04/19/2016 10:48 EDT | Updated 04/20/2017 05:12 EDT

Canadians Haven't Always Been Welcoming To Immigrants

Silhouettes of refugees people searching new homes or life due to persecution. Vector illustration
Route55 via Getty Images
Silhouettes of refugees people searching new homes or life due to persecution. Vector illustration

According to a January 2016 Leger survey for the Canadian Institute for Identities and Migration (CIIM), one in two Canadians believe they're knowledgeable about the history of immigration to the country .

But how much do they really know? Some 70 per cent incorrectly believe that throughout history Canada has always welcomed immigrants.

Even those Canadians reporting the highest knowledge about immigration history believe we have always been welcoming. Yet the country's history offers more than enough examples of restrictive immigration practices to suggest that there is at least a bit of ignorance among those of us presuming the most knowledge.

It's no secret that there have been discriminatory practices against certain groups of immigrants across Canada's history. In the publication that the Federal Immigration Ministry uses to prepare newcomers for the Canadian citizenship exam, there are important references to such discrimination.

For example, the government document clearly indicates that by the end of the 19th century "... the Chinese were subject to discrimination, including the Head Tax, a race-based entry fee." The website of the Canadian Immigration Museum, Pier 21, reveals that in 1885 the Chinese Immigration Act was the country's first piece of legislation to exclude immigrants on the basis of their ethnic origin. It imposed a duty of $50 on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada and it was increased to $500 in 1903.

In 1914 the Komagata Maru ship, which brought 376 Indians to Canada, was turned away as a result of the country's discriminatory immigration policy.

While many Canadians bravely fought in the Second World War, the government of Canada turned away Jews desperately trying to flee persecution in Europe. Pier 21's website also refers to Canada's abysmal record in admitting Jewish refugees over the period 1933 to the end of the Second World War, letting in only 4,000 to 5,000 as compared to the United States and Britain, which admitted 200,000 and 70,000, respectively.

The plight of Jews trying to enter the country during that period is carefully documented in Irving Abella and Harold Troper's book None is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948. And yet, a 2008 survey for the Association for Canadian Studies, 54 per cent of Canadians wrongly believe that Canada welcomed the arrival of Jews during World War II

It was not until 1962 that the Government of Canada modified its immigration policy to remove overt racial discrimination. For the most part, immigrant skills became the principal criteria for establishing their admissibility.

It's true that since the Second World War, Canada has been quite good in welcoming immigrants compared to most other countries in the world. It's likely for this reason that so many immigrants and their descendants have such a strong sense of attachment to the country (often stronger than many of those born in the country).

On behalf of Canadians, in 2006, the government apologized for the head tax against Chinese immigration. Two years later, there was broader acknowledgement of historic restrictions and a recognition that the race based immigration policies were inconsistent with the values that Canadians held.

If Canadians possess a short memory about past transgressions when it comes to immigration, it's quite possibly due to the enthusiastic welcome currently being extended to Syrian refugees. Perhaps this has served to further undercut an already limited awareness of a past that has often been less than exemplary when it came to the admission of refugees.

It's important for the population to know more about the history of immigration. But it should not be assumed that, on its own, such knowledge will inevitably result in greater sensitivity towards refugees or remove prejudices when it comes to newcomer admission.

Some 37 per cent of those who believe that Canada has always welcomed immigrants agree that society is threatened by the influx of non-Christian immigrants to Canada. This compares to 28 per cent who do not believe that Canada has always been welcoming yet agree that society is threatened by non-Christian immigrants.

In the end, when it comes to welcoming newcomers, history is not always the best guide.

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