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It's All History by Jon Malek

Understanding Canadian immigration history

by Jon G. Malek

I’ve written several times in my column over the years on the history of immigration and immigration policy in Canada. In this narrative, 1967 is an important year as it marks the implementation of Canada’s modern system that awards points to applicants based on criteria such as language spoken, education, and years of work experience – attributes that ensure a potential immigrant will be a productive member in Canadian society. While there is a logic to this, such as Canada having the sovereign right to expect newcomers to contribute to the success of the country, there is also an element that reveals how connected Canada’s immigration policy is to the needs of its industrialist, capitalist economy.

In some regions of Canada, including Manitoba and the Maritime provinces, population size would gradually decrease were it not for immigration. Whether because of low birth rates or outmigration to other provinces, places like Manitoba cannot maintain a positive growth rate without high immigration numbers. Even Winnipeg, which is aiming to reach one million residents in the coming years, cannot do this without immigration.

Likewise, countless times in Canada’s history immigration has served the needs of various industries. Along British Columbia’s Pacific Coast, fisheries, canneries, and lumber industries would have collapsed in the second half of the 19th century were it not for migrant Asian workers (including some Filipinos) moving from the United States. When the Canadian prairies were being opened for agriculture, it was waves of Eastern European settlers who worked the new farmlands. In Winnipeg, both the healthcare system in the 1960s and garment industry from the 1960s to1980s were maintained because of targeted Filipino immigration. Historically, Canada has struggled to produce enough population to maintain growing industries and has relied on immigration streams to provide sources of labour.

In many of those cases, exceptions and changes had to be made to the immigration system to allow what were then new ethnic groups into Canada. Today, this country has a reputation for being open to people of all ethnicities and faiths, but it is important to recognize how hard fought that reality was achieved.

From 1885 until 1967, Asian immigration was increasingly restricted until it was eventually made illegal unless the individual was the child of Canadian parents (seeing as Asian immigration was already restricted, though, this option was nearly impossible). This meant that the first waves of Filipino healthcare workers to Winnipeg had to be admitted on an ad hoc basis with each individual applicant receiving ministerial approval. While prior to 1959, when the first Filipino doctor arrived in Winnipeg, there was a lot of resistance to allowing Filipino immigrants into Canada based upon the xenophobic fear of what Asian immigration would do to society. However, the need of Canada’s health care was so great that exceptions were made. And, as Canadians quickly found out, society did not fall apart but was made stronger.

By the time that Winnipeg garment companies began recruiting Filipino workers directly from Manila in 1968, Canada’s so-called Points System had removed any consideration of racial concerns – on the outside, at least. In inter-government communications on the influx of Filipinos, there remained significant concern amongst government officials about how many were coming in within a short period of time. It was not an altruistic belief in a post-racial Canada that allowed the recruitment of Filipino garment workers to continue, but rather the demands of the garment industry.

While the policy changes of 1967 came under Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, it was not because of his humanitarianism; in fact, it was more the work of Helen Fairclough who had been the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in 1962 when she introduced the first policies that would lead to the changes in 1967, and she herself had been responding to years of growing protests from Canadian citizens.

In addition to the pressures applied by industry and commercial interests, citizen rights groups had also been petitioning government to pull back their racially motivated restrictions on immigration. These groups included the Committee for the Repeal of the Chinese Immigration Act, composed of Chinese and non-Chinese members, which petitioned for the repeal of the act preventing Chinese immigration in 1946.

Without a doubt, the Filipino community in Canada, as with other ethnic communities, owe their presence in Canada to the changes that occurred in 1967. But these changes were long and hard fought for by both Canadian citizens and those who were affected by the policies. Following the Second World War, there was a shift in popular opinion towards the immigration of previously banned ethnic groups into Canada, largely in response to the horrors experienced by various minorities. But in Canada, there had long been criticisms of the country’s racist policies, which only grew in volume following the end of the Second World War.

These growing voices from citizens groups merged with labour demands. The pressure applied by industry groups to allow the entry of so-called non-traditional immigrants (those previously barred from immigrating) was further driven by economic need rather than a sense of humanitarianism. Percy Bengough, who represented the Trade and Labour Congress, testified to the Senate Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour (1946-1952) that “there are citizens of other countries who may be good brothers and sisters, internationally, but would not be acceptable as brothers and sisters-in-law to Canadians.” Furthermore, when hospitals began to advocate for granting Filipino healthcare workers permanent residence in Canada so they could work, administrators often noted how similar Filipinos were to Canadians: they spoke English well, had attended universities and colleges that used North American curricula, and, thanks to years of colonization, shared Western values and religion. In other words, the fear of Asian immigrants changing Canadian society was less of a danger.

It took Canadian society a long time to realize that there is strength and vitality in difference. The racist and xenophobic attempts to maintain a Canadian society that was British or European in composition became both unfashionable after the Second World War and unsustainable as Canada’s economy grew in that period. But, as I’ve stated, it was a long and hard-fought realization. Many suffered under Canada’s policies and racism, and the changes that came in 1967 were not due to the altruism or humanitarianism of a single government or government official. It took several governments many years to move very slowly toward this change, pushed on by demands from labour and capitalist forces, and increasing calls for social justice by Canadian citizens.

Jon Malek is an Assistant Professor of History at Providence University College. His research is on the history of the Philippines and the Filipino diaspora. His current writing projects include a book on the history of Filipinos in Canada and a project on Filipino food and culture.