ARCHIVED – Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977

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Chapter 3 (continued)
Charting a New Course

top of page  The Vancouver Riot of 1907

In the course of promoting British and American immigration, Frank Oliver moved further along the path of selective immigration. Several developments conspired to push him in this direction, one being the Vancouver Riot of September 1907. The riot, which resulted in extensive damage to buildings occupied by Orientals, was precipitated by a rock hurled by a youngster through the window of a Chinese store following a giant anti–Asian parade.

Although the rampage ignited spontaneously, it had complex origins. The riot’s principal roots lay deep in an anti–Asian sentiment that had been smouldering for years in British Columbia. This racial antipathy reached new heights in 1907 when it was reported that the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was planning to import thousands of Japanese labourers to work on the completion of the railway’s western leg. To add to the tension, over 2,300 Japanese arrived in the province in July alone, far more than had been anticipated.

With Japanese immigration soaring to unprecedented levels, the perception grew among West Coast whites that the Japanese had become the leading Oriental threat to their province’s cultural integrity. The Japanese, like the Chinese, had always been regarded as unassimilable, but after Japan’s victory over Russia in the Russo–Japanese War (1904–5) the Japanese image took on an even more frightening dimension. A growing number of white British Columbians now regarded the Japanese immigrant as aggressive, loyal first to Japan, and eager to further that country’s expansionist aims.

As alarm mounted over the Japanese influx, hysterical comment about the Japanese “invasion” appeared in the daily press. Accompanying these expressed fears were demands by the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council for measures to stem the rising immigrant tide. Not content to work within the political process alone, the council formed the Asiatic Exclusion League. The league subsequently broke all ties with the Trades and Labour Council and staged the anti–Asian parade that preceded the Vancouver Riot of 1907.

Following the riot, the Laurier government found itself in the seemingly untenable position of having to placate British Columbia and Japan simultaneously. The solution lay in compromise. In response to British Columbia’s insistent demands that Asian immigration be halted, Ottawa negotiated an agreement with Japan whereby Japan would voluntarily limit the emigration of Japanese to Canada to 400 a year.

As part of this same initiative, the government dispatched Mackenzie King, the Deputy Minister of Labour and a future Prime Minister, to Vancouver to investigate and settle Japanese claims for damages. In his capacity as a one–man Royal Commission, King conducted a series of hearings and then awarded $9,000 in compensation to Japanese victims of the Vancouver Riot. Chinese riot victims, who had sustained more damage, later received $26,000.

Once the Japanese claims were settled, Mackenzie King sought to determine the origins of the recent Oriental influx. In his report, he attributed the abnormally large numbers to high immigration from Hawaii and to the activities of immigration companies based in Canada. King concluded that immigration by way of Hawaii should be banned, that companies should be prohibited from importing contract labour, and that Ottawa should severely limit the admission of Japanese newcomers. He also implied that immigration from India should be discouraged.

In response to King’s findings, the Laurier government made an important amendment to the Immigration Act. This amendment, which came into effect in 1908, was known as the “continuous–journey regulation.” Under this regulation, all would–be immigrants were required to travel to Canada by continuous passage from their country of origin or citizenship on a through–ticket purchased in that country. Since no shipping company provided direct service from India to Canada, this ingenious device served to ban all Indian immigration. It also closed the door on the Hawaii route for Japanese immigration.

Photo of Adrienne Clarkson Adrienne Clarkson:
Governor General

On September 8, 1999, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien summed up the significance of Adrienne Clarkson’s appointment as the first immigrant to become Canada’s Governor General when he said, “Her appointment is a reflection of the diversity and inclusiveness of our society and an indication of how our country has matured over the years.”

Adrienne Clarkson, the celebrated broadcaster, writer, publisher and former Ontario diplomat was born in Hong Kong in 1939. During the Second World War, in 1942 when she was three, the Poy family—she, her parents and older brother—left Hong Kong six months after the surrender of the British colony to the Japanese. They were able to do this because of the fortuitous circumstances of her father’s service with the Canadian Trade Commission which enabled them to be put on a Red Cross exchange. This led to the family’s eventual arrival in Canada, where they happily found refuge.

Ambitious, disciplined and highly intelligent, Adrienne made a name for herself at Ottawa’s Lisgar Collegiate Institute where she excelled as one of the school’s top students, became Head Girl during her graduation year (1955–56), and finished second in a Rotary Club public–speaking contest during her final year.

After graduating from Lisgar, Adrienne studied English literature at Trinity College, University of Toronto. She was Head of St. Hilda’s College and Vice President of the Student’s Administrative Council at the University of Toronto in her final years as an undergraduate. She obtained a master’s degree in 1961. Further post–graduate work followed at the Sorbonne in Paris (1962–64), where she perfected her French.

Canada’s 26th Governor General acquired her first public profile as a pioneer in Canadian television. Between 1965 and 1982, she worked on the CBC programs Take Thirty, Adrienne at Large and The Fifth Estate. As one of television’s first female on–camera personalities, she was noted for her intelligent and intense style. In this capacity, she garnered dozens of national and international television awards.

