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                  Immigration to Western Canada

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Ethnic Immigration Links:


Donald Avery 

General Trends

From Confederation until World War I there were two basic assumptions underlying Canadian immigration policy: that large numbers of immigrants were vital to the economic development of the nation; and that preference should be given to those types of immigrants who could be readily assimilated into the existing population. Under the terms of the British North America Act (Section 95), the Dominion and provincial governments were to have concurrent jurisdiction over immigration. However, after federal-provincial consultations in the 1870's, it was agreed that a centralized authority, the Immigration Branch, should be created to carry out promotional activities and to oversee regulations dealing with the entry of undesirables such as paupers, criminals, and diseased persons.

Immigration recruitment in the three decades after Confederation was not very successful. A large majority of the immigrants from western Europe and Great Britain felt that economic and social opportunities were superior in the United States. In fact, many nineteenth century Canadians were similarly attracted by 'the American Way of Life' and, by 1900, over a million former Canadians resided in the United States. 

The election of the Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier in 1896 was followed by a marked expansion of immigration into Canada. The change in administration had coincided with a period of world-wide prosperity that, in a Canadian context, focused attention on the development of the West. Wheat production, railroad expansion and the development of industry in both the extractive and manufacturing sectors were to provide the blueprint for Canadian prosperity. To make this dream a reality, strong, willing workers were needed to cultivate the vast acres of virgin prairie, to build the new transcontinental railroads, and to supply the manpower for an expanding industrial system. Thus the new government turned with greater enthusiasm than its predecessors to attracting new immigrants not only from the traditional sources (Great Britain, western Europe and the United States), but also from central and eastern Europe.

Between 1896 and 1905 the Immigration Branch was under the vigorous direction of Clifford Sifton, the Minister of the Interior. The expenditures of the Immigration Branch doubled and redoubled as Sifton launched an ambitious programme to funnel agricultural settlers into Canada. Government agents travelled throughout Britain, the United States, and Europe promising 160 acres of free land to any settler willing to homestead in the Canadian West. Special bonuses were offered to steamship agents for distributing immigration propaganda and for encouraging immigrants to come to Canada. The Dominion government also allowed various ethnic and sectarian groups the right to settle in colonies and guaranteed freedom of worship, a policy which would later cause some controversy.

Another aspect of the immigration debate revolved around the importance of racial and cultural characteristics as the criteria for entry into Canada. Although many entrepreneurs pressed for the large-scale importation of non-white immigrants who would function as an industrial proletariat, the Canadian public was generally hostile to the entry of ethnic groups who were believed to be non-assimilable. The undesirable qualities of the non-white races, it was argued, sprang from genetic and racial determinants which would not be altered by contact with Canadian society. Although the Dominion governments of Laurier and Borden resisted the demands of nativists for the outright exclusion of all Oriental and non-Caucasian immigrants, by 1914 restrictive measures had been adopted which severely reduced the number of non-whites coming to Canada.

No restrictive measures were imposed against Caucasian immigrants. Despite some unsatisfactory behavioural traits ascribed to certain ethnic and national groups from Europe, it was maintained that these traits were based on cultural and environmental factors. Time and Anglo-Canadian institutions, it was held, would ultimately erase these differences and facilitate the absorption of all white immigrants into the Anglo-Canadian community.

The high priority afforded immigration recruitment remained throughout Laurier's term of office, and this policy was not changed by the Borden government in the years between its election in 1911 and the outbreak of war in 1914. It has been estimated that over two million immigrants entered Canada between 1896 and 1914. Sifton's insistence that rapid population growth, particularly in western Canada, was essential to national prosperity appeared to be justified. At the turn of the century seven per cent of Canada's population was located in this region; by 1914, the figure had increased to twenty per cent. In economic terms, wheat production had increased ten-fold, railway mileage had doubled, and the Gross National Product had advanced from $1,057,000,000 in 1900 to $2,235,000,000 in 1910.

Such growth, however, did not escape criticism. Organized labour charged that immigration recruitment produced a continuous supply of cheap labour which permitted the business community to resist trade union demands for higher wages, better working conditions, and a 'closed shop'. It was claimed that not only were companies allowed to import strike breakers from abroad, but also that many of the so-called agricultural immigrants entered the industrial labour force. However, in an era where the dictates of economic growth were paramount, organized labour fought a losing battle against the power of big business.

