was in 1965, needs to be understood alongside other markers of “difference,” such as ‘race’ and language, as demarcating one’s relative marginality or empowerment vis-à-vis the WASP—“Canadian”—Monarch, who symbolizes the early wealth accumulation and power aggregation of the settler-class, especially that which is of British descent.

The quasi-ideological, legalistic, and pseudo-philosophical position of settler-class “prepossessiveness” (Austin Clarke’s term) in tandem with the illusion of supremacist racial/ethnic legitimacy that the Monarchy bestows upon the “charter” British/English grouping especially, permits it to masquerade (with acquiescent, minority-state, Francophone and Catholic Québécois) as preternaturally and naturally “Canadian” and as having decisive say as to the status of all others. Porter finds that “the first ethnic group to come into previously unpopulated territory, as [its] effective possessor, has the most say” (60). His statement masks the implicit violence of the “first”—as having somehow displaced or supplanted the Indigenous presence, but Porter acknowledges, in a footnote, that “A charter group may have to conquer an indigenous group to establish its claim” (60). He also finds that, although “the French participated in Confederation, Canada’s political and economic leaders were British and were prepared to create a British North America” (62), just as the first title of our Constitution verifies. Nevertheless, the Quebec Act of 1774, passed by the British Parliament, granting French Canadians complete religious freedom and restoring the French form of civil law, plus the later Official Languages Act, ensuring the federal equality of official languages, also affirm—arguably—the presence of two ‘official’ cultures of the Canadian state. Theoretically, at least, the Quebec Act enthrones aspects of French civilization, just as constitutional recognition of the nominally WASP Monarch, presents the Anglo Monarch as the “natural” ruler of the state. If we read the Official Languages policy alongside the notion of “two founding peoples,” what is posited, really, is the de facto presence of two linguistically-anchored, ethnically-composed societies, both presented as naturally empowered and decisive in their respective jurisdictions in defining who may be “Canadian” and even what employs they should be expected to take up. Porter tells us, “‘charter’ members of [Canadian] society [evaluate] the jobs to be filled and the ‘right’ kind of immigrants to fill them” (60). In practice, as Euro-Canadian writer Stephen Williams observes, for the Dominion of Canada, “Immigrants represented a kind of slave labor” (2004, 37). To immigrate to Canada was better than being shipped here as a slave, but only because, eventually, as an immigrant, one could be free of one’s status as peon or serf. That is to say that one had prospects of advancing beyond a low-level “entrance status” (Porter 64), unless one was racialized—like Chinese Canadians were—into “a permanent caste-like status” (64). As Jedwab and Satzewich note, groups that “Porter saw as being confined to an entrance status (Ukrainians, Italians, Poles, Finns, Czechs, and Slovaks) have generally moved up the socio-economic ranks” (xxii). “The children of the southern and eastern European immigrants who came to Canada in the late 1940s and 1950s are now at the point of retiring, and, for many of them, ethnically defined barriers to mobility have decreased such that in terms of class, status, and power, they are virtually undistinguishable from the original [French and British] charter groups” (xxiii). Yet, this ostensibly ‘feel-good’ nostrum may merely hide the apparent practical assimilationism of some ethnic elites. Indeed, if “Japanese Canadians tend to be among the highest income earners in the country…, while Black Canadians are among the lowest” (Jedwab and Satzewich xxvii), the relevant statistics may mean simply that Japanese Canadians are more assimiliable to white middle-class Canadian ranks than are African Canadians. Certainly, Porter found that “certain European groups [were] rated more highly than others” as potential immigrants (69), while “coloured people” were preferred immigrants only as “domestic servants” (69). Worse, supposed “cultural barriers at the time of entry [immigration] harden into a set of historical [economic] relations tending to perpetuate [the relatively low group] entry status” (69). Thus, “Black men are the only group that are consistently identified in research studies as lagging behind [economically] other groups of men, both among immigrants and the Canadian born” (Jedwab and Satzewich xxvii). Once an unskilled labourer or domestic servant, always is one, one or the other.*

However, if “race has replaced ethnicity as the new dividing line within the mosaic” or, if there is “a new racialized, or colour-coded, vertical mosaic in Canada” (Jedwab and Satzewich xxiii), then analyses related to the concept of “white supremacy”—or the socio-economic and political solidarity of Caucasians—are necessary. Yet, it is a grave error, in my mind, to deem “white supremacy” a “new” factor in social relations in Canada, for it obscures centuries-old, racialist stratifications rooted in both African slavery and Aboriginal dispossession in colonial Nouvelle-France and British North America.

