‘We stand on guard for thee’: The Immigration Fight Comes to Canada

Contributing editor Graeme Pente sketches the history of immigration policy in his home country as migration may become a central issue in Canada’s fall federal election.


As a settler-colonial society like the United States, Canada also tends to bill itself as a “nation of immigrants.” The line seems to run thus: the genocide of the colonial period was unfortunate but is behind us. Now, we are a liberal society of openness and toleration. “Welcoming people who are trying to build a better life is what built this country,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sagely proffered at a recent town hall meeting in New Brunswick. When I was a child in the 1990s, the official line was “multiculturalism,” which we self-righteously contrasted with the assimilationism of our southerly neighbo(u)rs. The Americans may welcome immigrants, but theirs is the model of the melting pot. Here, we don’t force immigrants to abandon their sense of self so fully. At some point in the decade, Officialdom designated our model “the cultural mosaic.” There was no singular vision of the archetypal Canadian to which all newcomers had to mold themselves, as Canadians believed to be the case in the United States. Rather, all the various cultures congregated in the North together made the Canadian identity. Diversity and tolerance were not only values but defining features of our otherwise elusive national identity. There was some plausibility in this vision, given the need to respond to the demands of the country’s sizable minority Francophone population. The official bilingualism since 1969 (signed into law by Trudeau the Elder, incidentally) acknowledged at least a bifurcated identity that the officially unilingual United States never chose to confront, despite the prevalence of Spanish in large swathes of the country.

Overall, it’s a compelling, post-nationalist ideal that probably could only have been articulated at the end of the Cold War. In the face of resurgent nationalism in Western countries and (what seem to be) increasing flows of migration, however, Trudeau the Younger himself admits that political parties may seek to play on fear and insecurity to turn immigration into a wedge issue in the fall federal election. The rising political fortunes of anti-immigrant regimes and parties dabbling in varying degrees of authoritarianism, from Hungary’s Viktor Orban to the United States’ Donald Trump, suggest the prime minister’s prediction is on the mark. Indeed, Canadian immigration policy has tended to mimic that of our largest trading partner to the south with plenty of influence from the British mother country.

Canada emerged as a semi-independent state in 1867,[1] at the same time as the US national project emerged reunited from the Civil War. As in the United States, Canadian immigration policy in the last decades of the nineteenth century was open with few restrictions on who could come to the country. The purpose was to finish settling western regions and to provide cheap labor for nation-building railroad projects and for emerging industrial manufacturing. From 1896 to 1914, over three million immigrants arrived in the country, the highest number of any two-decade period in the country’s history. Similar to the United States, many of these immigrants came from Central and Southern Europe and settled largely in growing urban centers and on the Western Plains. This influx of the foreign-born led to the first major restrictions on immigration to Canada under pressure from eugenicists and nationalists seeking the “right kind” of immigrants and demanding greater selectivity. In 1908 and 1910, the government placed restrictive regulations on several immigrant groups. Chinese immigrants were required to pay head taxes (additional fees), which effectively barred laborers and other members of lower classes from migrating. Indians had to arrive by “continuous journey,” a stipulation that migrants had to leave their home ports and arrive directly in Canada, making immigration impossible for people from faraway places. And the Japanese government placed a voluntary emigration quota on its people, much like the “Gentlemen’s Agreement” of 1907 between Japan and the United States. The policy of continuous-journey had deadly effect in the Komagata Maru Incident in 1914 when hundreds of British subjects from the Raj were denied entry to Canada and sent back to India. There, Indian Imperial Police tried to arrest the lawbreakers and ended up firing on the ship and killing twenty people.


Sikhs boarding the Komagata Maru in Vancouver Harbour, 1914. Library and Archives Canada.

From 1915 to 1930, there was little change in Canadian immigration policy. During the First World War, immigration understandably slowed, while the government interned nearly 9,000 “enemy-aliens,” mostly of German birth. After the war, as in the United States, strengthened deportation provisions in 1919 allowed the government to target radical labor and political activists. Unlike the American National Origins Act of 1924, though, there was no major restriction on immigration to Canada in the postwar decade (save for the continued exclusion of most Asians). This would come in the Depression years of the 1930s, the most isolationist in Canadian history. To protect domestic labor amidst massive unemployment, the government imposed major restrictions on immigration and increased deportations of unemployed foreign-born workers with fewer than five years’ residence, somewhat like the mass deportations of Mexicans and Mexican Americans from the United States during the same decade. The callous attitude continued as storm clouds gathered over Europe. When asked how many Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany Canada would admit, one immigration official infamously replied that “none is too many.” That was in 1939, the same year the country turned away the MS St. Louis and sent hundreds of German Jewish refugees back to Europe, where the Nazis murdered 254 of them. The wartime Canadian government followed Franklin Roosevelt’s lead in forcibly removing Japanese and Japanese Canadians from the country’s West Coast to internment camps in the interior. After the war, the government attempted to deport many of the interned, including Canadian citizens. Ottawa sent nearly 4,000 people to war-torn Japan before popular pressure forced the government to relent in 1947.

