The movement of nationals of one country into another for the purpose of resettlement, is central to Canadian history, from the native peoples, whose ancestors migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia, to the most recent arrivals.
The movement of nationals of one country into another for the purpose of resettlement, is central to Canadian history, from the native peoples, whose ancestors migrated across the Bering Strait from Asia, to the most recent arrivals. The story of Canadian immigration is not one of orderly population growth; it has been and remains both a catalyst to Canadian economic development and a mirror of Canadian attitudes and values; it has often been unashamedly and economically self-serving and ethnically or racially biased.
Immigration to New France
Throughout the 17th and much of the 18th century, European colonial administrations, charged with overseeing what would become Canada, did not consider settlement a priority. French or British governments initially seemed unprepared to expend vast quantities of money or energy necessary to encourage settlement. Nor was migration to the New World popular in France or Britain. Adventurers, explorers and particularly traders acting for British or French interests feared the interference of settlers in the lucrative trade with the native people.
However, policy eventually changed and colonial authorities carefully and slowly encouraged settlement in Canada, hoping that settlers would guarantee the sovereignty of colonial land claims, would Christianize the native peoples, and would exploit the natural resources, often on behalf of European investors. Settlements grew gradually and not without difficulty. New France's population at the time of the British Conquest (1759-60) was about 65 000. In Nova Scotia a transplanted Scottish community was supplemented by German and Swiss settlers, and in the late 1700s Irish settlers reinforced Newfoundland's population.
Although the British victory brought an end to migration from France, it did not instigate a tide of English-speaking immigrants. Except for a handful of British administrators, military personnel and merchants who filled the vacuum left by their departing French counterparts, few English-speaking settlers seemed interested in Canada. Indeed, it is doubtful whether settlers would have been welcomed by the new British administrators, who feared that an influx of English-speaking, Protestant settlers would complicate administration in a recently conquered Roman Catholic, French-speaking territory. Most British immigrants were far more inclined to seek out the more temperate climate and familiar social institutions of the British colonies to the south.
The Loyalist Immigration
Many of Québec's new British rulers, content to leave the colony to languish as a quiet backwater of the Empire, were soon forced to accept many thousands of English-speaking, largely Protestant settlers displaced by the American Revolution. Known as United Empire Loyalists, they were largely political refugees. Many of them migrated northward not by choice but by default, either because they did not wish to become citizens of the new American republic or because they feared retribution for their public support of the British. For these Loyalists, who eventually formed the core of the colony's ruling oligarchies, Canada was a land of second choice, as it would be for countless future immigrants who came because to remain at home was undesirable, and entry elsewhere, often the US, was restricted.
The Loyalist migration was neither uncontrolled nor unassisted, however. Imperial authorities and military personnel offered supplies to the new settlers and organized the distribution of land. Despite the hardships the settlers endured, their plight was undeniably made less severe by the intervention of government agents, a practice to be repeated in Canada many times.
Throughout the mid-19th century, the colonies, Canada West in particular, returned to a pattern of painfully slow and erratic economic growth. Officially encouraged immigration from England, Scotland and even the US gradually filled the better agricultural lands in the colony and bolstered new commercial or administrative towns. The new immigrants were generally of ethnic stock and outlook similar to that of the established community. But the great Irish potato famine and to a lesser degree a series of abortive European rebellions in 1848 sent new waves of immigrants to North America.
Of these tens of thousands, many were Irish settlers, whose arrival in Canada initiated major social and economic changes. In many respects the Irish were Canada's first enormous wave of foreign immigrants. Although they generally spoke English, they did not mirror the social, cultural or religious values of the majority. Roman Catholic intruders in a Protestant domain, their loyalty to the Crown appeared suspect in a Canada where ardent loyalty was demanded as insurance against the threat of American republicanism. Furthermore, after escaping a life in which farm tenancy and capricious nature made agriculture synonymous with poverty and dependency, some of the famine-stricken Irish had little or no enthusiasm for farm life.
