Refused entry: Canada’s early days of xenophobia

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We know Canada today as one of the most welcoming countries in the world. A pioneer in upholding multiculturalism, diversity, and inclusivity, it is also one of the countries most sympathetic to the plight of refugees. In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the country has thus far, resettled 40,081 private and government-sponsored refugees. Canada is slated to accept more refugees and immigrants in 2017.

But prior to this period of progressive thinking, Canada also went through a period of xenophobia. These dark days were set amid much unrest in the world brought about by civil wars, the World Wars, and the Great Depression following them. It was also fueled by fear-mongering and by ethnocentric views. Citizens, not only the government, were against the influx of foreigners coming to Canada mainly because they were afraid to lose their jobs to newcomers or for fear that immigrants will become a burden to society.

Here are a few of the low points in Canada’s history that it has since learned from:

Discriminatory laws

The Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1930 rules for Asiatics
The Chinese Exclusion Act is known to be the first Canadian legislation to exclude immigrants based on ethnicity. It had many restrictions for Chinese immigrating to Canada, one of which was a duty of $50 for every person. Exempted from the fees were diplomats, government representatives, tourists, “men of science” and students. The so called “Head Tax” was raised to $100 in 1900, and then to $500 in 1903. From 1901 to 1918, $18 million was collected from Chinese immigrants.

On July 1, 1923, the Chinese Immigration Act came into force prohibiting all Chinese immigrants except diplomats, students, children of Canadians and the investor class. Chinese Canadians mark this as “Humiliation Day.” The Chinese Immigration Act was repealed in 1946, but Chinese immigration was still regulated by the 1930 rules for “Asiatics” which allowed only the sponsorship of wife and children by Canadian children.

Immigration Act to deal with “undesirable immigrants”
An Immigration Act was passed in 1906, enabling the Department of Immigration to control and deal with “undesirable” immigrants. It allowed the government to define and expand categories of those prohibited from entry. It also allowed the deportation of newcomers within two years of landing for grounds such as crimes of “moral turpitude,” disease and infirmities.

1919 Doukhobor, Mennonite and Hutterite Prohibition
Doukhobors, Mennonites and Hutterites were prohibited from entry due to their “peculiar habits, modes of life and methods of holding property.” This was enacted under the authority of Section 38 of the Immigration Act. This rule was revoked in 1922.

The Great Depression in the 1930s: Severe restrictions to entry and sweeping deportations
Poverty and lack of jobs during the 1930s pushed anti-immigration sentiments. Canada limited entry through severe restrictions and tighter screenings abroad. They also established unemployment, incarceration, ill health, and even perceived immorality as grounds for deportation of immigrants. This resulted to a mass deportations from 1930 to 1937.

Japanese internment and repatriation
In the wake of WWII, 22,000 Japanese Canadians were expelled from Canada in 1942. Many were sent to detention camps. When the war ended, many more were encouraged to repatriate to Japan. Around 4,000 Japanese left, half of them Canadian-born and two-thirds were Canadian citizens.

Treatment of Black American farmers

When Clifford Sifton opened immigration to the Canadian West for immigrant farmers, he discouraged the acceptance of Black Americans since he saw them unfit for the climate. Moreover, the public sentiment was that racial conflicts in the US would extend to Canada. In their minds, it became imperative that a massive influx of Black Americans should be prevented. Deliberate exclusion of Blacks was seen in the early twentieth century and was done through “the selective enforcement of regulations, deception, bribery, and other questionable methods.” As a result, only about 1000 African-Americans came to Canada between 1905 and 1912 despite it being a peak period in Canadian immigration.

Refugee ships turned away

1914 – The ship Komagata Maru arrives in Vancouver on May 23.
It sailed from China with 376 Punjabis on board who were fleeing British rule in India. They sought entry to Canada. With Canada’s efforts to curb Indian immigration in place, no one from the ship was allowed to enter except 20 returning residents and the ship’s doctor and his family. The ship was escorted out of the harbour and forced to sail back after two months of legal struggle. Food and water supply in the ship became dire. In May 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized for the Komagata Maru incident before the House of Commons.

1939 – Opposition to the entry of Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.
In 1939, the St. Louis sailed from Germany with 930 refugees on board. No country in the Americas would allow them to land. Despite the plea of 44 prominent Torontonians to provide sanctuary, the ship was forced to return to Europe where many refugees died at the hands of Nazis.

2010 – The MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 Sri Lankan migrants (including 63 women and 49 children) arrives in British Columbia.
Asylum seekers were met by government officials with an aggressive stance in a bid to prevent future arrivals and discourage “smuggling boats.” Passengers were transferred to accommodation and detention facilities. Many stayed there for several months, others for years. The situation raised a red flag as a human rights issue and brought to light the conditions of immigration detainees.

Never again

Canada has come a long way since these low points. With the signing of the UN charter, the 1950s passage of human rights bill and code, the Federal Canadian Bill of Rights, and the creation of human rights commissions, the country has since steadily worked towards a welcoming and humane treatment of immigrants and refugees. Today, an average of 235,000 immigrants and refugees annually enter Canada and make it their new home.

Sources: A hundred years of immigration to Canada (1900-1999), Janet Dench, Canadian Council for Refugees; The colour bar at the Canadian Border: Black American Farmers and “There is no exclusion act in the Dominion of Canada”: Deportation from Canada during the Great Depression, Steve Schwinghamer, The Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21; Komagata Maru, Hugh Johnston, the Canadian Encyclopedia; Five years after the MV Sun Sea’s arrival, crackdown on irregular ‘irregular arrivals’ draws praise, scorn, Douglas Quan, National Post, August 6, 2015; #WelcomeRefugees:Key Figures. All accessed on March 22, 2017.

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