After World War II

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

When hostilities ceased in 1945, Canadian immigration regulations remained unchanged from the pre-war era. Restrictions were still in place, and the doors were closed to most of the world. Nor was there any great wave of public pressure in favour of immigration of any kind, even from western Europe. With the end of wartime industrial production and the demobilization of those in uniform, many feared that Canada would slip back into a 1930s-like depression with no room for job-hungry immigrants. But this popular wisdom was wrong. After a lumbering start, the World War II economy expanded rapidly. Export markets for raw materials, food, and manufactured goods were strong in Britain and war-ravaged Europe. Demand became almost insatiable as the American-sponsored Marshal Plan poured millions of dollars into renewing the postwar European economic infrastructure as a bulwark against feared communist expansion. Nor was the export market the only area of Canadian economic strength. Many Canadians had earned good wages during the war, but rationing, forced savings, and social sanctions against ostentatious consumption had kept a lid on spending. Now, in the post-war era, delayed gratification was a thing of the past. An explosion in consumer spending on everything from houses, automobiles, and appliances to education, leisure, and travel, not available since the onset of the Depression, stoked the fire of economic growth. The problem was a shortage of goods not money and, equally important, of labour not jobs.

Canadian industry confronted a problem the likes of which it had not known in almost thirty years – a shortage of workers. By late 1946, labour-intensive industries, especially in the core economic sectors of agriculture, mining, and lumbering, began to lobby Ottawa for a relaxation of immigration restrictions. But if big business was enthusiastic about immigration, many Canadians were not: they were uneasy. Would the economic recovery continue? Those whose memories were shaped by the 1930s harboured doubts. Immigration officials, who understood their job as guarding the Canadian gate against any and all comers, were equally unsympathetic to any liberalization. Such was especially the case when it came to those in the “displaced persons” (DP) camps of Germany and Austria. The camps were home to tens of thousands of dislocated and homeless central and eastern Europeans. But these were also the kinds of people against whom immigration barriers had been erected years earlier. And what, many asked, would be gained from filling any short-term Canadian labour gap if doing so resulted in a permanent infusion of the Jews and Slavs who occupied the camps? Not much, if it meant importing “the wrong type” of immigrants. Signs of racism and anti-Semitism were not hard to find. Just over a year after the guns fell silent in Europe, a public-opinion poll found that Canadians preferred the admission of Germans over Jews. Only the Japanese, so recently defeated in the Pacific and against whom racist wartime propaganda had been so vicious and effective, fared worse.

But those who wanted to retain Canada’s wall of immigration restrictions were outflanked. The business lobby, in coincidental alliance with ethnic immigration advocates, won the day. In the spring of 1947, Prime Minister Mackenzie King informed Parliament of his government’s decision to reopen the door to immigration a little. Canada, he promised, would not be flooded. Rather, “it is of the utmost importance to relate immigration to absorptive capacity.” And in King’s mind, Canada’s capacity to absorb immigrants was as much tied to their ethnic or racial origins as it was to their absolute numbers. The prime minister was only reflecting the national mood when he observed that “the people of Canada do not wish to make a fundamental alteration in the character of their population through mass immigration.” Discrimination and ethnic selectivity in immigration would remain. “Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting the persons whom we regard as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada. It is a privilege. It is a matter of domestic policy.”

With this repetition of the fundamental dictum that every state has a right to control who crosses its borders, Canada opened immigration, but selectively so to ethnic Europeans and not to others. Ottawa gave priority to those with a proven track record for assimilation to the norms of Canadian society. Thus immigrants were selected in a descending order of ethnic preference from northern and western Europeans down through eastern and eventually southern Europeans and Jews as deemed necessary. The renewal of immigration in late 1947 was more a reaffirmation of the ethnic and racial priorities set at the turn of the century than an innovative change in policy. British, American, and northern European settlers were actively courted, but legislated barriers against Asians remained in place, and administrative tinkering assured that southern and eastern Europeans would at best find it difficult to enter Canada. Ontario was so concerned to get the “right” type of newcomer that it flexed its jurisdictional muscle in immigration matters and inaugurated a highly publicized airlift of British settlers into the province. When British currency regulations threatened to choke off the flow of cash-starved prospective immigrants, Ottawa negotiated special transportation tariffs to stimulate the outflow. When currency regulations similarly hobbled the immigration of other desirable western European groups, particularly the Dutch, the federal government intervened. In 1948 a three-year bilateral agreement was signed with the Netherlands to ensure the smooth transplant of approximately 15,000 Dutch farmers and farm workers to Canada.

If labour-intensive industry was pleased with the government’s increased commitment to immigration, it was far less happy with restrictions on the importation of cheap labour from outside the government’s narrow circle of ethnic acceptability. Pleading that industry must have access to workers willing to assume low-wage and low-status positions rejected by preferred immigrants and native-born Canadians alike, business leaders warned that the economic boom in Canada hinged on such admissions. They pressed Ottawa to skim off the cream of the labour pool still in the DP camps of Europe. Largely as a result of this pressure, and with a nod to the lobbying efforts of Jewish and east-central European communities in Canada, the federal government gradually began to process applicants in the camps while monitoring the public mood for any negative reaction to the arrival of Slavic and Jewish settlers.

