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.

Early race history: Slavery and Colonization

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

In the US, whiteness was enshrined by Congress as early as 1790, when “all free white persons” had the opportunity to become citizens. Although Congress included white in the definition of who could become a citizen, it did not articulate who was considered white (Jacobson, 1998). This was in part because the delineation between white and not-white was so taken for granted that it did not require definition.

However this general taken-for-grantedness was not total, as the example of Alexina Morrison illustrates. Morrison was born into slavery, but after being sold as a slave in 1857, she claimed that her white skin (and blond hair and blue eyes) was proof that she couldn not be a slave and attempted to gain her freedom. Even in the colonial slave-owning society of the 1850s, whiteness was not always so easily defined – although this is not to imply that it is more easily defined today. In an examination of Morrison’s case, Johnson (2000) highlights some of the mechanisms through which whiteness and blackness operated, such as lineage (i.e. born to free or slave parents), biology (i.e. blood content, facial structure) and sexuality (i.e. was she a good, chaste woman – because this was how white women were defined). Each of these three factors shed light on how race was operating at this time, and how the boundaries of race were being constructed and policed.

The visibility and prominence of slavery in the US has often overshadowed the violent, but more historically distant and marginalized, events of colonization. Roediger (1991) contends that First Nations were not as available to be the foil against which whiteness was defined. This was because Native American populations were declining rapidly in the early days of confederation in the US (due largely to the violences of colonialism) and the remaining indigenous communities were being forcibly relocated to more remote areas. African slaves and free blacks, on the other hand, were more integrated into the daily lives of white people, and thus whiteness came to be defined in comparison to black rather than Native-American in the colonial period. The legacy of this definition of whiteness continues today. Even in Canada where significantly fewer African slaves and immigrants, race is often said to be about white and black. Those who are more ambiguously racialized (such as First Nations people or people of Asian decent) are not always recognized as being “people of colour,” but nor are they always recognized as being white.

The role of First Nations in the national imaginaries of the US and Canada was predominantly that of the “disappearing Indian.” This was an active construction in both Canada and the US during the early days of colonization and was enabled by the trope of terra nullius, or “empty lands” (Lutz, 2007, p. 41). European colonizers often spoke, wrote and made art about the vast empty lands of Canada and the US, despite the existence of a wide diversity of indigenous nations. As Day (2000) argues, terra nullius was actively created by European colonizers: “before the ‘waste’ lands could be populated, they had to be de-populated; that is, their emptiness had to be constructed in colonial practices so as to correspond to colonial theory” (p. 117-8).

In contrast with the US, whiteness in the Canadian context was articulated primarily through the language of civilization in contrast to the ‘savage indians’ (Jacobson, 1998). The ‘civility’ of Canadians is two fold. On the one hand, First Nations are available as those who need to be civilized, thus constructing European colonizers as those are more civilized. On the other hand, colonizers in Canada took pride in being so much less violent than colonizers in the US, thus allowing the Canadian national myth to be one of peaceful coexistence with First Nations (Mackey, 2002).

Calgary Airport Indians


The luggage collection area in most airports is a pretty boring place. It doesn’t seem to be a part of the airport that gets much attention, despite the expensive renovations and art in many Canadian airports these days. Calgary, however, has decided to liven up their luggage area with a few scenes from the Canadian past – like this one, of Leah Beaver who, according to the caption, was a member of the Stoney Nation. She has been immortalized in plastic in the Calgary airport because the father of her daughter provided Mary Schaffer with directions to discover Maligne Lake in Jasper.

There is no additional context given for Leah Beaver’s life, nor for the current lives of Nakoda (Stoney) Nation, nor any discussion of the irony that Samson Beaver must have already known where Maligne Lake was if he was able to make a map for Mary Schaffer. Instead, the display airport_indian_caption – sponsored by Parks Canada – is an ad to get tourists to visit the national parks that surround Calgary.