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Traces of discrimination in Canadian immigration policy before 1960

Canadian immigration open door policy

Over the span of many years, accompanying historical and important events, the Canadian immigration policy has been shaped to satisfy the needs and interests of our country. Before 1945, three distinct characteristics of the Canadian immigration policy can be named:

  • open doors,
  • restrictive and
  • selective.

These characteristics will be explained below.

The first characteristic of the Canadian immigration policy cited above was known as the open doors policy due to the belief that

“the more immigrants allowed to come to Canada, the better it would be”.

At this open time, there was no restriction concerning the numbers of immigrants that entered into the country. In 1896, an encouragement movement was created by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberal government to promote the settlement of the West. For that, his Federal Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, developed a program to attract suitable farmers and farm labourers to occupy the empty Prairies quickly. He wanted to populate the Prairies with agricultural immigrants. Most of these immigrants came from Great Britain, the United States and Northwestern Europe. Black American applicants were not encouraged to immigrate to Canada because they would not supposedly be appropriate for the climate. In contrast to the open door policy, the immigration rate from the first three decades after Confederation (1867) was very low.

The second characteristic of the Canadian immigration policy was named as restrictive
due to the implementation of the Immigration Act of 1906. The main purpose of this immigration Act was to stop undesirable immigrants.

  • This new legislation significantly expanded the number of exclusion categories of immigrants and increased the government’s power to deport no welcome newcomers by providing a means of control.
  • Furthermore, it regulated the quantity of “landing money” immigrants required to carry on arrival.
  • It also established restrictive controls along the Canada-United States border. Notably, immigration barriers were raised in comparison to the previous liberal period.

The third characteristic of Canadian immigration policy can be described as selective due
to the execution of the Immigration Act of 1910. This Act of 1910 provided the power to impede immigrants to enter into Canada who belonged to any race considered inappropriate to the climate or requirements of Canada. It also reinforced the government’s power to deport individuals on the grounds of political and moral instability. As well, other measures were taken to discourage certain type of people to immigrate to Canada.

For instance, Asian immigrants were required to have $ 200 in cash (which was a large amount of money at the time) when they landed in Canada. Another example is that all immigrants were supposed to carry the amount of $25 when they arrived in any season other than winter in addition to their ocean and inland transportation fares. It is believed that these selective processes imposed by the Canadian immigration policy was utilised as an instrument of discrimination against immigrants.

To conclude, for the reasons explained above, open doors, restrictive and selective can be
named as the three characteristics of Canadian immigration policy prior 1945.

Immigration has played a considerable role in Canada’s progress over the years,
contributing to the build up of a very progressive, diverse and multicultural society. This
diversity of people has culturally enriched our country to make it the prosperous nation that it represents in the present time. However, multiculturalism has not always been treated positively by the Canadian immigration policy. Noticeably, before the Canadian Bill of Rights had been enacted in 1960, discrimination by reason of race, colour, national origin, religion or sex was commonly employed to select immigrants to settle in Canada. This approach suffered influence from historical events that occurred around the world, as well as it oscillated according to national and regional interests and daily priorities. To better describe the discriminatory immigration policy adopted by Canada, three important periods of time will be taken into consideration:

  1. before 1914;
  2. from 1914 to 1944;
  3. from 1945 to 1960.

Each one of the periods will be explained below.