After World War Two, in view of Nazi crimes against humanity, Canadian attitudes changed with increased demands for a more open immigration policy and a willingness to accept refugees from Western Europe, especially Jewish ones. However, the order of preference remained, with priority being granted to British immigrants and restrictive policies applied to Asians, Africans, and West Indians.[2] Canada’s openness to foreigners depended in part on the booming postwar economy, which made for greater toleration toward immigration and an increasing sense that immigrants contribute to society and the economy rather than detract from them. These value shifts led to increasing support for an immigration policy that did not discriminate by race during the 1960s and 1970s. This was the same period of liberalization of American immigration policy after decades under the 1924 restrictions. In the case of both countries, of course, racial discrimination endured despite what seemed to be color-blind policies. In the US case, for example, per-country caps remained despite the abolition of the explicitly discriminatory quota system.


The allocation of points for Canada’s Federal Skilled Worker Program.

In 1967, Canada established a points-based system for assessing potential immigrants and choosing those with a higher probability of having a positive economic impact. The points divided into six categories: language skills (English or French), education, experience, age, arranged employment in Canada, and “adaptability.” This last category takes into account past work or study experiences in Canada, those of a spouse, and relatives already in Canada. But it may also serve as a loophole for officials to hide enduring preferences of immigrant source countries. An applicant still must score 67 out of 100 to be considered for acceptance into the country under the “Federal Skilled Worker Program.” In 1976, a revised Immigration Act narrowed the definitions of who could be excluded from whole categories of immigrants (i.e., homosexuals or the disabled) to those perceived to be a potential burden on social and health services.

The late 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in refugees—mostly from non-traditional source countries—claiming sanctuary at the Canadian border. Critics of the liberal immigration policy perceived the increase as both threatening to overwhelm the administrative machinery that processes migrant claims as well as Canada’s control of its borders (i.e., the ability to select immigrants on the basis of potential economic contributions). These claims about border control, familiar in the twenty-first United States, and the slow response of processing bureaucracies echo today’s critiques in Canadian political discourse. Conservatives charge the governing Liberal Party with being “divisive and un-Canadian” for opposing their suggestions of tightening border security, which Liberals denounce as a policy of “militarizing the border.” The Liberals hurl the same epithets of being un-Canadian at the prospect of greater immigration restrictions.

Meanwhile, the same Liberal government has quietly mandated an increase in the number of deportations of failed refugee claimants. The justice of which remains difficult to assess, given that Canada still considers the United States an acceptable first destination for refugees, per the Safe Third Country Agreement. The target 10,000 deportations are still fewer than the annual totals from 2008 to 2014 under the Harper Conservatives. All of this comes amidst the country’s official apologies for its role in the fate of the Sikh passengers aboard the Komagata Maru and the Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis.


Parliament Hill from the Ottawa River. Photo by author.

Anti-immigrant sentiment was a major factor in the electoral victory of the rightwing Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ) in the francophone province’s 2018 election. The new premier, Francois Legault, has pushed Ottawa for hundreds of millions of dollars as compensation for housing detained migrants while their claims are processed. Legault’s government also plans to cut the number of new immigrants to Quebec by some twenty percent to 40,000 in 2019, despite the province experiencing labor shortages. In an anglophone-dominated country, Quebec has been fiercely protective of its linguistic and cultural identity, especially in the past sixty years. Resistance to a perceived dilution of francophone Quebec makes a degree of sense for the linguistic minority. Whether political opportunists will nationalize a similar impulse for the federal election in the fall remains to be seen.

The potential rewards of doing so seem negligible, since a majority of Canadians do not think levels of immigration are too high and three-quarters view the overall impact of immigration to be positive. The number of people crossing the border illegally is also down from 2017—though, of course, reality and political narratives do not always overlap. The Conservative Party under Andrew Scheer has taken hesitant steps toward developing a wedge issue out of immigration, appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment in Quebec. Perhaps Scheer will try to broaden the tactic from there. The odds of him tacking in a national chauvinist[3] direction on the issue are higher now that the ill-named People’s Party of Canada, under Maxime Bernier, has split from the Conservative fold. The fledgling party has attracted some unsavory elements, including white nationalists (which it has since disavowed). But with Bernier pulling to the right, Scheer will likely have to follow suit to avoid losing key votes.

The image of Canada as an exceptionally open, tolerant, and multicultural society belongs to a particular late-twentieth-century moment. It is a comforting image, but it does not necessarily accord with a deep-seated sense of national identity rooted in the last hundred and fifty years of the country’s history. Canadians can choose to perpetuate these more admirable impulses of the last few decades. But doing so will have less to do with who we are and have been than with who we want to be.


[1] While the Canadian government controlled immigration policy and July 1, 1867 is celebrated as an independence day, Canada was only a semi-autonomous dominion within the British Empire. Britain still retained control of the former colony’s foreign policy (leading Canada automatically into World War One, for example). Dominion status and the strong ties of Anglo-Canadians to Britain help explain the country’s enduring preference for immigrants from the British Isles. The discrimination of Canada’s immigration policies toward non-white migrants, even from parts of the Empire and later Commonwealth, similarly track with British attitudes.

[2] Again, Canada followed a tack similar to the home country of Britain regarding intra-empire immigration. For details on Britain’s postwar racism and immigration policy, see Kathleen Paul, White Washing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997).

[3] I use this term to distinguish the nativist strain of nationalism that defines the foreign-born as outside the national community from nationalists who see immigration as beneficial to the country’s economy and position in the world. That is, despite considerable overlap, not all nationalists are xenophobes.

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