Chapter 5. Immigration and the Immigrant Experience

5.1 Introduction

A woman and two children stand in the doorway of a lean-to in a wooded area.
Figure 5.1 Prairie immigrants typically lived in sod huts or other simple shelters until they had the resources and time to build a house. Stefan Waskiewicz’s family, LaCorey, AB, ca. 1930.

The history of immigration is, simultaneously, the history of emigration. It is very much about the motivations of people who choose to leave behind what they and generations of their forebears knew and built. The rather inelegant dichotomy of “pushes” and “pulls” fails to take into consideration other countervailing forces but it does serve to remind us that people here were once people there. A recent and beautifully succinct answer to the question “What made them leave?” tells us about the motivations for Swedes who left their homeland between the 1880s and the 1940s, but it might easily be applied to a great many other nationalities as well:

At the beginning of emigration, the main reason was the lack of hope for breaking the cycle of poverty that affected many families. Later came labour unrest, when participants were blacklisted and unable to find work. Other push factors included … compulsory military duty for young men, degrading class distinctions, restrictions on the right to vote, the lack of a democratic spirit, the dominant position of the church, and personal reasons, such as escaping from a debt or an unhappy marriage.[1]

To use the language of 21st century marketeers, what Canada had to offer was a brand  democratic (socially and politically), free (in terms of movement and land availability), secular (insofar as it lacked a state church), tolerant of pacifist views (for a while), underpopulated, and capable of experiencing sustained economic growth  that was preferable to the comfortable familiarities of home. As any study of Canadian history will show, however, there were times when Canada had little to offer other than grief and maybe some money.

The first step to understanding the history of immigration to Canada is demographic. The magnitude of the flow of humans into the Dominion after 1867 has to be appreciated, as does their distribution across the cities and farms and resource-extraction towns. Who the immigrants were in terms of ethnicity and places of origin matters. The second facet is the political and economic context of immigration: that is, the policies and opportunities that framed the immigrant waves.

The social context of immigration is of immense importance as well. Canada’s relationship with immigrants has been uneven, to say the least. At times it was nothing short of exploitive; at other times it was xenophobic and hostile; and at others still, generous and welcoming. Recent events in Canada, including mixed messages from governments about the kind of reception Syrian refugees might expect, serves to remind us that these attitudes have a long pedigree in Canada. A historical study of immigration and immigration policy thus informs us of the ways in which past generations understood questions about recruitment, assimilation, inclusion, citizenship, and rights.

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the main historic features of post-Confederation immigration.
  • Account for the timing of immigrant waves.
  • Explain the preferential or inhospitable treatment shown to select groups at different times.
  • Identify the goals of immigration policy and the forces that led to changes.
  • Assess the strategies employed by immigrant groups and communities to achieve success in Canada.
  • Describe the role played by racism and nativism in the history of immigration.

Media Attributions

  1. Elinor Barr, Swedes in Canada: Invisible Immigrants (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), 14.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Canadian History: Post-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book