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Immigration Policy in the 1970s

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Immigration Policy/Harold Troper

Building a refugee component into the new Immigration Act of 1976 was a major break with precedent, but it was not the only area that required new thinking. Before the act became law, authorities had worked under the out-of-date 1952 legislation. Of course, that legislation had been amended a number of times, and the immigration regulations that shaped day-to-day operations were constantly reviewed. But ranking officials agreed that a thorough rethinking of Canadian immigration policy and law was needed. The Canada of the 1970s was a far different society from that of the early 1950s. The social and economic priorities that had shaped the 1952 act were gone. Certainly, any immigration policy predicated on attracting unskilled agricultural or rurally based labour for extractive industries seemed out of place in one of the most urban and industrial of western states. Indeed, interim revisions to the legislation, including the abandoning of racial and ethnic discrimination in the immigrant approval process and the adoption of a point system, represented efforts to bridge the yawning gap between the era when the 1952 legislation was enacted and that of its application. But there was a difference between patching the flaws in the earlier legislation and designing a new act. To compete in the emerging technological and service-oriented world marketplace, Canada required skilled and capital-productive immigration. New priorities and new legislation were needed.

In an effort to solicit public participation in the review process, in September 1973 the minister of manpower and immigration announced a high-profile and comprehensive examination of Canadian immigration policy. But although the review was timely, the public debate misfired. After almost eighteen months of study and hearings, considering expert briefs, and weighing suggestions for the reform of immigration law and procedures, the review commission issued its four-volume Report of the Canadian Immigration and Population Study. Offered more as a discussion paper than a blueprint for the future, the “green paper on immigration,” as the report was commonly known, put forward important issues for public discussion, but its recommendations seemed mainly a reworking of existing practice. To the surprise of no one, it reaffirmed the need for a hand-in-glove relationship between immigration and labour supply. “One touchstone ... for judging the success of immigration policy,” the green paper argued, “is how well it responds to the needs, present and future, of Canada’s labour market.” But in opposition to the earlier white paper, the 1973 document pointed to the need for population growth through increased immigration. Without sustained growth, particularly among those in their wealth-generating years, the green paper warned, the declining Canadian fertility rate and low mortality could lead to a time when the number of individuals creating wealth would be far outstripped by those requiring support. Immigration was necessary if Canada was to keep its position in world markets and deliver goods and services to its own population. The commission posited that “the number of immigrants Canada admits may progressively become, not only the main determinant of eventual population size, but also the chief factor responsible for the pace at which growth occurs.”

To the degree that the green paper was designed to stimulate discussion, it was a success. But the timing of a debate on immigration could not have been much worse, taking place as it did against the backdrop of an economic recession. Just as the green paper was released, the ranks of the unemployed were swelling. Few were prepared to entertain the argument that job-hungry immigrants should be brought to this country when so many Canadians were looking for work. It was hard to hear any discussion of Canada’s long-term demographic needs above the din of argument over the country’s immediate employment crisis and charges that immigrants took jobs away from “real” Canadians. Racists, lurking just beyond the margins of respectable social discourse, found their opening and railed against the spectre of visible minorities flooding Canada. Their ranting largely fell on deaf ears, although it was no secret that the racial and ethnic composition of immigration was changing. Following the removal of racial criteria in the selection process and the opening of offices in areas of non-traditional Canadian immigration, the admission of visible minorities from the developing world had increased. In 1967, shortly after Canadian immigration operations were upgraded in Asia and the Caribbean, fewer than 15 percent of immigrants to Canada were of African or Asian background. By 1975, as debate over the green paper raged, the percentage of visible minorities had more than doubled.

As the clamour over the green paper died down, the government pressed ahead with its own agenda and in 1976 passed a new Immigration Act. The preamble to the act promised a new vision of immigration. For the first time, it articulated a commitment not only to serve Canadian needs but also to concern itself with the welfare of the immigrants. The act pledged to ease the distress of refugees, the displaced, and the persecuted and affirmed the government’s continuing support for family reunification.

Also for the first time, immigration authorities introduced a quota system. In consultation with the provinces, Ottawa announced a yearly target for the number of immigrants of various categories whom it hoped to admit during the following year. The figure, more a goal than a commitment, might have to be modified depending on prevailing conditions at home and abroad. The final number of admissions could be somewhat above or below the target or differ by category from the original goal. But it was hoped that a target figure, including one for refugees, would permit federal and provincial authorities to allocate their respective resources in a rational way.

In spite of the progressive tone in the act’s preamble, when it came to family reunification some observers felt that the legislation might have been somewhat more generous. For example, family members eligible for reunification with kin in Canada, aside from a spouse or dependent child under ten, still had to reassure government personnel that their education, employment record, and skills were an immediate asset to this country. This regulation was far from an open door. Nevertheless, as the government was tightening up family reunification, albeit gently, it was opening two new classes for possible admissions. One was the controversial refugee category. The other was a new entrepreneurial immigrant class.

Non-Canadians with investment capital to put into Canadian enterprises that promised to generate employment and wealth were welcome to apply as immigrants, and many did. After this new category was initiated, entrepreneurial or business immigrants jumped from less than 1 to more than 6 percent of all newcomers to Canada. A significant number of entrepreneurial class immigrants came from Hong Kong. Faced with the impending Chinese takeover of the colony in 1997 and looking for a safe harbour for themselves and their families, many business people weighed the opportunities offered by investment in Canadian business. In short order Canada became a favourite destination for capital in flight. As a result, the late 1980s and early 1990s witnessed a significant influx of well-off Hong Kong Chinese into Canada, particularly to Vancouver and Toronto.

For independent immigrants not blessed with the necessary capital to invest in Canada, the process may be somewhat rougher. Those with modest resources and no family or sponsor have found it difficult to enter the country unless they have a job waiting for them. Securing employment in advance is not easy. Before a prospective employer can offer a job to a would-be immigrant, he or she must satisfy officials that no satisfactory Canadian candidate is available to fill the position.