Chapter 5. Immigration and the Immigrant Experience

5.2 Immigration and the National Policy

What came to be known as Prime Minister John A. Macdonald’s National Policy was, as shown in Section 3.3, a three-cornered set of initiatives. All of these, in the words of historian Reg Whitaker, were designed:

…to attach the interests of the wealthy and influential elements of Canadian society to continent-wide development. The encouragement of immigration thus became identified with the private interest of the large companies making profits out of national development.[1]

First, there was the railway. Linking the Atlantic to the Pacific meant more than running steam engines across the country. It also meant providing a powerful stimulus for heavy industry. The steel mills of Ontario and Quebec would be the principle beneficiaries and another was the engineering sector. Building and adapting railways, steelworks, and engineering operations might begin with native-born labour, but that would soon run out.

The answer to that problem was, of course, managing the movement of people. In the first instance, that meant retaining Canadians who were migrating to the United States. Insofar as that strategy failed or was simply not enough, the logical next step was to encourage immigration. The Intercolonial Railway would move Canadians and immigrants around the old provinces, but it was the West that held out the prospect of real growth. The CPR was essential to settling migrants from old BNA across the former Rupert’s Land; it would also be the means by which immigrants would be deposited deep into the new Canadian hinterland. The CPR owned much of the arable right-of-way between Lake Superior and the Rockies, so settlers enriched the Railway as customers and as tenants or purchasers of land. The CPR made it possible to accelerate the process of Prairie settlement and thus to advance the business of producing food for the industrial working people of the older provinces in a tidy symbiosis. Settlement and railways also combined as a strategy for asserting sovereignty across the West against American and Aboriginal ambitions and counter claims.

Third, there were tariffs. Obviously the new farming population would need supplies and equipment. Ideally, this material would be shipped west to them on the same railway that carried their grain output eastward. Tariff barriers would ensure that Western farmers, home builders, and businesses would purchase their supplies from central Canadians at a higher price than they would pay to get the same goods from the United States. This complicates the immigration strategy. Having assigned to immigrants and Canadian migrants the task of opening up an agricultural frontier not a small task by any measure the National Policy then taxes them for the privilege of doing so. These tariffs would sustain central Canadian industries, yes, and that would benefit other immigrants in terms of jobs, but it was in the West that the project of building a new economy based on the labour of immigrants was most apparent and the rise of a new, more diverse Canada was taking place. Of course, and as we shall see, these new Canadians were not always welcomed by nativists in Ontario and Quebec who regarded with some suspicion the value of “foreigners” and questioned the assimilability of Russians and Poles, Mennonites and Hutterites, whose ethnic, linguistic, and religious traditions were highly distinct from those of the founding nations.

How, then, did the immigration aspects of the National Policy fare? Not especially well.

Key Points

  • Immigration was a key piece of the National Policy.
  • It was first used to beef up the supply of wage labour in expanding industries in the central and eastern provinces.
  • The main part of pre-Great War immigration was directed toward farms in the West.
  • The relationship between these newcomers and established Canadian populations was regularly negative.

  1. Reg Whitaker, Canadian Immigration Policy Since Confederation (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association , Booklet no. 15, 1991), 5.


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Canadian History: Post-Confederation Copyright © 2016 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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