Opposition to this growth psychology also developed in Quebec. Many French-Canadians argued that instead of recruiting European immigrants, the Dominion government should assist French Canadians from Quebec to relocate in the rural areas of western Canada. Moreover, concern was expressed that the influx of these European immigrants would alter the bicultural character of the nation, especially in the West. Neither trade unionists nor French Canadians concerned about the immigration patterns, however, could stem the tide of settlers. External conditions were too pressing and the mass of Canadians were too optimistic to permit a lessening of the immigration movement.

British Immigrants 

During the years 1896-1914 over a million newcomers - approximately one-half of all immigrants - arrived in Canada from the United Kingdom. These immigrants represented a cross-section of British society. Small landowners, professionals, and merchants crossed the Atlantic along with farm labourers, mechanics, and female domestics. British charitable institutions such as the Salvation Army and Dr. Barnardo's Homes aided the passage of less fortunate persons and thousands of orphaned children on the assumption that in the Canadian environment they would have the opportunity to become productive citizens.

In general, the response on the part of Canadians towards the British immigrants was favourable. Some criticism was made, however, of the low percentage of settlers with farming experience and of their inability to cope with the harsh conditions in western Canada. This negative image was reinforced by the tribulations of the ill-fated Barr Colony, established near Saskatoon in 1903.

American Immigrants 

The arrival of thousands of American farmers, motivated by the presence of free or cheap lands in the Canadian West, was of immense importance in expanding agricultural production. Experienced in dry farming methods and usually possessing adequate capital, the American settler enjoyed a high level of material success. It was not surprising, therefore, that the Immigration Branch spent millions of dollars on immigration promotion in the agricultural regions of the United States.

Many of the American immigrants were members of ethnic or sectarian groups: Scandinavians from Minnesota, German-Catholics from Illinois, Hutterites from South Dakota, and Mormons from Utah. These groups came to Canada not only for economic reasons, but also because the Canadian government was prepared to allow them to settle in ethnic enclaves or colonies. This tolerant attitude on the part of Dominion authorities did not, however, extend to American blacks; their settlement proposals were usually ignored or rejected.

European Immigrants 

Immigration from continental Europe between 1896 and 1914 assumed unprecedented significance. Over 700,000 immigrants from western, eastern and southern Europe streamed into the country. There were several reasons for this sudden influx, especially from eastern Europe where unsatisfactory economic, political, and cultural conditions existed for many minorities. At the same time, a new image of Canada as a land of economic and social opportunity was emerging from the dissemination of immigration propaganda, the work of steamship agents, and the favourable reports of friends and relatives who had previously emigrated.

In deciding which European national and ethnic groups should be assisted to come to Canada, the Immigration Branch considered both the economic utility and the cultural acceptability of each group. The 'preferred' category included immigrants from the nations of western Europe: Belgium, France, Holland, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. Slavic immigrants from central and eastern Europe were regarded as marginally acceptable, but, for most of our period, were encouraged to settle in Canada. In contrast, immigrants from southern Europe were placed in the 'non-preferred' category: Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Italians, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Slavs from the southern Balkans. Jewish immigrants were often added to the 'non-preferred' list as well.

French immigrants were highly regarded by Canadian Immigration officials from both an economic and cultural perspective. The French government, however, anxious to forestall rural de-population, passed strict laws against immigration promotion and attempted to channel any available emigrants to new homes within the French colonial empire. As a result, prior to 1914, French immigrants did not average more than 2,000 annually. Moreover, many of those immigrants who did come to Canada were of middle-class urban background with little farming experience. This failure to recruit large numbers of francophone immigrants from either France or Belgium was a major source of grievance among French-Canadian nationalists such as Henri Bourassa.

The Immigration Branch also made an earnest attempt to attract immigrants from Germany, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries. People from these nations were thought to have many attractive characteristics. They were excellent farmers and industrial workers and they quickly integrated into Anglo-Canadian society, readily assuming the obligations of citizenship. The flow of immigrants from these countries was, however, impeded by several factors: the role assumed by protective and vigilant governments which opposed the loss of manpower; and the magnetic lure of the United States, where the economic opportunities were enhanced by the presence of well-established German, Dutch, and Scandinavian communities.

The Canadian bias against immigrants from southern Europe was pronounced throughout this period. The inclination of southern Europeans to seek work in an urban milieu ran counter to the official policy of preference for agricultural immigrants. Moreover, newspaper accounts of social problems in American urban ghettos led many Canadians to associate southern Europeans with anarchism, socialism, and crime. Because of these alleged disabilities the Immigration Branch made no attempt to recruit immigrants from southern Europe.

