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Chapter 5. Immigration and the Immigrant Experience

5.13 Summary

Figure 5.25 Immigrants in the years between the 1890s and the 1920s often lacked the capital to buy the kind of machinery that would make their worklives easier and some, indeed, rejected the new technologies. Men and women alike worked the fields. Ca. 1890. Provincial Archives of Alberta, A1615.

Figure 5.25 Immigrants in the years between the 1890s and the 1920s often lacked the capital to buy the kind of machinery that would make their worklives easier and some, indeed, rejected the new technologies. Men and women alike worked the fields, ca. 1890.

Across the century that began with the Great War in August 1914, the complexion of Canada changed significantly. And while the transition from a mostly rural to a mostly urban society continued on course, much of that work had been accomplished by 1921. The population patterns that emerged thereafter mostly reinforced existing urban settlement, adding ethnic complexities in close contact within one another. In 2006, nearly half of Toronto’s population described themselves as belonging to a “visible minority”; about the same proportion now make the same claim in Vancouver’s population.[1] It is not true, however, of the rest of Canada. The share of Atlantic Canada’s population that is comprised of non-northern European stock is tiny. In Newfoundland and Labrador, for example, the foreign-born constitute fewer than 2% and half that share are people of colour. [2]

The effects of these patterns have been significant. Earlier in this chapter it was pointed out that the immigration waves of the 20th century did not reframe Canada in the same way as the Edwardian waves. This is true. But they did recalibrate the country from a dualistic to a pluralistic society. Setting aside for the moment the relationship between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canada, the non-Native demographic has been transformed. While that non-Aboriginal pluralism may not be experienced to the same extent in rural Manitoba or small-town Ontario, and while it might not be highly visible in Prince Rupert or Medicine Hat, its influence is widespread. That is partly because of the enormous ability of our metropolises to control the national conversation; it is in these major cities that the proverbial rubber hits the road.

Canadian attitudes toward immigration have blown hot and cold, often at the same time. Settlers in the West were necessary to laying claim to that territory; at the same time, these settlers proved to be overwhelmingly foreigners, not locally-raised farm men and women from the original provinces. Immigrants of many different cultures were thus essential tools in the building of the nation and yet, at the same time, their foreignness was regarded as problematic. The newest newcomers promoted economic growth and, simultaneously, competed with native-born Canadians for jobs in an industrializing society. Immigrants thus played a critical role in steadying and expanding the Canadian economy while, usually without knowing it, competing against and undermining the power of labour.[3] Even as they offered to lay down their lives for Canada in wartime, the immigrants were treated as not-quite-belonging.

Accounts of immigrants’ experiences tend to focus on host community responses. It is for this reason that immigration policies and narratives of prejudice prevail. This is, however, an approach that many historians of immigration have rejected. Their preference is to place greater emphasis on the role played by the immigrant instead. Ethnic community groups, the orchestration of emigration, the development of employment strategies in response to an often prejudicial environment, the extent to which they embraced, rejected, or found unpredicted advantages in programs of assimilation  all of these aspects point to agency.[4] The very language of rights in Canada has been strongly influenced by immigrants and their descendants, and the anti-racist movements of the late 20th century owe much to acts of resistance and survival that were launched by visible minorities from the 1890s on. This is worth underlining because the history of immigration is a complex interplay of the personal, the political, the global, and the local.

Key Terms

allophone: A person whose first language is neither French nor English.

anarchist: An individual who advocates the dismantling of the state and the creation of a structure based on voluntary association and participation.

antimodernism: A retreat from modernization and modernity, often associated with rural and traditional values, spirituality, and social hierarchies.

back-to-the-land: Refers to any of several anti-urban agrarian movements in which city dwellers are encouraged to return to simpler, pre-modern ways of living.

Barr Colony: Located west of Saskatoon covering a massive area that extended to and across what would become the Saskatchewan-Alberta border, the colony was populated by some 2,000 immigrants recruited directly from Britain.

block settlements: An initiative in settling the West with groups drawn from the same ethnicity or creed allocated contiguous lands so as to take advantage of cultures of mutual support.

bootlegging: Unlicensed, typically illegal production of alcohol. Also, in some instances, the sale of the same or of other illicit goods.