Canadian cities and larger towns quickly developed Irish sections or wards. The Anglo-Protestant majority measured the Irish contribution economically and the Irish deficiencies socially, religiously and racially. On the one hand, many of the Irish created a labour force ready and able to fill the seasonal employment demands of a newly expanded canal system, lumber industry and burgeoning railway network; on the other hand, because of their low income, their Catholicism, the seasonal separation from their families and differences in their way of life, they were a conspicuous minority group. They filled working-class neighbourhoods and inflated majority fears of social evils previously dismissed as peculiar to the US.
For some years the Irish supplied the base of a working-class labour force necessary for the slow advance of communication, commerce and industry, but they remained an adjunct to, rather than a central component of, mainstream North American economic and social life - the basis of which was commerce and agricultural activity. Policy tied population increase to land settlement. Gradual commercial and industrial development usually serviced the agricultural sector, and, because many Irish were not farmers, Irish labourers were seen as rootless.
The Great Western Migration
If agricultural roots and commitment were measured, in part, by land tenure, Canada underwent a shock when arable land began to disappear from the market. Without a large industrial base, with a relatively low death rate, a high birthrate and a small but continual inflow of immigration largely from the British Isles, the immediate post-Confederation era had its overpopulation problems. The US, with its seemingly boundless supply of free, fertile land, attracted thousands of new immigrants and Anglo-Canadians, while French Canadians were drawn to jobs in the factories of New England.
Canadian history has been compared to a journey through the Bible, beginning in Lamentations and ending in Exodus, but in the late 19th century Canada's future Prairie provinces were opened to settlement, although it was not until a market developed for the prairie agricultural output that serious settlement began. The demand for farm goods, especially hard wheat, coincided with the election of Wilfrid Laurier's government, which immediately encouraged the settlement of the West with large-scale immigration. Canada's new and aggressive minister of the interior, Clifford Sifton, organized a revamped and far-reaching program and was prepared, if reluctantly, to admit agricultural settlers from places other than the British Isles, Northern Europe and the US, explaining, "A stalwart peasant in a sheepskin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for ten generations, and a stout wife and a half-dozen children is good quality."
The Sifton comment, however, no matter how often repeated, is not an accurate reflection of government policy. From 1896 to the 1930s, Canadians, their politicians and immigration officials were not receptive to peasants in sheepskin coats. Immigration policy did not involve just an aggressive peopling of the Prairies. It was enacted within the framework of the British Empire, in which Sifton, the Canadian government and most English-speaking Canadians believed.
For English-speaking Canadians the traditional definition of ideal immigrants may have been modified but was not radically altered. Unabashedly colonial, the government defined immigrants who did not originate from the British Isles as foreign; and, unabashedly North American, excluded white, English- speaking immigrants from the US from this category. The ideal immigrants were still British or American independent farmers who would settle in the West. Sifton and the government may only have reflected their times, but Canadian immigration policy and public opinion were nevertheless racist.
Pressed to increase immigration by business and railway interests with visions of an insatiable world demand for Canadian resources, Sifton and his immigration authorities balanced their ethnic anxieties against a frantic search for settlers. They listed ideal settlers in a descending preference. British and American agriculturalists were followed by French, Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, Finns, Russians, Austro-Hungarians, Germans, Ukrainians and Poles. Close to the bottom of the list came those who were, in both the public and the government's minds, less assimilable and less desirable, eg, Italians, South Slavs, Greeks and Syrians. At the very bottom came Jews, Asians, gypsies and blacks.
Ottawa, however, did not have the only voice when it came to immigration. The British North America Act also gave the provinces a voice in immigration if they chose to run it. Québec, partly in response to the expansion of English-speaking Canada and partly in an effort to stem if not reverse the flow of rural Québec youth to waiting jobs in New England factories, set up its own immigration department. In co-operation with federal authorities, immigration agents were sent into New England to encourage French Canadians to return home to recently opened marginal agricultural lands. The program met with only limited success, but Québec's active determination of its own immigration priorities continued.
