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Whence They Came

Barbara Roberts


Irving Abella

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1Canada is a peculiar nation. Peopled by immigrants, it is a country, paradoxically, which hates immigration. Every single public opinion survey over the past fifty years indicates that most Canadians – including by the way, most immigrants themselves – do not want any substantial increase in the number of people admitted to this country. This attitude may surprise Canadians, but historically it should not.

2It is one of our great national myths that Canada has a long history of welcoming refugees and dissidents, of always being in the forefront in accepting the world’s oppressed and dispossessed, of being receptive and hospitable to wave after wave of immigrants.

3We Canadians like to think that racism and bigotry are European or American in origin and play little part in our history, tradition or psyche. We see our’s as a country of vast open space and of limitless potential which has always been open and available to the proverbial huddled masses yearning to be free.

4Yet as the recent literature in Canadian history has shown, the Canadian record is one of which we ought not be proud. Our treatment of our native people as well as our abysmal history in admitting blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Indians and, during the 1930s and 1940s Jews, should lay to rest the myth of our liberalism and enlightenment on matters of race and immigration.

5Let us face fact. For most of our history Canadian immigration laws were racist and exclusionary. We knew precisely what kind of people we wanted, and how to keep out those we didn’t. Until the 1960s our immigration policies divided the world into two – the “preferred” races who were always welcome in Canada and the “non-preferred” who rarely were. The former were of British and European stock; the latter included almost everybody else.

6The central problem of Canadian immigration policy is that for most of our history we did not have one. Since 1867 the country has had precisely four immigration acts. Nor has there ever been in Canada – neither now nor in the past – any clearly articulated national consensus about what immigration should be or what it would do. Except for one constant – its discriminatory aspects – our policies have had little consistency.

7There is good reason for our lack of a grand public vision: immigration is an issue that divides Canadians far more than it unites them. It has been a political hot potato that no one in Ottawa wanted to touch. Indeed not until 1952, fully eighty-five years after we became a nation, and after the country had absorbed millions of newcomers, did we finally feel it was time to create an independent Department of Immigration with its own minister. Until then immigration was so little thought of that its responsibilities were passed back and forth amongst various reluctant departments – clearly an indication of how little respect, or thought, was given to immigration policy. At one time or another it came under the responsibility of the Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Mines and Natural Resources.

8As a result, until recently, immigration policy was largely in the hands of a small number of bureaucrats. Throughout most of our history this tiny group, almost by default, orchestrated our immigration policies. Their role, as they saw it, was not to find ways to bring people to Canada, but rather to devise restrictions to keep them out. They were our country’s gatekeepers, yet they were determined to open the gates as little and as narrowly as possible.

9And for the greater part of our history they succeeded. It was only in the past twenty-five years that Canada abandoned her discriminatory policies and opened herself to immigrants from places never before recognized as potential sources of immigrants – the Caribbean, India, Pakistan, South-East Asia, and the Middle East.

10It is this small group of government officials who strove so desperately to fend off “offensive” peoples that is the subject of this fascinating book. Indeed, as Barbara Roberts shows, not only did they succeed in keeping our doors closed, but they also managed to find a way to get rid of some of those who managed to break through their carefully erected restrictive barriers. Her story of the repugnant deportation practices in Canada between 1900 and 1935 is a powerful indictment of Canadian immigration policy. Using a remarkable array of sources, Dr. Roberts brings to light for the first time, the murky activities of government officials who used deportation to dispose of a wide variety of unwanted immigrants. For thirty-five years immigration officials – on their own, usually without consulting Parliament or their ministers – not only decided who could come to Canada, but how to get rid of those already here they did not want. This handful of bureaucrafts were de facto judges and juries on all immigration matters. Their decisions on whom to deport, as Roberts makes clear, were not only arbitrary, they were often illegal. For years immigration authorities broke the law with impunity in order to protect Canada from those they deemed “undesirable”, Canada’s record in deporting immigrants was by far the worst in the entire British Commonwealth.

11This is an important book. Roberts carefully and dispassionately describes the behaviour of a Department of Immigration which seemed to be, on occasion, the rogue elephant of the Canadian bureaucracy. Yet it is important to note that the activities of these officials – illegal and bizarre as they often were – raised scarcely a ripple of protest in Parliament or in the country at large. After all, most Canadians, and certainly all politicians in this period, approved of what the bureaucrats were doing-ridding Canada of the poor and the unemployed as well as those who might be politically unacceptable.

12Canada has come a long way since the 1930s. And certainly over the past three or four decades we have become a haven for millions of immigrants and refugees looking for salvation and freedom. But there are still a number of Canadians – too many – who resent what is happening to this country, who wish to turn the immigration clock back fifty years, who feel that Canada is beginning to look like the United Nations with so many black, brown, and yellow faces on their streets and subways.

13For them as well as for all Canadians, Whence They Came is a timely reminder of the cruelty and inequity of an earlier immigration policy. If we err in the future, as we likely will, let it be, for once, on the side of humanity.

14Toronto, August 1988


© Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa | University of Ottawa Press, 1988

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