Chinatowns: Colloquial term for enclaves of Chinese immigrants. In Canada and primarily in British Columbia, these appeared from 1858 on, with the greatest increase occurring during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Created by external forces (Euro-Canadian civic authority limiting Chinese property ownership and business licenses to a small area) and internal needs (the concentration of Chinese financial and social institutions).

Chinese Benevolent Association: An organization that coordinated the interests and politics of the various community organizations in Chinatowns, and provided different levels of social support for its members.

context group: In a society comprised of some diversity, refers to the most influential group whose culture other groups seek to adopt or are obliged to assimilate into. See also, reference group.

continuous voyage requirement: Regulation passed by the federal government in 1908 to restrict immigration from India and Japan; required immigrants to reach Canada by means of a single, continuous, unbroken voyage. Would affect long journeys that necessitated a stop in either Japan or Hawaii. Tightened in 1914, leading to the challenge posed by the Komagata Maru.

counter culture: A challenge to mainstream culture posed by a group’s rejection of dominant values. In the 1960s youth movements and specifically the hippy movement constituted a counter cultural moment.

cultural mosaic: In contrast to the concept of a “melting pot,” refers to a multi-ethnic and multicultural society in which differences are permitted to continue, rather than face assimilation into a single typology.

Displaced Persons: Peoples (principally in Europe) dislocated by World War II; refugees.

Doukhobors: An immigrant group comprised of pacifists belonging to a Russian dissident religious movement. Settled first on the Prairies then mostly relocated to British Columbia. Persecuted in the 20th century for their pacifism and their rejection of material culture.

exurban: Refers to residential lands that lay beyond the suburban fringe.

founding nations: In Canada, typically refers to French and British Canadians.

Galicia: Term formerly used to describe an area of what is now part of Ukraine and Poland, which produced many immigrants to Western Canada. Also the name of a part of Spain, which did not.

Gentlemen’s Agreement: 1908; also known as the Lemieux-Hayashi Agreement; the Japanese government agreed to restrict the number of people leaving Japan for Canada. A loophole allowing wives to join their husbands led to significant use of the “picture bride” system thereafter.

Head Tax: A fee levied by the British Columbian and then the federal government on Chinese immigrants, beginning in 1885 and continuing to 1923.

Home Children: Over 100,000 children who were exported from Britain to Canada between 1869 and the late 1930s. Organized by charitable church organizations to alleviate overcrowding and to provide improved and more healthy alternatives. Stories of abuse abound, although many of the children who were distributed to farms across Canada did enjoy improved circumstances.

human rights: Any right thought to belong to every person. Enshrined in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1947.

Hutterites: Along with the Mennonites and Amish, the Hutterites are an Anabaptist sectarian group; emigrated from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they faced oppression for their pacifist beliefs and the practice of adult baptism; many arrived in Canada after attempts to settle in the United States. A communal farming community that resists modernization.

Jewish holocaust: The campaign launched in the 1930s and early 1940s by the German National Socialist government aimed at the eradication of the Jewish population in Europe. Estimates of the number killed run to 6 million or more.

Jim Crow Laws: In the United States, post-Civil War racial segregation laws that discriminated against African-Americans; most formal elements dissolved in the 1950s and ’60s in the Civil Rights Movement; was one cause of African-Americans emigrating to Canada in the Laurier and Borden eras.

Mennonites: Along with the Hutterites and Amish, the Mennonites are an Anabaptist sectarian group; emigrated from Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century, where they faced oppression for their pacifist beliefs and the practice of adult baptism; settled in communities in Ontario, in Manitoba and across the Prairies, and in parts of British Columbia. A communal farming community that has resisted modernization, though with less intensity than the Hutterites.

nativist: A movement or individual committed to preserving privileges to established members of a community over newcomers; often translates into anti-immigration attitudes; many nativists are themselves merely earlier immigrants; has nothing to do with Native peoples.