In spite of government precautions, not all immigrants committed themselves to resource exploitation or agriculture. Like the Irish before them, many of the "foreign" immigrants, non-English speaking and largely non-Protestant, rejected a life of rural isolation, choosing to work in cities. Furthermore, many of these foreigners saw themselves as living in Canada or North America only temporarily, earning enough money to buy a piece of land at home, to assemble a dowry for a sister or to pay off a family debt. But the many who adopted North American definitions of success or who were unable to return home because of political upheavals established themselves in Canada, bringing wives and children to join them.
If these Jews, Italians, Macedonians, Russians, Finns, Chinese, etc, had been content to play the role reluctantly left for them, if they had accepted rural isolation as the price of their admission into Canada, hostility toward them might have been minimal; but by making their way into Montréal, Winnipeg, Toronto, Hamilton and Vancouver and other centres, they awakened the old ethnic and religious anxieties and prejudices previously reserved for the Irish. They had been allowed into Canada to satisfy the need for a cheap labour force or a pool of skilled craftsmen adaptable to factory and construction.
They were prepared to accept seasonal labour in mining or lumbering (which forced them to drift back into cities during the off-season), but for many Canadians the sudden influx of strange peoples so recently subject to foreign czars, kaisers and gods seemed to threaten the very fabric of Protestant Canadian society. Some Canadians responded with a dignified tolerance. They recognized that these foreigners were here to stay, that their labour and skills were necessary, their living conditions subject to improvement and, perhaps most important, that their children would become integrated, given education and time. But in spite of the vital economic role these immigrants played in urban centres - laying streetcar tracks, labouring in the expanding textile factories and digging the sewer sytems - many Canadians demanded strict enforcement of immigration regulations and restriction of admission along ethnic or racial lines.
During WWI anti-German hysteria erupted in Canada, directed largely against immigrants born in the now enemy countries or those who entered Canada as subjects of enemy monarchs, but also against foreigners who had been born in now allied countries or had come to Canada as subjects of allied monarchs. Despite Canadian military manpower needs, British and Canadian authorities alike felt that, where possible, foreigners belonged in foreign armies. Groups such as Italians, Serbians, Poles and some Jews were encouraged to return to the armies of their mother country or were recruited into specific British army units reserved for allied foreigners of various origins. Without national armies of their own to join, many Jews, Macedonians and Ukrainians volunteered for the Canadian Army.
Once in Canada, many thousands of immigrants did find a place for themselves and their families, but Canadian immigration policy and administration, which bowed to economic necessity by allowing these southern and eastern Europeans into Canada, could not bend enough to admit other would-be immigrants. Head taxes, landing taxes, bilateral restriction agreements and travel restrictions virtually prohibited the immigration of Asians. Canadian authorities refused to allow the settlement of female Asian immigrants, fearing this would encourage Asian men temporarily in Canada as railway or mine labourers to settle permanently and, perhaps more importantly, become the parents of yet another generation of the "yellow peril."
In 1914 almost 400 East Indians aboard the immigrant ship Komagata Maru languished in Vancouver harbour while Canadian authorities debated what to do with them. Canada's new navy, in action for the first time, escorted the ship from Canadian waters while many Vancouver residents cheered approvingly from shore. In 1910 and 1911 rumours had spread that a group of blacks was preparing to migrate to central Alberta. Descendants of freed slaves, they were being pushed from their land in Oklahoma territory, where they had been granted holdings and hoped to build new lives.
Public and political response in Alberta was immediate and predictable. Federal authorities initiated an ingeniously simple scheme. Nothing in the Immigration Act specifically barred black Americans, but any immigrant could effectively be denied access to Canada for health reasons under the Act's medical provisions. The government merely instructed immigration inspectors and their medical aides along the American border to reject all blacks as unfit for admission on medical grounds. There was no appeal. Blacks were warned they should not waste their time and money by considering immigration to Canada.
As a result of the dramatic and devastating economic collapse caused by the Great Depression, the need for the government's selective encouragement of immigration faded. Immigration authorities worked not to stimulate admissions but to prevent them. By 1933 Hitler ruled Germany, and millions of political opponents and Jews might have survived if Canada or other countries had offered innocent victims a home. Although many Canadians responded to the refugees with a mixture of sympathy for their desperate plight and embarrassment at the lack of government aid, others, including the federal Cabinet, many in the diplomatic corps and, of course, immigration policymakers, reacted with alarm to any pressure to accept Jews or political refugees escaping Germany. As a result, few refugees were able to break Canadian immigration restrictions.