Before 1914, some significant historical events helped to shape the discriminatory
character of the Canadian immigration policy. Some of them can be cited: the economic
depression (1873-1896) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). First of all, it is interesting to note that, prior to 1896, few immigrants came to Canada. On the other hand, thousands of Canadians moved to the United States due to the abundance of work in the American industry. However, this scenario changed in 1896, when labour demands increased in Canada. Despite the open doors policy adopted by Clifford Sifton, the Federal Minister of Interior, in order to allow a considerable amount of agricultural immigrants to populate the empty Canadian Prairies, a thinly veiled racist attitude could be noticed. While a strong campaign attracted Britons, Northwestern Europeans and American farmers, black Americans agriculturalists were not welcome. Most
applications submitted by black Americans were rejected, although there was no law to exclude them. Another situation where discrimination could be noticed occurred in 1904, when British Columbia tried to discourage non-white people from the Asian continent by preventing them from working in certain professions and refusing them the right to vote. Then, at the end of Clifford Sifton’s mandate, an opposition movement against immigration created a feverous debate about “Canadianization”, claiming for a more restrictive and selective immigration policy. Effectively, this vindication was heard by Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior and Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (1905-1911). After being heard, the Immigration Acts of 1904 and 1906 were implemented over his mandate, revealing certain prejudice against some immigrants and protecting Britons at the same time. After the Russo Japanese-War (1904-195), Japanese immigrants were seen as a threat to the Canadian security. It is clear that the Vancouver
Riot of 1907, preceded by an anti-Asian Parade, demonstrated the racial hostility against the Japanese, which led to an agreement between Canada and Japan to limit the number of Japanese immigrants in Canada. Another regulation that discriminated certain immigrants can be mentioned. The continuous-journey regulation stated that all aspirated immigrants must travel to Canada directly from their country of origin or citizenship. However, there was no transportation company offering direct services from India to Canada.

From 1914 to 1944, the Canadian immigration policy suffered influence from historical
events that gave it a discriminatory feature. The most important ones were: First World War (1914 – 1918), the Great Depression (1929 – 1939) and the Second World War (1939 – 1944).

The First World War intensified prejudices against European immigrants, especially, those from countries considered enemy aliens by Canada, such as Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs and Ukrainians. It also developed a sense of nationalism and increased an anti-foreign sentiment among Canadians. Consequently, in 1915, the immigration rate decreased to the lowest figure since 1898, with ¾ of American immigrants. The numbers oscillated until the end of the First World War, when the figures almost tripled. Clearly, Canada’s involvement in the war provoked the sentiment of patriotism, propagating prejudice and discrimination against those foreigners. To illustrate, censorship was applied by government to control foreign-language press, alien organizations and groups that used enemy languages. Throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s, many immigrants were summarily deported, especially for becoming a
public charge, as well as, all immigrants who had not lived in Canada long enough to obtain domicile and citizenship (1 year for Britons and 5 years for the others) could be deported if they got into legal trouble or lost a job. Obviously, these protectionist measures were taken to defend the economical interest of Canadians facing a phase of recession. Ultimately, the finale of the Second War coincided with the end of three decades of slow immigration and it also restored the interest in receiving newcomers to help the country continue growing, as this was priority established for those days.

Throughout the third span of time considered above, the Canadian immigration policy
started changing its discriminatory treatment. Successfully, Canada contributed immensely to the wars, offering manpower and resources to help its Allies, which made Canada’s industries develop. Consequently, this wave of prosperity led to a strong sense of nationalism and a need to be recognized worldly. An important Act came into effect in 1947 to confer a general Canadian citizenship to all Canadians, born or not in Canada, once they were considered qualified for citizenship. After the wars, as soon as the hostilities had finished, Canada accepted some bona fide immigrants and displaced persons, although its doors continued practically closed to new arrivals. Nevertheless, beginning slowly, Mackenzie King’s Liberal government opened the doors to Europe’s homeless, such as Poles, Ukrainians, Germans, Austrians, Jews, Latvians, Lithuanians, Magyars, Czechs, Dutch and Russians, due to the lack of a more liberal immigration
policy, admitting approximately 250,000 of them between 1947 and 1962. The Immigration Act of 1952 was comparable to its antecedent (Act of 1910) in many aspects; in addition, it granted a wide degree of uncontrolled discretionary power to the minister and his officials to limit and select prospective newcomers based on biased criterions. Providentially, in 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights eliminated the racist immigration policy used, rejecting any discrimination based on race, colour, national origin, religion or sex.

To conclude, the Canadian immigration policy prior to 1960 evidently favoured certain
ethnic groups over others, utilizing a method of selection based on nationality and race rather than individual merit. Noticeably, the newcomers who moved to Canada during the post-war period composed a more heterogeneous group than those who immigrated to Canada during the boom period of 1900–1914. This reveals a slow progressive opening in the Canadian immigration policy, which has constantly been marked by traces of discrimination, before the Canadian Bill of Rights of 1960, as discussed above.

Paula De Cassia Pimpao
Immigration Program Student at Ashton College
under the tutelage of Jose Godoy Toku

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