What is to be done? Bearing in mind Porter’s precept that “educational attainment” affects “economic outcomes” (Jedwab and Satzewich xvii), the reorientation of the entire educational complex to encourage “free” post-secondary degree or certificate credentialization would radically decentre the old-guard, oligarchic, or old-school (old-boy), de facto aristocracies based on self-perpetuating ethnic, racial, religious, and class affiliations. Open access to post-secondary credentialization institutions would enhance Canadian democracy which has been retarded, asserts Porter, due to “A fragmented, political structure, a lack of upward mobility into … elite and higher occupational levels, and the absence of a clearly articulated system of values, stemming from a charter myth or based in an indigenous ideology” (Porter 558, my italics). Still, “Class,” Porter maintains, “may be a major impediment to Canadian educational systems meeting their social function of supplying the needs of a diversified occupational structure” (179). Moreover, “it would probably take a generation of completely free higher education, including perhaps a living allowance, before higher education would become a perceived and valued choice for lower class families” (194). Yet, “Higher education becomes for the individual the key to upward mobility as it becomes for the society the key to the allocation of roles on the basis of ability” (293).

The single—but great—impediment to progressive change is exactly what Porter diagnosed a half-century ago: “elites feel that systems should operate as they, the present elite, have operated them. They see themselves as the guardians of institutional systems” (265). Moreover, Porter sees, “Canada is a capitalist oriented society. All its elite groups accept the capitalist rules of the game” (270). Their power and class privilege is affirmed by several estates, especially lawyers (278), private school networks (285), upper-class-congregation churches (288), and engineering schools (304), and, of course, boards of directors, whether of corporations, universities, or charities, not to mention the more-or-less shared, cordial competition permitted in both politics and sports. In mass media, the punditocracy consists of the same, incestuous groupings of “humanists, historians, economists” (Porter 461), and columnists, editorialists, and talking heads, who offer prognostications as well as insights into “the values of tradition or rational expediency, and thus [produce] … conventional wisdom, a catalogue of the correct things to do” (Porter 461). To break down or dissolve these fiefdoms of privilege, we need more affirmative action and/or employment equity programs that will produce more intellectuals, journalists, lawyers, doctors, and engineers of (visible) minority backgrounds. Moreover, political parties should be encouraged to offer diverse lists of potential candidates, including so-called visible minorities, and to offer a greater array of occupations and job skills than simply “lawyers and businessmen with university degrees” (Porter 396).*

Although The Vertical Mosaic is fifty-years-plus of age, its insights remain germane and its provisos compelling. The more we pretend that Canada is egalitarian and do not act to make it truly so, the more will we evolve happy-face, economic apartheid and a photo-op police-state, whose victims will be—most obviously—Indigenous Canadians and African-Canadians as usual.

George Elliott Clarke is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Toronto. He is also the 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2016-17). His newest books are Canticles I (MMXVII) (Guernica Editions) and The Merchant of Venice (Retried) (Gaspereau Press).

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  1. Being a poet, I cannot help but note the ironies associated with being “landed” as opposed to being “rootless,” which is the presumed status of both the immigrant newcomer and the homeless (including off-reserve Natives), all of whom may constitute a “landless proletariat” (Porter 57). Perhaps there could be a tripartite coalition of the homeless, the “landed” but unsettled immigrant, and the Indigenous Canadian who, off-reserve, become part of a “landless,” urban proletariat, all of whom should be eligible for re-settlement support. A further irony here is that, as Porter notes, “Urban real estate” (286) is one enterprise where entry-level immigrants can amass wealth without having to first break through ‘glass ceilings.’

  2. Porter found, in his analysis of 1931 census data, that “Italians, with the lowest representation in the professional class and the highest representation in the unskilled and primary [labour] class (in both cases with the exception of Indians and Eskimos), could be said to have held the lowest position in the class system” (84). Yet, 80 years later, according to a 2011 survey, Italians were the third-most likely group (after Jews and Dutch Canadians) “to hold a management [presumably white-collar] position” (Jedwab and Satchewitz xxiv). At the bottom of the scale, though, are Jamaicans and First Nations (Jedwab and Satchewitz xxiv). If we read “Jamaican” as “Black” and “First Nations” as “Indians and Eskimos,” then the class positions of these racialized groups has not—or did not—change in the 80 years between 1931 and 2011. (Blacks are generally absent from Porter’s analysis, but other data—from Nova Scotia, for instance—would have seen them ranked at the bottom of the economy too, right alongside Indigenous Canadians. Notably, in March 2004, Doudou Diène, Special Rapporteur on racism, racial discrimination, and xenophobia to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, delivered a report to the United Nations declaring that Canada practices racism in particular against people of African-Negro heritage and Aboriginal peoples.)

  3. “There has developed a class and ethnic continuity in the composition of the political elite. Dominated as it is by British and French lawyers, it could scarcely be said that the route to the Canadian political elite is an open one” (Porter 398).

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