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The Racist Truth About Canadian Immigration

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Immigration can be a contentious file, and it is subject to fierce discussions because it perforates so many threads in the tapestry of Canada. PM Trudeau (re)shaped the country via his 1970s immigration reform. PM Harper recently mused that his legacy could be linked to the immigration file as well. "I think the most important legacy of this government is re-orienting our economic immigration [...]" the PM said.

As many have noticed, the hoopla over Quebec's Values Charter is linked to immigration, and our reading of the tumult can be influenced by our knowledge of Canadian history, or lack thereof. Not so long ago, it was National Post pundit John Ivison who exposed historical illiteracy in comparing discriminatory laws. Now it is his colleague's turn:

Canada has always embraced immigration; the country was built on it and depends on it for our continued growth and vibrancy. [...] Past policies have too often been designed to reflect a spirit of generosity...
Kelly McParland, National Post. February 6, 2014.

Well, that's true... for some Heritage Canadians whose immigrant ancestors sailed smoothly to new soil. However, many immigrants do not espouse this revisionist recollection.

Following Confederation, the newly formed country of Canada began to develop its own national immigration policies. Between 1869 and the 1930s, Canada received over 100,000 orphans, juvenile delinquents, and unwanted persons from the British Isles. The open-door policy helped attract a more diverse group of arrivals than ever before, but not all the new immigrants were welcomed with warm embrace.

To avoid spoiling Canada-China relations, the federal government could not outright forbid Chinese immigration. Therefore, Canada passed the Chinese Immigration Act, which put a hefty head tax on Chinese immigrants in the hopes that this would deter them from entering Canada. No other ethnic group had to pay this kind of tax at the time. The head tax would prove to be profitable for the federal government, while effectively stifling the flow of Chinese newcomers. I it would prevent wives and families from joining their husbands or fathers in Canada.

There was -- as government correspondence in Ottawa records now makes clear--a long series of letters exchanged among immigration authorities worried about how to be functionally anti-Black without seeming anti-Black. Since much of its recruitment of immigrants was done by mail, it became difficult for immigration officials to discern the race of African-American postulants. In U.S. cities where there were no Canadian immigration agents present to discriminate openly, civil servants would write to the local (presumably white) American postmaster and ask whether the applicant was Black. Those few Blacks in Canada had apparently got to here either by persistence or through accident.
In 1910, for instance, the Edmonton Board of Trade passed a resolution to stop the undesirable influx of Negroes. Six months later, Canada would shift its underhanded discrimination policy to bar Blacks overtly.

PM Laurier's Minister of the Interior from 1896-1905, Clifford Sifton, was eager to populate western Canada with farmers in order to stimulate the economy and help pay the national debt. The government offered free homesteads to qualified applicants. Canadian immigration authorities rated newcomers according to their race, perceived hardiness and farming ability: If British immigrants are not available, other white immigrants would do. White immigrants from Eastern Europe (Italians, Portuguese, South Slavs, Greeks, Syrians, Jews) were reluctantly accepted in large numbers, but Black and Asian immigration is discouraged.

Then-Clerk of the Privy Council, Rodolphe Boudreau wrote on the restriction of immigration from the Orient,in particular British East Indians: "Experience has shown that immigrants of this class, having been accustomed to the conditions of a tropical climate, are wholly unsuited to this country". He further goes on to write that the restriction of newcomers from India is "no less in the interest of East Indians themselves, than the interest of the Canadian people". Then Deputy Minister of Labour W.L. Mackenzie King, went on a mission to England to negotiate an agreement by which Canada was made "distinct" in the British Empire, thus allowed to refuse certain classes of immigrants based on country of origin.

In 1891, B.C. provincial legislators were complaining that Japanese immigrants were "just as injurious" as the long-despised Chinese, going so far as to exclude Japanese residents from the 1891 census. In 1897, Premier John Herbert Turner's provincial legislature unanimously asked the federal government to prevent immigration of Japanese, citing concern about "the lower class Jap" who competed in the labour market. Heeding to xenophobic pressure, only six Japanese immigrants entered Canada in the years 1901-4, while the "gentlemen's agreement" with Japan to limit immigration to 400 a year only became official in 1907.

900 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany embarked on a ship towards the Americas - notably Halifax's Pier 21, which had already welcomed hundreds of thousands of newcomers. At the time, Frederick Blair was director of Canada's immigration program, and fought to keep certain people out. He then hid behind the difficulties resulting from stateless refugees from the First World War to justify his anti-Semitic ideology, adding "coming out of the maelstrom of war, some of them are liable to become public charges". Blair, other immigration officials and cabinet ministers hostile to Jewish immigration persuaded the Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King to refuse sanctuary to the ship. In his 1941 annual report, Blair candidly admitted "Canada, in accordance with generally accepted practice, places greater emphasis on race than upon citizenship."

Until the 1960s, Canada chose its immigrants on the basis of their racial categorization rather than the individual merits of the applicant. Pierre Trudeau's government reformed the Immigration Act in 1976, which opened Canada's doors to the best and the brightest from the world over.

It is not new for the National Post to employ misleading photos or analogies to support or discredit federal policy. Fortunately, savvy Canadians can diagnose selective amnesia. They will not allow white privilege to deprave the annals of history.