In addition to working as a TV journalist, Madame Clarkson has served as a diplomat. From 1982 to 1987, she won high praise for her work in Paris as Ontario’s Agent General. Following her return to Canada, she became the president and publisher at McClelland and Stewart (1987–88), and then publisher of Adrienne Clarkson Books for that firm (1988). She is the author of Love More Condoling (1968), Hunger Trace (1970), and True to You in My Fashion (1971).

At the time of her appointment as Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson was Chairman of the Board of the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, Quebec, a position she had held since 1995.

top of page  The Komagata Maru incident

The continuous–journey regulation and subsequent barriers to East Indian immigration did not go unchallenged. The most dramatic challenge occurred on 23 May 1914, when 376 East Indians (22 were returning Canadian residents) arrived in Vancouver harbour on board the Komagata Maru, a Japanese tramp steamer hired by a wealthy Sikh merchant and former labour contractor from Hong Kong, Gurdit Singh Sarhali. The steamer met with an unmitigatedly hostile reception. In fact, for weeks the vessel lay in harbour, its human cargo deprived of food and water by Canadian authorities who sought to weaken their resolve.

Finally, on 20 June, in the face of impending starvation, a passengers’ committee agreed to the Canadian government’s demand that a test case go before an Immigration Board of Enquiry. A week later the case of Munshi Singh, a young Sikh farmer, was heard and he was ruled inadmissible on the grounds that he had violated three Orders in Council, in particular the continuous–journey regulation. When the B.C. Court of Appeal upheld the refusal of a lower court to order his release, the way was paved for Munshi Singh and all the remaining passengers to be deported. This happened exactly two months after the arrival of the doomed ship in Vancouver harbour. With the local citizenry cheering from the docks, Canada’s HMCS Rainbow escorted the Komagata Maru to international waters. The steamer then sailed to India, having left behind just a handful of passengers, previous residents of British Columbia who had been allowed to land by the federal government.

Sikh political pressure finally persuaded the federal government to pass an Order in Council in 1919 allowing “British Hindus residing in Canada” to bring their wives and children to this country. The detested continuous–journey regulation remained in effect, however, until 1947.

Photo of the Japanese tramp steamer, Komagata Maru

Sikhs on board the Komagata Maru. The infamous Komagata Maru incident, May to July 1914, involved the arrival of 376 emigrants from India, who were barred entry into Canada despite the fact they all had valid British passports.

National Archives of Canada (C 38599)

top of page  Establishment of a border inspection service

In his attempt to make Canadian immigration policy more restrictive and selective in comparison to Sifton’s, Frank Oliver, in 1908, instituted an immigration inspection service at 37 points of entry along the Canada–United States border in the Central Canada District, which stretched from Toronto to Sprague, Manitoba.

The budget for the service was so tight in the early years of its operation that no provision was made for office accommodation or detention facilities. Hard–pressed immigration and customs officers (the latter also took on immigration duties) had to work under extremely trying conditions in depot waiting rooms, on ferry docks, and on railway platforms. And the work could be dangerous. In one incident, Border Inspector H.G. Herbert was shot to death on a Windsor–Detroit ferry by an individual who had been refused entry to Canada.

top of page  Theory and practice

Frank Oliver might have wanted his government to pursue a more restrictive immigration policy, but prevailing belief had it that Canada’s prosperity required a large dose of immigration. No more influential exponents of this view could be found than employers of large numbers of immigrant labour, who wielded considerable influence in both the Laurier and Robert Borden cabinets. So, despite the introduction of restrictive immigration legislation and head taxes, people continued to stream into the country. In 1906, the influx exceeded 200,000, and in 1911, the year that the Liberals were toppled from power by the Conservatives under Robert Borden, more than 300,000 people entered Canada. In 1913, the number of immigrants climbed to a record figure of 400,000.

Both the Liberal and the Conservative governments succeeded in dramatically reducing immigration from Asia, but they failed to block the flow from central and eastern Europe. The reason is not hard to find. It had been Ottawa’s goal to attract good agricultural settlers to Western Canada, and in realizing this aim it created the need for immigrants of another kind. Settlers demanded railways, manufactured goods, grain elevators, and schools and services in towns and cities—demands that generated jobs. Businessmen and companies, in turn, needed and clamoured for a large pool of cheap labour.

The most culturally acceptable immigrants came from the United Kingdom and the United States, but they did not match the businessman’s concept of the ideal malleable labourer. British and American newcomers were not prepared to tolerate, for example, the low wages or the wretched working conditions of railway construction. Furthermore, they were all too familiar with unions, which could pose a problem for employers.

An observation by Thomas Shaughnessy, who succeeded Sir William Van Horne as President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, reflected the attitude of many of his business associates:

Men who seek employment on railway construction are, as a rule, a class accustomed to roughing it. They know when they go to work that they must put up with the most primitive kind of camp accommodation…. I feel very strongly that it would be a huge mistake to send out any more of these men from Wales, Scotland or England…. It is only prejudicial to the course of immigration to import men who come here expecting to get high wages, a feather bed and a bath tub.