The Postwar Era and the Removal of Racial and Ethnic Barriers
At war's end in 1945, Canadian immigration regulations remained unchanged from the restrictive prewar years. But change was not long in coming. Driven by a postwar economic boom, growing job market and a resulting demand for labour, Canada gradually re-opened its doors to European immigration, first to immigrants Canada traditionally preferred - those from the United Kingdom and Western Europe - but eventually to the rest of Europe as well. With the onset of the Cold War, however, immigration from Eastern Europe came to a halt. Borders to the west were closed by the Soviet Union and its allies. However, large numbers of immigrants entered Canada from southern Europe, particularly Italy, Greece and Portugal.
Unlike the mass immigration of an earlier era, this postwar immigration was not streamed exclusively into agricultural or rural-based resource extractive industries such as mining or lumbering. Canada emerged from World War II as an urban, industrial power, and many postwar immigrants soon filled jobs in the new urban-based manufacturing and construction sectors, some building the expanding city infrastructure and others, the better educated immigrants, meeting the strong demand for trained and skilled professionals.
Canadian immigration also underwent other dramatic changes in the postwar years. Canadian governments, federal and provincial, slowly yielded to pressure for human rights reform from an earlier generation of immigrants and their children. Increasingly middle class and politically active, the now well-integrated immigrants had sacrificed in common cause with other Canadians in the war effort and in the postwar era they refused to assume second-class status in the country they had helped to protect. Supported by like-minded Canadians, they rejected legally sanctioned ethnic and racial discrimination in Canada and demanded human rights reform. They forced governments to legislate against discrimination on account of race, religion and origin in such areas as employment, accommodation and education. And, just as Canada was making discrimination illegal at home, the federal government moved to eliminate racial, religious or ethnic barriers to Canadian immigration.
The last vestiges of racial discrimination in immigration were gone from Canadian immigration legislation and regulations by the late 1960s. This opened Canada's doors to many of those who would previously have been rejected as undersirable. In 1971, for the first time in Canadian history, the majority of those immigrating into Canada were of non-European ancestry. This has been the case every year since. As a result, today Canada is not just a multicultural society, it is also a multiracial society to a degree unimaginable to earlier generations of Canadians.
That does not mean that anyone who wishes to enter Canada may do so. Far from it. While restrictions on account of race or national origin are gone, Canada still maintains strict criteria for determining who is and who is not a desirable candidate for Canadian entry. In the late 1960s Canada introduced a point system for determining the desirability of individuals applying to immigrate to Canada.
Under this system, each applicant was awarded points for criteria such as age, education, ability to speak English or French and demand for that particular applicant's job skills. If an applicant was in good health and of good character and scored enough points, he or she was granted admission together with their spouse and dependent children. Those who did not score enough points were denied admission. More recently, Canada has modified its procedures to give preference to the admission of independent, skilled, and perhaps most importantly, immediately employable immigrants.
Once established in Canada, each new arrival, now called a "landed immigrant," has all the rights of born Canadians except political rights, such as the right to vote. After a specified number of years (recently reduced from 5 to 3 years), each landed immigrant may apply for Canadian citizenship and, once granted, has the same political rights as Canadian-born citizens. In addition, landed immigrants, like Canadian citizens, may also apply to sponsor the admission to Canada of close family members who might not otherwise be able to satisfy stringent Canadian admission criteria. The sponsor must agree to ensure anyone brought into Canada will not become an economic burden to Canadian society. For many years, sponsored families of those already in Canada were the single largest group of those admitted into Canada.
Since the end of WWII refugees and others dispossessed by war and violence have become a significant part of Canada's immigration flow. In the postwar labour shortage Canada admitted tens of thousands of displaced persons, individuals made homeless by the war or who, at war's end, found themselves outside of their country of citizenship, to which they refused to return. Among the displaced persons were Jewish Holocaust survivors who had no community or family to which they could return. Other displaced persons refused repatriation back to countries which had fallen under Soviet domination. Many resettled in Canada, where they built new lives.
