1870s to 1924: Increasing immigration

Part IV of a series on the history of race in Canada and the US.

“To become White has often been constructed as synonymous with becoming truly American” (Maher, 1997, p. 4).

The end of the civil war in the US and the resulting massive internal migration of African-Americans through the 1870s, as well as increased non-British immigration, prompted changes during the late 19th century in previous delineations of the races (Allen, 1994). The ‘naturalness’ of race of the pre-1870 time period became one of the foundational beliefs in the explosion of scientific research into the ‘human races’ through the late 1800s and early 1900s. In particular, the early nineteenth century saw the rise of scientific studies of race alongside the eugenics movement. Eugenics became the practical strategy to achieve white racial superiority and advocated (among other things) for increased birthrates for whites and birth control for non-whites. These ‘scientific’ studies were highly ideologically driven and based on very little evidence (Provine, 1973).

Throughout the late 1800s, immigration continued to increase to both Canada and the US, with different results and responses. In the US, the Naturalization Law of 1790 effectively excluded all obviously non-white immigrants from becoming citizens, but the rise of non-British European immigrants started to provoke discomfort about the definition of white. Whiteness started to become more fragmented, and what was understood as a singular white race became more pluralized (Jacobson, 1998). Although the response to this was to restrict immigration, the whiteness of non-British European immigrants was actually very rarely questioned. In fact, their status as white formed the basis for the question of immigration, as all non-white immigrants were still effectively barred from citizenship. The year 1924 marked an important peak in the eugenics movement in the US, with the passage of the Johnson-Reed Act that severely restricted immigration.

In Canada, the 1901 Census used the four-colour racial classification of white, yellow, black and red to categorize the population. This categorization scheme fit the predominant operation of race in this time period, the Great Chain of Race. The Great Chain of Race theory stated that human races were evolving in similar ways that Darwin argued species evolved over time. This idea became popular because it legitimated white superiority at a time of increased immigration from non-British European countries. These immigrants were seen to be less easily assimilated (and therefore less desirable) than those from Britain (Day, 2000). The Great Chain of Race was used to legitimize a two pronged strategy of more restrictive immigration and more active assimilation of those already within Canada’s borders.

The assimilationist policies and practices of the colonial government are especially visible in relation to First Nations. For example, if indigenous people wanted the right to vote in federal, provincial or territorial elections prior to 1960, they were required to relinquish their status as Indians. This meant that they would no longer have access to land, housing or resources on their traditional territories. The choice was thus to stay excluded from Canadian citizenship, or become a Canadian citizen at the expense of the recognition of their First Nations status. James (2008) writes about the similarities between apartheid laws in South Africa and the Indian Act in Canada. South African government delegates came to Canada to visit Indian reserves around the same time that apartheid laws were being put into place. While it is more commonly recognized that apartheid laws created institutional and structural barriers, it is less common for Canadians to recognize the ways that the “Indian Act, a form of structural racism, served, and still serves, as a mechanism to maintain a culturally ‘white’ Canada” (p. 103).

Another example of restrictive immigration in Canada was the first Chinese Head Tax legislation in 1885. This “head tax” required immigrants from China to pay $50 (the tax was increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903) to the Canadian government in order to enter to Canada. It’s intention was explicit: to profit from Chinese migrant workers and to exclude them from becoming Canadian citizens. In 1923, the Canadian Minister for Immigration and Colonization issued an Order in Council which restricted entry to all but a few classes of people (Day, 2000). The Canadian Order was based on a inclusive definition of immigrants, meaning it specified who was included, rather than who was excluded. Of the select few who were included, most classes were based on immigrants estimated capacity to contribute to the economy. British and American immigrants were specifically mentioned as having good potential to be “economic contributors”. This language ascribed characteristics not only to certain races, but even more specifically to national origin. The effect of this legislation was to exclude those seen as racially undesirable, without giving the appearance of having done so. These measures were extremely effective in excluding immigration, particularly for those of Asian origins; for example, only eight Chinese are recorded as having immigrated to Canada between 1923 and 1947 (Day, 2000).

This history of immigration laws account for the current racial make-up of Canada’s population. Despite all of the restrictions on who has been able to become Canadian over the past 200 years, it is rarely acknowledged that the Canadian population has been actively constructed.

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