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.

The Social Construction of Race

“Not all experience is social but the consciousness of it is framed in social experience. The starting point, therefore, is the collective inheritance, differentiated by class or social group background – the received wisdom each individual copes with, repetitively for the most part, sometimes innovatively. What results is an ongoing ‘social construction of reality’.” (Saxton, 1990/2003, p. 18)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there has been an increasing consensus in the academic community that race is a socially constructed phenomenon. However, while the mechanisms of racialization have changed, race as a social category and inequalities along racial lines persist. For example, Gissis argues “that the category of race only seemingly disappeared from scientific discourse after World War II and has had a fluctuating yet continuous use during the time span from 1946 to 2003, and has even become more pronounced from the early 1970s on” (Gissis, 2008, p. 438). This persistence has prompted an expansion of the ways in which race is analyzed and the growth of the field of whiteness studies.

Jacobson was one of the first scholars to trace the changing social categories of race and whiteness through history. He argues that race is based “in the contingencies of politics and culture,” rather than based in biological or scientific notions (Jacobson, 2001, p. 86). This premise is significant because it makes possible an analysis of race as a changing phenomenon, rather than a natural or scientific fact. It is also important because it affirms that it is possible to affirm that race is both a socially constructed category and continues to have material and political consequences in people’s lives (Brubaker, 2002). These two perspectives are too often presented as mutually exclusive. It is said that either race is socially constructed (and so it cannot have an effect on people’s economic or political lives) or race has an effect on people’s lives (and therefore cannot be socially constructed).


Some argue that this debate is irrelevant, because there already exists a consensus about the social construction of race (Arnesen, 2001). However, while there may be a consensus in the academy about the social construction of race, it is certainly not the case in North American culture more broadly (Barrett, 2001). A quick look at almost any newspaper will show a number of references to race that are either based on a biological or scientific understanding of race or do not challenge such an understanding, implicitly allowing readers to believe that race has a biological basis [2]. A poignant example was a recent Canadian edition of Time Magazine during the 2008 American presidential campaign. It features Obama’s face, but half has been photocopied in black and white, making his skin appears white. Four of the headlines on the cover also refer specifically to race, including the feature article “Why the economy is trumping race” (October 20, 2008). The consensus on the social construction of race needs to be much more widely accepted before scholars abandon this area of research.

Natural attraction

An article about the aesthetic appeal of mixed-race faces was just listed on today’s links by racialicious. It definitely challenges the claims that are made about how it is ‘natural’ for people to find others of their own race more attractive (this claim is usually used to justify why most people choose partners who have the same skin colour). The author of the study conducted in Britain argues that the results prove Darwin’s theory of heterosis, that diversity in breeding leads to a stronger species. However, it seems like this might be a hasty conclusion, since it does not account for the ways that beauty norms are socially constructed. Women’s non-white faces and bodies have long been glorified as exotic. And implied in that exoticism is their sexual availability, often portrayed in naturalistic or ‘wild’ poses and outfits.

Interestingly, these ideas about beauty have not translated into the modeling industry. For more about this, check out this post on  Stuff White People Do about racism in the modeling industry.

Second Life

I am fascinated by the ways that people’s lives intersect on and off-line. Second Life is particularly interesting because of how realistically it is trying to replicate people’s off-line lives.

Even more interesting is the racialization in Second Life. When you sign up for Second Life, you get to choose the starting look for your online identity (your avatar). The thing is, you only get to choose from these twelve options:

Second Life start page

Not only is it a pretty limited selection, despite the claims about it being Your World and Your Imagination, 10 of the 12 options are white! Although I haven’t seen their market research, it seems fairly obvious that their target market is mostly white, and between the ages of 20 and 30 — or at least would like to appear that way. So even if you aren’t in this charmed circle in your first life, you can be young, thin and white in your second life. I wonder if the makers of these default Second Life avatars thought about how they were representing the ‘world’ of Second Life? Because intentionally or not, they have reproduced the idealized norms of beauty and race.