Slavic immigrants from the Austrian and Russian Empires were regarded in a more favourable light by the officials of the Immigration Branch. Many of these newcomers were Ukrainian and Polish peasants who responded enthusiastically to the offer of free homesteads in western Canada. Their economic contributions were substantial: as farmers, they cleared and cultivated vast areas of land in the prairie provinces; as farm labourers, they facilitated the increased production of wheat by Anglo-Canadian farmers; and as unskilled workers, they provided the muscle and brawn required by railroad, mining, and lumbering enterprises. Indeed, the economic potential of these immigrants was strong enough to override certain initial reservations Anglo-Canadians manifested towards the cultural traits of this 'new' type of immigrant. As a result, the Slavic population of Canada increased from approximately 5,000 in 1896 to over 100,000 in 1914.

Religious persecution caused the emigration of two pacifist sectarian groups from Russia - the Mennonites and the Doukhobors. Their decision to locate in Canada stemmed from the generous concessions granted by the Dominion government with respect to communal settlement, religious freedom, and exemption from military service.

The Mennonites were the first to take advantage of the Canadian offer: between 1874 and 1880, some 7,000 members of the German-speaking sect located in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. By the 1890's the prosperity of the Mennonites encouraged Immigration officials to offer other sectarian groups, notably the Doukhobors, special privileges if they would settle in Canada.

In 1899, over 7,000 Doukhobors were settled in three colonies in the vicinity of Prince Albert and Yorkton. Canadians were initially impressed by the economic achievements of the sect. However, the 'strange ways' of the Doukhobors and several incidents of mass civil disobedience created considerable Anglo-Canadian hostility towards them. The refusal of the Doukhobors to take an oath of allegiance, a condition for gaining final title to free land, resulted in the confiscation of a large portion of their homestead grant in 1907. As a result, many Doukhobors, under the spiritual direction of Peter Veregin, moved to the Kootenay region of British Columbia where new colonies were established on purchased land.

Jewish immigrants formed another ethnic-sectarian group driven out of Europe by discriminatory laws and violent persecution. Between 1880 and 1914 there were numerous pogroms in eastern Europe directed against Russian, Polish and Roumanian Jews. As a result, thousands of these refugees flocked to Canada. Initially the agricultural inexperience and the apparently unassimilable character of many of these Jewish immigrants did produce a certain amount of resistance to their entry. However, the economic achievements of the group helped to overcome some of this opposition. Perhaps, more significantly, there was a strong pressure exerted upon the government by the Canadian Jewish community which guaranteed support for Jewish immigrants. By 1914, there were substantial Jewish communities in Montreal, Toronto, and Winnipeg.

Oriental Immigrants 

Oriental immigration into Canada, 1896-1914, was basically a West Coast phenomenon. The census of 1901 revealed that ten percent of the population of British Columbia was of Asiatic origin. Many were unskilled workers recruited by West Coast labour contractors who had connections with emigration syndicates in China, Japan, and India. Employed as railroad navies, miners, fishermen, domestics, farm labourers, and lumber workers, the Oriental immigrant made a significant contribution to the economic development of the coast province. Unfortunately, many residents of British Columbia tended to regard these immigrants as an economic and cultural challenge. The white workers viewed Oriental labourers as unfair competition, a source of cheap labour which could be exploited by ruthless entrepreneurs. The Canadian nationalist claimed that Asiatics were non-assimilable and therefore an obstruction to national unity.

Opposition on the West Coast to Oriental immigration resulted in many public demonstrations and a series of federal-provincial constitutional battles. The British Columbia Legislature sought to prohibit immigration from Asia entirely. The federal government insisted that an outright exclusion law would make it impossible for Canada to maintain important trade and diplomatic relations with China, Japan, and India. Dominion authorities did, however, implement a variety of regulatory devices such as the imposition of a 'head tax' on Chinese labourers. These measures did not satisfy groups such as the British Columbia branch of the Asiatic Exclusion League. In 1907, when thousands of Orientals were arriving in the province, white mobs invaded the Chinese and Japanese sections of Vancouver attacking Asiatics and destroying property. As a result of these disturbances, the Dominion government placed a tighter restriction on the entry of Oriental immigrants. Although these measures restored peace for a time to the coast province, the 1914 Komagata Maru incident involving a shipload of prospective East Indian immigrants who tried to land in Vancouver again revealed British Columbia's sensitivity to large-scale Oriental immigration.