During the 1960s and 1970s Canada also responded to the plight of refugees from other troubled areas. In the aftermath of the unsuccessful Hungarian uprising of 1967 and the crushing of political reform in Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union in 1973, refugees fled westward. Canada responded by setting aside its normal immigration procedures to admit its share of refugees. In the years that followed, Canada again made special allowance for refugees from political upheavals in Uganda, Chile and elsewhere. In each of these cases, however, the refugees were admitted as an exception to the immigration regulations and without following all the usual immigration procedures.
In 1978, however, Canada enacted a new Immigration Act that, for the first time, affirmed Canada's commitment to the resettlement of refugees from oppression; that is, persons who have a well-founded fear of persecution in their country of citizenship. Accordingly, refugees would no longer be admitted to Canada as an exception to immigration regulations. Admission of refugees was now part of Canadian immigration law and regulations. But refugee admission has remained controversial and difficult to administer.
On the surface the admission of refugees seems simple enough. Every year Canada sets aside a minority portion of the total target number of immigrants it intends to admit for refugees. But there are 2 very different routes by which refugees have arrived in Canada. Most are carefully selected abroad. In co-operation with other countries and international refugee agencies, each Canadian immigration official goes overseas to interview and pick refugees for resettlement in Canada from among those who have found temporary sanctuary outside their country of citizenship, often in a neighbouring country. This process has generally worked smoothly.
The first major refugee resettlement program under this new legislation was during the early 1980s, when Canada led the Western world in its welcome to Southeast Asian refugees and particularly those from Vietnam, often referred to as the "boat people." Many of the boat people were selected from among those who escaped Vietnam in tiny boats and eventually found themselves confined to refugee camps in Thailand or Hong Kong awaiting permanent homes.
The other route refugees have taken into Canada is far more controversial. Canada has had to deal with persons who are not chosen abroad by immigration officials but who somehow make their way to Canada and, once in Canada, declare themselves to be refugees. In recent years these have included persons who claimed refugee status in Canada after disembarking from flights between Eastern Europe and Cuba which land to refuel in Gander, Nfld, and men, women and children who have escaped the horror of war and persecution in Central America, Africa, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent and China to seek sanctuary in Canada.
Once in Canada each arrival claimed to be a refugee with a legitimate fear of persecution in his or her homeland. In a world in which political torture and murder is all too common, it became the responsibility of Canadian officials to determine if each individual claimant was truly a refugee or not. To do this Canada devised an inland refugee determination process designed to judge each claim. If determined to be a legitimate refugee, the claimant is granted the right to stay in Canada as an immigrant. If not, the claimant may be deported.
Late 20th Century
In the 1980s the number of those entering Canada and applying for refugee status grew steadily and the Canadian determination process was hard-pressed to process applicants quickly. Nor were refugee claimants universally welcomed by Canadians. Some Canadians worried that many of the refugee claimants, including some who successfully made it through the determination process, were not really legitimate refugees but individuals looking for a way around tough Canadian immigration regulations.
Some accused refugees of abusing "the system" and clogging up the immigration and refugee determination process. Still others argued that by allowing persons to claim refugee status from within Canada, Canada was denying itself the opportunity to pick and choose among the pool of refugees abroad and take only those refugees best suited to Canada. Canada, it was argued, should select refugees, not allow refugees to select Canada.
