Immigrant Labour

Canada, which is essentially a country of immigrants, has consistently required the importation of skilled and unskilled workers to assist its economic development. Prior to Confederation (1867) a vast number of immigrant workers, most of whom were from the British Isles, had already assumed an important role within the predominantly agricultural and extractive economies of the British North American colonies.

Perhaps the most controversial of these immigrant workers were the IRISH, who flooded into North America during the 1840s and 1850s in a desperate search for a new life. Because of their propensity for hard work and their ethnic cohesiveness, they virtually monopolized certain jobs in the lumber camps, on the docks, and within a sprawling network of canal and railway camps which stretched from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean.

Immigrant labour was also extensively used during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway, when thousands of British, American and European navvies resolutely pushed the ribbon of steel westward, while CHINESE navvies, many of them imported specifically for this purpose, performed the even grimmer task of building the railroad eastward through the BC mountain ranges.

The tendency to import labour became particularly pronounced after 1870, when Canada began actively participating in the transatlantic labour market. The rapid expansion of ocean and rail transportation made it possible for British and European workers to hunt for jobs in North America on a mass scale; according to one source, about 900 000 unskilled and skilled workers (other than agriculturalists) arrived between 1907 and 1930. British artisans, with their industrial experience and specific skills, were in high demand, particularly in the rapidly expanding industries of central Canada and BC.

Although Canada officially maintained that only agriculturalists were being imported, in practice thousands of the immigrants who came from central and southern Europe (1880-1930) became either full-time or part-time unskilled industrial workers because industrialists and farmers were able to link their economic interests in demanding an "open door" IMMIGRATION POLICY.

Canada has remained a self-proclaimed homeland for immigrants seeking work, but the type of work available has often depended on ethnic background. "Preferred immigrants" (ie, British immigrants, AMERICAN immigrants of English "stock," and skilled workers from western Europe) encountered less PREJUDICE AND DISCRIMINATION than eastern and southern European immigrants, who as "foreigners" met with a decidedly mixed reception, the attitude of their hosts varying with time and economic circumstances. Asians and BLACKS fared even worse and many of them were only employed for the most grinding labour.

From 1945 onwards, however, and with the advent of postwar prosperity and an improved attitude towards human rights, the status of non-British immigrant workers substantially changed. At the same time, 3 new waves of immigrant workers entered Canada: European displaced persons, many of whom were highly educated and soon left the unskilled labour market for professional and skilled jobs; immigrants from "preferred countries" (Britain, Germany, Netherlands, etc), who generally gravitated into prestigious jobs upon arrival in this country; immigrants from Asia, many of whom were entrepreneurial or business immigrants; and immigrant workers from the low-wage countries of southern Europe, Southeast Asia and, increasingly, the West Indies (see WEST INDIANS). This latter group of predominantly unskilled immigrants have largely filled the low-paying, hazardous and itinerant or seasonal jobs that Canadians would not accept. However, most of these jobs are no longer on the frontier, and now it is to urban factories, construction sites or service industries - most notably in Toronto and Montréal - that the vast majority of unskilled immigrant workers tend to gravitate.

As Canada approaches the 21st century there is renewed debate about the issues of importing labour to do the jobs that Canadians don't want. For some employers there is still a need for cheap and willing workers; perhaps this is best obtained through the temporary employment authorization scheme that was created during the 1970s. In contrast, organized labour and humanitarian groups claim that this type of guest worker arrangement is both exploitative and ethnocentric, since many of the migrant workers are non-white. Another issue is whether Canada should place more emphasis on attracting a higher ratio of highly skilled and professional immigrants, who will be more suited to the technological challenges of the new era. A related question is how refugee and asylum seekers, who represent about 20% of all arrivals, will be able to adjust to Canada's changing economy, particularly those coming from rural backgrounds in Third World countries.

While Canada in the past has often been a reluctant host wary of those who did not meet its racial, ethnocultural and class standards, there is little evidence that the country will return to the exclusionist policies of the past.