Complementing the flow of labour out of the camps were some displaced persons qualified for entry into Canada under the limited family-reunification provisions of the immigration regulations. But whether they were family or labour, the arrival of those settlers was at best a grudging liberalization in ethnic preferences. There can be little doubt that if there had been no labour shortages, few displaced persons would have been welcome to enter the country. But even enlightened self-interest had its ethnic limits. To ensure that those who arrived did not tilt the national ethnic balance too far in a direction that the government and the public did not want, preference was given to individuals from the Baltic republics, seen by many as hard-working “Nordic types,” rather than to Jewish and Slavic settlers.

Government planners kept a watchful eye on immigration and the economy for signs of weakness. Indeed, they expected the economy to slow down and the demand for labour to subside. They were wrong on both counts. What is more, Canada was not the only country seeking newcomers. Expanding opportunities to migrate to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere in the Western world found Canadian officials suddenly scrambling for their share of a shrinking labour pool. As a result, persons who might previously have been rejected as undesirable became valued Canadian immigration prospects. The remaining barriers to Jews and Slavic immigrants began slipping way, especially for individuals with skills demanded by labour-starved Canadian industries and for those with family members already in Canada.

Not everyone welcomed the expanding or streamlining of family-reunification procedures. Canadian citizens and immigrants of European origin had long been able to sponsor immediate family members who might not otherwise have met immigration criteria. (Until 1967 most non-whites were barred from the family-reunification provisions of the immigration regulations.) Even during the Depression, family reunification afforded the one small crack in an otherwise solid wall of restriction. However, immigration officials could and did slow the pace of family reunification by shrinking the classes of family members eligible for sponsorship or by making the terms of sponsorship onerous. Instructed to begin processing family members for removal to Canada, they cautioned Ottawa to keep the list of eligible categories small. These old-school officials were less concerned with numbers than with race or ethnicity. Once in Canada, they warned, spousal relations, who might not qualify for admission in their own right, would be eligible to sponsor their own families, who could be equally unqualified or ethnically undesirable. This process would generate what the officials saw as unacceptable chain migration. To short-circuit this eventuality, immigration personnel cautioned against any hasty overhaul of safeguards, including long-standing ethnic and racial controls on admission. But these officials, many who had built their careers in an earlier era of restriction, were out of step with government and business priorities. The government, more and more caught up with the economic promise of the future, rejected racial fears of the past, and pressed on with its expansive immigration agenda, although it was careful not to outpace public sentiment in liberalizing the ethnic and racial provisions of the regulations. And if family reunification of ethnic Europeans was the price required for much-needed labour, it was a price well worth paying.

Thus, although the government moved cautiously, it was advancing. By the time the DP (displaced persons) admission program ended, tens of thousands of newcomers had found homes in Canada and regular immigration processing in Europe was established. The older officials were replaced by a new breed of more pro-immigration personnel. In 1952 the government introduced its first new immigration act since before World War I. The legislation was designed to attract a continuing stream of immigrants. But not wanting to get too far ahead of public opinion, it did not cast a wide ethnic or racial net. The subtext of the 1952 legislation might have been drawn from the prime minister’s 1947 caution against immigration changing the social core of Canadian society. Affirming what had long been policy, the act allowed the minister of immigration and his officials sweeping powers to set such regulations as they deemed necessary. This stipulation gave them the power to turn the tap on or off. At the discretion of the minister, individuals or groups could be rejected because of nationality, geographic origin, peculiarity of custom, unsuitability of climate, or the omnibus provision that any individual or group demonstrated an inability “to become assimilated.”

Furthermore, in keeping with the deepening Cold War climate, strict security checks on applicants were instituted. Security personnel, working under the umbrella of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, functioned as something of a separate estate, virtually immune to criticism. A veil of secrecy was drawn over their activities and procedures. Those barred from entry to Canada on security grounds had no avenue of appeal and often were not even told the cause of their rejection. The system was open to abuse, and it was rumoured that immigration officials found “security risk” a convenient label to cover rejections on other grounds.

It is beyond doubt that security reviews were not applied in an even-handed manner to applicants of different ethnic origins. Whether this practice reflected distaste for the politics of country of origin rather than simple racism is open to debate. Furthermore, as Canada’s front-line shock forces in the Cold War preoccupation with the communist threat, immigration officials unfortunately allowed or abetted the entry of others whose World War II records should have set off alarms in Ottawa. Yet, whatever these Nazis or Nazi collaborators might have done in the past, in the eyes of Canadian security authorities they were free of communism; indeed, many had proven records as anti-communists.