The “White Canada” Policy

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

Canada is often described as a “nation of immigrants.” This telling of history often includes “Canada’s present-day Indian and Inuit [who] became this country’s first immigrants when they journeyed to America by way of the Bering Strait” (Knowles, 2007, p. 11).1 By situating Indigenous people as immigrants, the differences between Indigenous people and European colonizers are minimized, effectively hiding the violences of colonization and the illegal appropriation of indigenous land. This story also undermines the claims of Indigenous people to their land, that, for the most part, has never been legally ceded (Deloria, 1995; Iseke-Barnes, 2005).

Canada’s history of immigration policies makes evident the way that the current Canadian population has been an actively racialized construct. For example, in the 1920s, Canada’s immigration objective was to attract more British and American immigrants, as well as immigrants from the “preferred countries” of central and northern Europe (Hawkins, 2000 p. 26). According to Mackey, “up until the Second World War, when most immigration ceased, Canada had a strict hierarchy of preferred racial groups for immigration” (Mackey, 2002, p. 33). Hawkins (2000) describes these practices even more specifically. She says, “elements of restriction, directed first against the Chinese and later against all potential non-white immigrants, were present in [Canadian] immigration legislation from the 1880s onwards. The power to exclude would-be immigrants in certain categories and of certain origins, on which the White Canada policy was based, was laid down in the Immigration Act of 1910” (p. 16).

For the first 100 years of Canada’s official existence, immigration policies were explicitly racialized. It was only in the 1960s that immigration policy in Canada was changed to allow immigration from non-European countries. This has resulted in a largely white population in Canada. It is predominantly more recent immigrants who are racialized in other ways. This allows current discourses about the problems with “immigrants” in Canada (i.e. their supposed inability to assimilate, or their puported stealing of Canadian’s jobs) to functionally hide the ways that those ideas are racialized.

  1. Knowles is a prolific writer on immigration history of Canada, and her widely distributed book is in its second edition.

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