In the book, immigrants are portrayed as hardworking, voiceless and expendable. Commissioner Harris does not care about them. Why did Ondaatje portray immigrants this way?
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The entire book is focused on giving the reader the experience of the disenfranchised immigrants who built Toronto, to give voice to their silent stories. The Bloor Street bridge and the tunnel under Lake Ontario are built by several nationalities of immigrant men working long hours, and Patrick is our entry into this world.
Patrick is not an immigrant, yet he chooses to live among immigrants, those who don’t understand him and vice versa, in language and in habit. This tendency to stay on the outside yet to long to be inside recurs in the novel, starting in his boyhood when he watched the immigrant loggers who spoke another language: "He longed to hold their hands and skate the length of the creek…" The moment that tears fall from Patrick’s eyes when the Macedonian shopkeepers understand him, is another instance of his being on the outside and then being let inside. Yet, for the most part, his urge to stay outside prevails, and causes him comfort, just as it did when he was a child: "He passes this strange community most mornings during the winter months, the companionship a silent comfort to him in the dark at five am." He is a watcher who "absorbed everything from a distance…" And even after he is taken in to become part of Alice’s family and community, she knows he is happy being on the outside and not knowing the languages spoken among her friends. The puppet show where the immigrants are shown to be persecuted and frustrated because they are immigrants shows the other perspective: wanting to be on the inside. As well, Nicholas works in a bakery all night and still goes to school with ten-year-olds to learn English so he can be on the inside of his new country.