The first, a product of the fur trade, resulted in the establishment of a fur post society and in the birth of the most numerous new element in the area, English and French speaking Metis.
The second occurred in the decades after Confederation and, because it was composed largely of British Canadians, resulted in the establishment of a new, Ontario-like agricultural community; despite the apparent homogeneity of this society it is well to underline that it contained pockets of a quite different nature, including British ranchers and artisans, non-British agricultural settlements of Mennonites and Icelanders and Jews and, of course, continuing communities of indigenous people and metis.
The third infusion of immigrants, and by far the largest, occurred between 1897 and 1913, and was comprised in equal parts of British, Canadian, American, and continental European arrivals, with a sprinkling of others from around the globe.
The fourth, an extension of the third in terms of national origin, took place in the 1920s. And the fifth significant addition occurred in the decades after the Second World War.
Canadian immigration policy was, according to the BNA Act of 1867, a subject of concurrent jurisdiction between the federal and provincial governments but the central government retained paramountcy in case of conflict. In practice, however, the Federal government took the lead establishing immigration offices in Britain and Europe, quarantine stations at the three ports of importance (Halifax, Saint John, and Grosse Isle, Quebec), and domestic branches of the service in a number of Canadian cities. Restrictions were few and entry of immigrants who were destitute, or physically or mentally unfit, and thus likely to become a public charge, was permitted only on payment of a bond; and criminals could be denied admission.
This unusually open policy was limited once in the following three decades: as of 1885, most Chinese immigrants were required to pay a tax.
The policy was established by regulation as well as by statute, however, and with the appointment of Clifford Sifton as Minister of the interior in 1897, clear but informal guide-lines worked to encourage some immigrant groups and to discourage others. Sifton was young, pragmatic, a westerner, convinced of ‘the potential of the West, and its centrality to the future development and prosperity of Canada. Thus the promotion of immigration and settlement was, he believes, a crucial ‘national enterprise He worked to encourage the immigration of experienced farmers by spending considerable sums in the agricultural districts of the United States, Britain, and Europe, and he tried to discourage others, such as blacks, Italians, Jews, Orientals, and Urban Englishmen, who would not, he believed, succeed on farms and would thus end up in the cities. These informal recruitment entry qualifications were based more on occupational than race criteria, therefore, and worked to encourage such a diverse group as Ukrainians and Doukhobors while also discouraging English mechanics.
Immigration policy changed course slightly when Sifton was replaced by Frank Oliver in 1905. Oliver was also staunchly British in an era where the national reaction to ‘foreign’ newcomers was increasing. He was more inclined to reduce the recruiting activity in central and eastern Europe and to increase it in Great Britain, including its cities, in order to preserve the ‘national fabric’ of Canada. But the unofficial consequences of Oliver’s rule was to permit and even encourage the immigration of many more British subjects, including thousands of paupers who were assisted by charitable organizations, and virtually to denied entry to blacks and orientals. Despite his preference for agriculturalists, Oliver was less successful than Sifton in resisting the pressure of business leaders and cabinet colleagues to recruit ‘alien navvies’ railway construction activity increased after 1907, the demand unsophisticated labourers also multiplied because the railway builders wanted nothing to do with workers who expected ‘high wages, a feather bed and a bathtub ‘ in their construction camps, the result was free entry for ‘foreign’ navvies in 1910-11.
Because Robert Borden’s new Conservative government was equally sensitive to the demands of contractors, mine owners, and lumber entrepreneurs, the policy was continued until the outbreak of war in Europe. Untold thousands of immigrants in this era belonged to this category of a foreign navy, to the dismay of observers such as Cliff Sifton. the hiatus in immigration caused by the war was extended into the early 1920s by the prohibition of Doukhobors, Hutterites, Mennonites, and ‘enemy aliens,’ including Ukrainians and Germans, and especially favoured groups of Sifton ‘s days. The government re-imposed monetary requirements on all newcomers except those destined for farm or domestic work. But, in 1923, in the face of daunting pressure from such
European peoples as Mennonites, who faced very difficult times in the Soviet Union, the ban on enemy aliens was lifted. The failure of British population sources and mounting Canadian emigration to the United States may also have had a bearing on this decision. And, in 1925, in an even more important policy change, Mackenzie King’s government decided to permit the two Canadian railway companies, the Canadian National Railway (CNR) and the CPR to embark on an expensive recruitment campaign in central and eastern Europe among those very farmers who for almost five years had been viewed as ‘non-preferred’ classes. Nearly 370,000 continental citizens left for Canada in the next six years, half of them under the terms of the railway agreement.
The tide of immigrants was simply too great to be absorbed easily by the Canadian economy during the late 1920s. As hostility to foreigners and demands for restriction increased, the federal government moved to reduce the numbers of new arrivals in 1929. In accordance with an election promise, King’s successor, R.B. Benett, cancelled the railway agreement in 1930. The gates of Canada were essentially closed to immigration for the next decade. Immigrants of Asian origin found it virtually impossible to enter, and in 1931 only certain British subjects and American citizens, wives and children of legal Canadian residents, or agriculturists ‘having sufficient means to farm in Canada’ were permitted to enter the country. Where 1.8 million immigrants arrived in Canada between 1911 and 1921, and 1.2 million immigrants arrived in 1921-31, of the 140,000 arrived between 1931 and 1941.
In view of the wide variation in immigration during Canada’s one hundred and fifty years as a one might wonder why the government had not acted to implement a system that regulated the intake more effectively. The short answer is that the government seemed to have little control over immigration totals. Canadian recruitment of immigrants in the generations around Confederation had been something of a disaster. In every decade from the 1860s ~ the 1890s, Canada lost more citizens through emigration to the United States than it gained through immigration. In the face of significant western settlement difficulties, the weakness of the national economy in the 1880s and early 1890s, and the overwhelming presence of the American competitor, not to mention Australia, Argentina, and Brazil, western Canada failed to make an impact on the popular imagination in Britain and Europe. The well-tried tactic of immigration pamphlets, recruiting offices, assisted passages, free tours for delegates of various communities was employed consistently throughout these decades, but the results were meager.
The best results came as a consequence of negotiations with particular groups, especially those facing straitened circumstances or political oppression.