This week’s blog comes from Dr Matthew Dziennik, Kent Postdoctoral Fellow in the History of Britain and the World at the University of Saskatchewan. His research examines how the British Empire used recruitment to underpin political hegemony in a global context in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Matthew’s first book, The Fatal Land: War, Empire, and the Highland Soldier in British America, has just been published by Yale University Press.
Once every month, from April to December, Government House in Regina, the capital of the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, plays host to a Victorian high tea. Held in the resplendent setting of the Henry Newlands Ballroom, added to the official house of the lieutenant governor in 1928, guests sit down to a traditional tea of finger sandwiches, scones, sweets, and free-flowing Earl Grey.
This historically elite social institution occurs only four times a month; a reservation is essential. And yet, in stark contrast to the original high teas of Woburn Abbey and the Duchess of Bedford, there is no social barrier to the enjoyment of high tea. There is no dress code and the contrast of the servers’ Victorian garments with Canadian football shirts and baseball caps are a visual reminder of how identities adapt and change over time. Canadian citizens’ most expressive loyalty may not be to the Queen or to the Empire but this connection to an old English custom is a valuable part of a weekend in Regina.
This is reflected in the considerable time and energy committed to the Victorian high tea by the Government House Historical Society. This wonderful group began the high tea as a one-year project to celebrate the centennial of Government House in 1991. It is now in its twenty-fifth consecutive year. It requires at least 50 volunteers – yes, volunteers – to stage this slice of Old World refinement.
Government House in Regina
So why do it at all? It would be easy to say that this vestige of British/imperial identity is an irrelevance; a quaint effort by a British diaspora to keep their links with a past that has long since disappeared. Or one could say that connections to the Old World are a very serious part of the identities of the descents of British settlers in western Canada. British identity survives in Saskatchewan in all sorts of forms. Another Saskatchewan town, Asquith – not coincidentally named after the Liberal prime minister – proudly markets itself as “The Centre of the British Empire.” I play ball hockey – poorly – in a school where a portrait of the Queen hangs at the entrance. Two weekends ago, the first Saskatoon Highland Games took place in Diefenbaker Park, named after a Saskatchewan-raised prime minister who, even in death, refused to acknowledge the maple leaf design that replaced the old Union Jack-cornered Red Ensign as the flag of Canada in 1965.
Both ways of looking at this high tea have merits and both are correct, in their own small way. But such interpretations neglect the real power of identity making. They also point to an inherent conceit about identity making. This is that the authority to develop national or ethnic identity is a commodity possessed only by select parts of a community. Victorian high tea, so this argument goes, is not “British” because it relies on a distorted or caricatured vision of the mother country retained only by a diaspora that lacks close contacts with the realities of modern Britain.
As a recent and excellent University of Edinburgh Ph.D. by Sarah McCaslin makes clear, however, diasporas adopt the elements of national or ethnic identity that are useful to them in their unique environments. The formation of these identities is no less legitimate than those constructed in the mother country. Both national and diaspora identities are deployed for specific purposes and for contextually driven goals.
For the Government House Historical Society, Victorian high tea helps preserve and promote a wonderful historical building. It makes a beautiful room relevant to modern audiences and it enhances the experience of visitors who come from all over the world to see the Canadian prairies. There is nothing exclusionary about this particular form of Britishness. The commitment of time and effort involved in putting on high tea also gives structure and energy to a voluntary civil society organization that provides a welcoming forum for visitors, just as voluntary ethnic societies, masonic lodges, and ex-pat sports teams of the past provided support and patronage to immigrants from the Old World.
I don’t know about you but, for me, enjoying a good cup of char/tcha – and subduing my republican sympathies every time I play hockey – is not the worst way to embrace the warmth and support of a new community. After all, having access to the support of a community is really what identity is all about.
With that in mind, all that remains is for me to say thank you to my friends Dustin George and Kathleen Ward, indigenous and newcomer Saskatchewanians, for sharing their friendship and taking me to Victorian high tea in Regina.