The Impact of the 'New' Immigration on Canadian Society 

The entry of over two million immigrants into Canada between 1896 and 1914 appreciably altered the character of Canada's population. By 1914, the percentage of foreign-born had increased to twenty-two per cent of the population, and many of these newcomers showed little evidence of being Canadianized. Although the supporters of large-scale European immigration had confidently predicted that Protestant churches, the public school system, and exposure to the Canadian political and economic system would transform these 'foreigners', it was obvious that many of these immigrants still clung to their Old World traditions. This trend was particularly true of the Slavic immigrants. The Ukrainian, Greek Catholic, and Russian Orthodox churches not only organized national parishes in the pre-war years, but also combined with the lay elite in an attempt to have their mother tongues used for instructional purposes in the public schools. In Manitoba, where the Laurier-Greenway Compromise of 1897 had provided for a bilingual school system, it was estimated that there were over one hundred Polish and Ukrainian bilingual schools. Similar situations prevailed in Saskatchewan and Alberta after 1905.

Many Anglo-Canadians attributed the ability of European immigrants to secure such concessions in Manitoba and in the other prairie provinces to the tendency of many ethnic groups, at the direction of their lay and clerical elite, to vote en bloc for a political party. In various provincial and federal elections both the Liberals and Conservatives found it expedient to adopt policies which tended to perpetuate multiculturalism, despite public assurances that they were committed to the rapid assimilation of the immigrants. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Anglo-Canadian reformers should have correlated bilingual schools with 'machine' politics and the ethnic voters. 

Anglo-Canadian reformers took the position that the 'open door' immigration policy contributed to the deplorable social conditions of the day. They pointed to the ethnic ghettos in Montreal, Toronto, Fort William, and Winnipeg which were characterized by excessive overcrowding, unsanitary living conditions, obvious indigency, high crime rates, and commercial vice. Warnings were issued that Canada faced a future of lawlessness and revolution if the thousands of immigrants continued to be 'animalized' by the unhealthy urban environment. This alleged social threat posed by 'the foreigner' provided considerable impetus for various reform movements. Advocates of temperance legislation pointed to the disastrous social effects which alcohol had on the immigrant male as justification for stringent laws against the 'liquor traffic'. Attempts were also made by various Anglo-Canadian institutions to help the immigrants adjust to their urban environment. The Protestant churches, for example, maintained missions in the 'foreign' districts of many Canadian cities: one of the most famous centres was All-People's Mission, which was operated by the Methodist Church in Winnipeg's North End. Here the immigrant was offered English instruction, courses in civics, and various social services, including kindergartens and fresh air camps for children. 

Reformers were also disturbed by the inhumane conditions which many immigrants were forced to endure in isolated railroad and mining camps. It was charged that unsafe industrial practices, unsanitary accommodations, and irregular pay were seriously alienating the immigrant worker. The situation was aggravated by the reluctance of both the Dominion and provincial governments to interfere with private enterprise, and the difficulty that these workers, not yet familiar with the English language, encountered in trying to publicize their complaints. Because they felt that their grievances were not appreciated, many gravitated towards radical labour organizations such as the Industrial Workers of the World, the American-based anarcho-syndicalist labour movement. Between 1912 and 1914, immigrant workers were involved in an epidemic of violent strikes which threatened to disrupt vital sectors of the Canadian economy. During World War I Anglo-Canadian fear and hostility towards the 'foreign' worker was intensified; these nativist sentiments were to reach a climax during the 'Red Scare' of 1919.

The rapid growth in Canada's population and the accompanying ethnic diversification which occurred between 1896 and 1914 had critical implications for the future of the country. While the settled regions of eastern Canada retained their English-French cultural dualism, the developing regions to the north and west of the Great Lakes assumed many of the characteristics of a pluralistic society. The emergence of ethnic communities played a useful role in helping their members to adjust from one linguistic environment to another, and sometimes from a rural way of living to an urban one. However, in some cases, the ethnic community acted as a brake on the individual achievement and social mobility of its members. Economic and cultural discrimination from both the anglophone and francophone host societies also created difficulties for many immigrants. Yet despite the many problems, by 1914, Canada had taken a major step in its evolution as a multicultural society. 

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