The refugee issue was dramatically brought home to Canadians in the late 1980s, when 2 ships illegally stranded their respective cargoes of Sikh and Tamil refugee claimants on Canada's east coast. Amid greatly exaggerated fears that Canada was about to be flooded with refugees, Parliament and immigration authorities began tightening up refugee regulations and procedures. The result has been a continual streamlining or hardening of the Canadian refugee determination process and a shortening of the time between a refugee claimant's arrival in Canada and the time the claimant is either granted permission to stay or is forced to leave. While some Canadians are concerned that these changes mean that some legitimate refugees are now being denied Canadian sanctuary, Canadian authorities have been working closely with other countries and transportation companies to make it more difficult for individuals who might make a refugee claim to reach Canada. This effort to stop would-be refugee claimants from getting to Canada is called interdiction.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, even as it was seeking to forestall the entry of would-be refugee claimants, Canada opened new avenues for other immigrants to enter the country, especially those with employable skills or significant financial resources. Beginning during the Mulroney Conservative government, those with capital that they were prepared to invest in Canadian enterprises or with money and skills necessary to start business which promised to create new employment and wealth in Canada were invited to apply for Canadian immigration. Many did.
Through much of the 1990s the number of entrepreneurial or business immigrants rose dramatically, eventually reaching 6% of all immigrants entering Canada. Of these, appreciable numbers of entrepreneurial-class immigrants have come from Hong Kong, many seeking a safe harbour for themselves, their families and their assets in advance of the Chinese takeover of Hong Kong in 1997. It was natural that many should respond to Canada's invitation and the opportunities offered for capital investment in Canada. As a result, Canada became a prime destination for Hong Kong and other Chinese immigration and for capital in flight. Hong Kong and other Chinese immigration has been especially pronounced in larger urban areas such as Vancouver and Toronto, where the Chinese community now constitutes the largest immigrant groups. Most of these entrepreneurial-class immigrants did not arrive speaking English or French, and this has led to calls for tougher language requirements for those coming to Canada. An economic slowdown in Asia in the late 1990s reduced the number of immigrants to Canada and was partly responsible for Canada's failure to reach its projected annual target for immigration admissions in the past several years, approximately 220 000 immigrants or 1% of the Canadian population.
In the quickly changing national and international economic climate of the late 1990s, Canadian immigration re-emerged as a topic of public debate. And given the continuing impact of immigration on Canadian society, it is only natural that there be such a debate. While many economists argue that Canada, with its relatively low birth rate and greying population, needs the infusion of population, energy, skills, capital and buying power that immigrants bring to Canada, other Canadians harbour doubts. Talk of the "new economy," with more and more jobs requiring a highly skilled work force, has led some to conclude that immigrants, or at least the kinds of immigrants that Canada welcomed in the past, are no longer necessary. Some fear that without a change in immigrant requirements, immigrants to Canada will not create wealth but take up what few low-paying jobs are available. In addition, with immigrants of non-European origin making up a large majority of those entering Canada, some Canadians express uneasiness at the changing character of urban Canada and the potential for racial tension.
Public debate on immigration in Canada has remained civil, and certainly free of the kind of violence against new arrivals witnessed in France and Germany. Indeed, on the whole, Canadians generally remain supportive of immigration in spite of the reservations expressed by some. As part of the larger public debate on immigration, in the mid-1990s the federal government commissioned a panel to review Canadian immigration legislation and policy. The panel submitted its report in 1998. Not all of its recommendations have been accepted, but as Canada enters a new millennium the government is expected to begin public consultations on recommendations leading to an overhaul of immigration policy which, it is hoped, will bring immigration more in line with Canada's changing economic and social reality.
In particular, it is expected that Canada will put increased emphasis on encouraging the arrival of highly educated immigrants who show the kind of economic flexibility needed to succeed in a constantly changing Canadian job market. It is also expected that Canada will affirm its commitment to remain a leader in refugee resettlement, although the country is likely to continue slowing the arrival of refugee claimants in favour of refugees selection abroad. But even as Canadians debate the future of immigration, they can take pride in Canada's long tradition of immigration, the resourcefulness of immigrants, their readiness to help build Canadian society and the richness of their cultural contribution to the life of their adopted land.
Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Host: Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (1995); H. Cowen, British Emigration to British North America (1961); E.C. Guillet, The Great Migration (1963); H. Troper, Only Farmers Need Apply (1972); R. Hurney and Harold Troper, Immigrants: A Portrait of the Urban Experience (1975); Gerald E. Dirks, Canada's Refugee Policy (1977); Reg Whitaker, Double Standard: The Secret History of Canadian Immigration (1987).