By contrast, Asiatics were seen as ideal workers. The Chinese had demonstrated their worth as labourers during the construction of the CPR, where they were assigned some of the most backbreaking and dangerous work. However, the wholesale importation of Asiatic labourers was out of the question because of the restrictive legislation enacted against Asian immigrants.

Canadian industrialists therefore turned increasingly towards central and southern Europe for the semi–skilled and unskilled labourers needed to supply the goods and services required by the new settlers. Of the continental Europeans, the Ukrainians were the most acceptable to Canada’s industrialists and the Immigration Branch. Although they had proven to be good agriculturalists, the Ukrainians were prepared to work for wages and under conditions that other nationalities would not tolerate. Moreover, they were already pouring into the country. An estimated 63,425 Ukrainians entered Canada between 1891, when the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants arrived, and 1905, when Frank Oliver joined the Laurier Cabinet. Another 59,000 Ukrainians arrived during Oliver’s term as Minister of the Interior.

top of page  Creating a new society

Between 1896 and 1914, some three million newcomers settled in Canada. Between 1901 and 1911, when the Canadian population rocketed by 43 percent, the percentage of foreign–born in the country as a whole exceeded 22 percent. Almost overnight, it seemed, immigration from Great Britain, the United States, Europe, and Asia had transformed the country, particularly Western Canada, into a polyglot society.

The transformation was not without its tensions, however. As has already been noted, public debate raged over the assimilability of those immigrants who spoke an incomprehensible language, who practised a strange religion, and who lacked a grounding in even the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy. The spectacle of bloc settlements in rural areas of the Prairies and the appearance of crowded ethnic ghettos in Canada’s rapidly growing cities disturbed most English Canadians; they came to feel that it was their duty to help these foreigners transform themselves into the English Canadian ideal, “making them clean, educated and loyal to the Dominion and to Great Britain.”

Among those Canadians who took up the “Canadianization” cause in earnest were Methodists and Presbyterians. James Shaver Woodsworth (1874–1942) was one such individual. A well–known Methodist minister, social reformer, and pacifist, Woodsworth played a distinguished role in nearly all the reform movements of the pre–First World War era, and later became one of the founding leaders of the Co–operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the New Democratic Party.

Woodsworth’s concerns about the assimilability of eastern, central, and southern European immigrants were sharpened by his experience with newcomers in Winnipeg’s North End in the early years of this century. Living and working in the heart of that foreign world, where pigs and chickens roamed the unpaved streets and the infant mortality rate was shockingly high, Woodsworth came to believe that if immigrants were to become good Canadians they had to embrace Anglo–Canadian Protestant values and become part of a Christian society in English–speaking Canada.

In his well–known work Strangers within Our Gates, published in 1909 when he was superintendent of All People’s Mission in Winnipeg’s North End, Woodsworth argued:

We, in Canada, have certain more or less clearly defined goals of national well–being. These ideals must never be lost sight of. Non–ideal elements there must be, but they should be capable of assimilation. Essentially non–assimilable elements are clearly detrimental to our highest national development, and hence should be vigorously excluded.


He believed, in other words, that immigration should be controlled when it caused social problems or conflicted with what were perceived to be the goals of national life, and that all immigrants admitted to Canada should be capable of being assimilated into mainstream Anglo–Canadian society. For Woodsworth, as for most of his compatriots, the principal instruments of Canadianization were the public schools. As he expressed it,

“The public school is the most important factor in transforming foreigners into Canadians.” He maintained that “too great emphasis cannot be placed upon the work that has been accomplished and may—yes, must—be accomplished by our National Schools.”


English–speaking Canadians were not the only group alarmed by the transformation that Canada’s population was undergoing. Many French Canadians also voiced misgivings about what was happening, claiming, for example, that Ukrainian immigrants were a threat to Canadian institutions. As immigration figures climbed to new heights, these observers wondered what the future of French Canadians would be in the West, where French Canadians were beginning to be outnumbered by several other ethnic groups, and in Canada overall, where the relative size of the French–Canadian population was declining.

Henri Bourassa (1868–1952) was the barometer for many of the concerns of these French Canadians. During his first years in Parliament the celebrated journalist and politician supported Sifton’s immigration program, but when he realized that immigration was shifting the balance of Canada’s population and threatening to reduce French Canada’s influence, Bourassa began voicing Quebec’s opposition to the huge influx of foreigners into the West. One such occasion arose during the 1906 session of Parliament, when he observed:

When all was said and done, however, immigration was helping Canada realize several of its goals. Tens of thousands of successful farmers were rapidly transforming the Prairies and fuelling a booming economy; countless unskilled and semi–skilled newcomers were providing the back–breaking labour necessary to construct railways, build bridges, and extract ore from mines.


So many immigrants arrived from continental Europe in the years immediately preceding the First World War that the Anglo–French consensus that had dominated the social, political, and cultural life of nineteenth–century Canada was permanently altered. Although most noticeable in the Prairie provinces, the newcomers also had a decided impact on society in the rest of Canada. In this sense they heralded the dramatic changes that immigrants would introduce to post–Second World War Canada. Before that second buoyant period of immigration, however, lay the First World War and three decades of immigration doldrums.

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