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The Place of Immigration

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Multiculturalism/Harold Troper

Acknowledged or not, the history of Canada is one in which immigration is centrally important. Millennia before the coming of the first Europeans, the ancestors of Canada’s aboriginal peoples are thought to have migrated from Asia and gradually formed a rich tapestry of cultural and linguistic groupings across the continent. Approximately five hundred years ago the first permanent European settlers arrived in what is now Canada. The first were those who carried the banners of French imperial expansion into the vast expanse to the north of the St Lawrence River and Great Lakes system. The victory of British arms at Quebec in 1759, followed by their defeat in the American Revolution, brought a wave of settlers out of the recently proclaimed United States into the British territory to the north, in what would eventually become Canada.

During most of the next century and a half, authorities tried to balance the often competing interests of the British and French communities, lay down a governing structure, and ensure the economic viability of the Canadian enterprise. All the while, immigration continued. In the main, settlers came from England, Scotland, and Ireland. They hoped to build new lives for themselves and their heirs. Some were drawn by the promise of stability under the British crown; others escaped the poverty and starvation that came with agricultural dislocations and crop failures. Still others, including many Americans, were enticed to leave home by the exaggerated claims of Canadian land agents or labour recruiters, who often promised more than they had any intention of delivering. Some immigrants came alone, ready to take whatever job they might find. Others arrived in family units and with the resources necessary to begin life afresh in a new land. Some succeeded; others reaped only misery.

British and American settlers were soon joined by others. Continental Europeans were drawn to Canada by its economic promise, as an escape from religious or political threats, or because, in their minds, it was part of America, a land in which dreams might be realized. Blacks who fled northward from station to station along the “Underground Railroad” secretly crossed into Canada to escape slavery. On the Pacific coast many Chinese joined the rush of fortune-seekers who trekked into the British Columbia interior after the discovery of gold. Hundreds of thousands of American farmers moved northward into the Canadian prairies, the “last best west,” in search of good, cheap farmlands in the early years of this century.

Many central and eastern Europeans were also enticed to Canada by the promise of cheap farmland. In the years before the Great Depression of the 1930s, as the Canadian economy expanded, non–English-speaking immigrants filled the labour needs of burgeoning lumber, mining, railway, and manufacturing sectors of the economy, and many came not so much to settle as to work. They saw themselves less as new Canadians than as satellites of the village and family economy at home. Money earned in this country helped to sustain those who remained behind. But whatever the motive for coming to Canada or whether hopes were realized, each individual was part of the unfolding narrative. Thus, well before World War II, Canada was already a country made up of a diversity of cultural heritages.

Not all newcomers were equally welcome. Until recently, Canadian immigration policy was as racially selective as it was economically self-serving. Shaped during the 1920s, it reflected the widely held belief that the world’s peoples were arranged in a racially drawn hierarchy. Western Europeans, particularly those from the British Isles, were at the top and the rest of humankind was represented in descending order, with east-central and southern Europeans slotted above Jews, Gypsies, Asians, and finally blacks, who were at the bottom. What, many worried, would become of Canada if unchecked immigration of undesirable foreigners continued.

But if Canadians of that day worried about the negative impact of “foreign” immigration, why were so many of these “foreigners” allowed into the country? The reason is simple: immigration brought labour to capital. The new arrivals filled the demand for cheap labour required by an expanding Canadian economy. For many, however, the influx of strange peoples speaking unfamiliar languages – people so recently subject to tsars and kaisers, and who prayed to alien gods – raised fears that these immigrants never could or would assimilate into Canadian society. Of course, there were other Canadians who responded to “foreign” immigrants with dignified tolerance. They recognized that these individuals were here to stay and that their labour and skills were necessary, their living conditions subject to improvement, and their presence needed to enrich Canadian life. But in the years between the two world wars, others feared social blight and racial decay. If many in English-speaking Canada regarded immigrants as a threat to the very fabric of Protestant Anglo-Canadian society, others in French Canada also feared newcomers who settled in Quebec as purveyors of alien ways and destined to tip the province’s political and social balance in favour of English speakers, with whom immigrants were seen to ally.

Hostility to immigrants was pronounced in urban areas, where they were employed in expanding the urban infrastructure or became part of a new industrial workforce – laying trolley-car tracks, labouring in the expanding textile factories, or tunnelling the sewer systems. But it was particularly strong against immigrants who did not “know their place.” When these immigrants successfully competed with non-immigrant workers, tradesmen, and small businessmen, or when their children leapfrogged assumptions about their racial inferiority by excelling in the public educational system and demanding access to the political arena, universities, and the professions, anti-immigrant sentiment grew.

As hostility spread, so did public demand that the government implement immigration regulations restricting admission to Canada along ethnic or racial lines. Such thinking soon formed the backbone of immigration law and regulation. By the mid-1920s Canadian laws and regulations were tightened. Existing restrictions against Asian immigration were made more stringent, the admission of eastern Europeans was more tightly controlled, and the door was closed to virtually all southern Europeans and Jews.

Following the economic collapse of 1929, spreading unemployment and a decline in farm income eliminated any tolerance for additional “job hungry” newcomers. Immigration ground to a halt as still more restrictive regulations were put in place, and immigration officials became Canada’s front-line troops guarding against any breach in the wall. So difficult was it to enter the country that Canada would have arguably the worst record of all democratic receiving states in the admission of refugees from Nazi Germany during the 1930s and 1940s.

Canada’s doors remained closed to the outside during World War II. But like other Canadians, those of the first generation who had immigrated to this country and their children were caught up by the crisis. The case of the Japanese is well known. Their loyalty in question, they were removed from their homes and interned, their civil rights suspended, and their property confiscated. In the immediate aftermath of the war, efforts were made to “repatriate” the Japanese, including Canadian-born individuals, back to the homeland.

Other groups threw themselves into the common war effort. Immigrants and their children enlisted in the Canadian military in disproportionate numbers. But just because they rallied to the flag, it should not be supposed that their cultures or traditions were accepted. Indeed, in the decades between the turn of the century and World War II, there was precious little praise for cultural diversity as a building block of Canadian identity. The very notion would likely have been dismissed as preposterous. In English-speaking Canada, where most immigrants settled, “foreigners,” together with their cultural baggage and their Canadian-born children, represented social and cultural problems to be solved through assimilation, not cultural treasures to be preserved in any celebration of diversity. Schools, churches, and social-service agencies rallied behind the Canadianizing effort.