New Canadians: Term used since the late 1960s to describe recent immigrants, particularly those arriving from non-traditional sources like South Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

Nootka Sound: On the west coast of Vancouver Island; traditional territory of the Nootka (Nuu-chah-nulth) First Nation; site of sustained contact between European, Mexican, and American traders and Aboriginal peoples, along with a significant population of imported Chinese labourers in the late 18th century.

pacifism: An anti-war position; pacifists typically will not volunteer for and refuse to be conscripted into conflict. Many eastern European religious groups brought pacifist beliefs with them to Western Canada before 1914.

pluralism: In contrast to dualism, supports the concept of a community or state made of diverse parts, particularly as regards aspects like ethnicity, creed, and/or language.

racism: A set of beliefs and practices that involve the creation of largely arbitrary categories of human peoples and assigning to them behaviours, traits, and tendencies that are essentialized — that is, thought to be an inherent and immutable part of who they are. For example, laziness, alcoholism, unbridled libido, personal restraint and self discipline, deceitfulness, superior or inferior intelligence, greed, corruptibility, cowardice, and courage have, at various times, been regarded as unchangeable qualities of one race or another. As an ideology, argues that the assumed existence of these differences justifies — and necessitates — the development of social policies that reduce the impact that might be had by the less desirable races.

reference group: In a society comprised of some diversity, refers to the most influential group whose culture other groups seek to adopt or are obliged to assimilate into. See also context group.

Sinophobic: Fear of China or Chinese.

sojourners: Immigrants whose intent is to work for a period of time, accumulate savings, and return to their home country (or province). Historically associated mostly with Chinese labourers who were brought to Canada under contract to the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example.

Sons of Freedom: Or Freedomites; a radical anarchist faction within the Doukhobor diaspora in Canada; broke away from the main settlements in Saskatchewan and resettled in southeastern British Columbia; anti-materialist protests and anti-statism led to confrontations with the provincial government in the 1920s, and 1950s-1960s.

split labour market: A labour market in which employers have the option of hiring cheaper labour that is differentiated by race, ethnicity or, possibly, creed. Doing so improves profits and it will embitter relations between the two labour supplies. Used as a theory (split labour market theory) to explain racial divisions between workers.

war brides: At the end of both World Wars, European women — principally British — who married Canadian servicemen and relocated to Canada when their husbands returned home.

war crime trials: Internationally-convened trials to address allegations of crimes against humanity including (but not limited to) murder of civilian populations and enslavement.

Short Answer Exercises

  1. Where did most of Canada’s immigrants come from? Why?
  2. Describe the main features of immigrant waves from the 1880s-1920s.
  3. How was agricultural change reflected in the timing of immigrant waves?
  4. What preferential standards did individuals like Clifford Sifton apply to immigrant recruitment, and why?
  5. What were the main goals of Canada’s pro-immigration policy in the period before WWI?
  6. What were the principal goals of immigrants to Canada in these years?
  7. What was the response of Canadian society to these first waves of immigration?
  8. In what ways were racist and nativist reactions to immigration expressed?
  9. How did immigrant communities respond to Canadian ambivalence toward immigrants?
  10. How did the recruitment of women differ from the recruitment of farming families?
  11. What features of immigration changed between the World Wars and after 1945?

Suggested Readings

Chilton, Lisa. “Preventing the Loss of Imported Labour: Trains, Migrants, and the Development of the Canadian West, 1896-1932,” in Place and Replace: Essays on Western Canada, eds. Adele Perry and Esyllt W. Jones (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2013): 93-106.

Iacovetta, Franca. “From Contadina to Woman Worker,” in Such Hardworking People: Italian Immigrants in Postwar Toronto (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992): 77-102.

Lehr, John C. “Settlement: Farm Families and a New Environment,” Community and Frontier: A Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Parkland (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2011): 25-53.

Menzies, Robert. “Race, Reason, and Regulation: British Columbia’s Mass Exile of Chinese ‘Lunatics’ aboard the Empress of Russia, 9 February 1935,” Regulating Lives: Historical Essays on the State, Society, the Individual, and the Law (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press): 196-230.

Attributions

Figure 5.25
Two unidentified woman and an unidentified man harvesting grain with a cradle farm equipment (A1615) by Provincial Archives of Alberta has no known copyright restrictions.


  1. Statistics Canada, Visible minority population, by census metropolitan areas (2006 Census), accessed 16 October 2015, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/demo53c-eng.htm.
  2. Gillian Crease, The New African Diaspora in Vancouver: Immigration, Exclusion, and Belonging (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 5.
  3. Roderic Beaujot, Population Change in Canada: The Challenges of Policy Adaptation (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1991), 103.
  4. Franca Iacovetta, The Writing of English Canadian Immigrant History (Ottawa: The Canadian Historical Association, Canada’s Ethnic Group Series Booklet No.22, 1997), 6.

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