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

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Chapter 4
Immigration Slump

Photo of Prime Minister Robert Borden

Prime Minister Robert Borden.

National Archives of Canada
(PA 28128)

For Canada, the period between the turn of the century and 1913 involved years of unbounded hope and large visions. The population grew at an unparalleled rate. Between 1901 and 1911 it increased by more than a third, from 5.3 million to 7.2 million, thanks chiefly to immigration. Vast stretches of the Prairies were settled, two transcontinental railways were built with generous public assistance, and industrial production increased dramatically. In fact, during the so–called Laurier boom, from 1896 to 1913, Canada’s average rate of population growth towered above that of any other country, including the United States. It is no wonder that Prime Minister Laurier predicted in 1904 that “the Twentieth Century shall be the century of Canada and of Canadian development.”

Prospects for continued unabated growth began to dim, however, in the year that the tide of immigrants crested. In 1913, the country started to slide into a severe depression that would prove far worse than the short, sharp recession of 1907. The expansion of the economy and the growth of industry had depended on a continuous supply of liquid capital, but in 1913 this dried up. With the disappearance of capital, industrial expansion went into reverse and unemployment figures soared, especially in urban areas.

top of page  The First World War

The worrisome economic depression was bad enough, but a greater disaster lay just ahead: the First World War. The crisis that erupted in the Balkans in the summer of 1914 initially appeared no more ominous than half a dozen of its predecessors, but inexorably alliance systems solidified and mobilization plans were put into action. Serbia, Russia, and France were pitted against the German and Austro–Hungarian empires. With the expiration of the British ultimatum to Berlin at midnight on 4 August 1914, another empire went to war.

When Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August, Canada was automatically at war as well, an arrangement that most of its population enthusiastically supported. Across the country, Canadians sang patriotic songs in the streets, and the Minister of Militia and Defence was deluged with thousands of volunteers, eager to fight and confident that the imperial forces would soon prevail and that hostilities would be of short duration. No one at that time, not even the most pessimistic public official or private citizen, could foresee that the war would drag on for years and so seriously test the resources and unity of the country. No one could have predicted the ultimate consequences of Prime Minister Robert Borden’s pledge

“to put forth every effort and to make every sacrifice necessary to ensure the integrity and maintain the honour of our Empire.”


The First World War claimed the lives of 60,661 Canadians, one–tenth of the more than 600,000 soldiers who went to war. Approximately 60,000 returned hopelessly maimed in body or mind. In Canada itself, the conflict widened the breach between English and French Canadians, particularly after the Conscription Crisis of 1917, which also destroyed the unity and esprit de corps of both the Liberal and Conservative parties. But if the war claimed many Canadian lives and created internal political unrest, it gave a tremendous boost to Canadian industry. Canada became modernized through the effort it put into mobilizing and equipping a huge army. Even more important, the war marked the real birth of Canada and its recognition by countries around the world.

Photo of British immigrants, 1920

British immigrants prior to their departure for a new life in Western Canada, circa 1920. Following the First World War, the Canadian government undertook immigration measures that distinctly favoured British immigrants.

Canadian Pacific Limited (18392)

Thrust upon the world’s stage, Canadians performed well and often brilliantly. In late April 1915, the First Canadian Division, badly outnumbered and choked by gas, held the line at the Second Battle of Ypres, thereby averting a German breakthrough. Summing up his feelings about that horrendous battle, the promising French–Canadian politician Talbot Papineau wrote:

“Some reports are appalling. I should feel dreadfully if they are true, yet what a glorious history they will have made for Canada. These may be the birth pangs of our nationality.”


Two years later, in April 1917, Canada’s name rang around the world after all four divisions of the Canadian Corps accomplished what had seemed impossible, the capture of the imposing Vimy Ridge, henceforth a symbol of Canadian achievement and pride. This heroic feat was followed by the Corps’ grim victory at Passchendaele later that year and, in 1918, by its pivotal role in helping to crush the Germans in the final days of the conflict.

Canada’s sacrifices and accomplishments on the field of battle transformed it—in military terms if not in constitutional law—from a colony into a sovereign nation. When Prime Minister Robert Borden affixed his own signature to the peace treaties in 1919, he set the seal on Canada’s newly won status. This status was reinforced when Canada, along with the other dominions, not only acquired separate membership in the League of Nations but also the right to separate election to the League’s council and separate membership in the International Labour Organization.

Far less obvious as consequences of the war were the post–war achievements of individual Canadians who had served overseas, achievements that helped to shape the new Canada. Almost all of the soldiers who had survived the ordeal on the blood–soaked western front asked themselves why they and not their fallen comrades had been allowed to live. In their quest for an answer, many consciously set out to promote the Canadian spirit through their own endeavours and develop the kind of institutions that would serve as memorials to those who had died overseas. Lester B. Pearson is perhaps the best known of this particular category of survivors. He became a peace–making diplomat who, against many odds, secured the United Nations’ first peacekeeping force to oversee the Anglo–French (and a simultaneous Israeli) withdrawal from Egypt during the Suez Crisis of 1956. For this remarkable achievement he won the Nobel Prize for Peace. He later went on to become Prime Minister.

Photo of Lester B. Pearson, Paul Martin Sr. and Prime Minister Louis Saint-Laurent

Nobel Peace Prize winner Lester B. Pearson with Paul Martin Sr., while Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent looks on.

National Archives of Canada (PA 114542)

More than anything else, Canada’s participation in the First World War contributed to the country’s development of a sense of distinct nationhood. The blossoming of cultural nationalism in the 1920s was one manifestation of this new attitude. Toronto was the centre of the movement, which found expression in The Canadian Forum (established in 1920), an independent journal of opinion and the arts, and the work of the Group of Seven (officially founded in 1920), whose bold depictions of the rugged and harsh North gave birth to a new image of Canada.

Cultural nationalism would gain further strength in the 1930s, when Canadians took important steps to protect and nurture their own identity. The most significant of these was the founding of the Canadian Radio League (later the Canadian Broadcasting League), whose purpose was to promote national broadcasting in Canada. Lauded by Graham Spry, one of its founders, as “a majestic instrument of national unity and national culture,” the CRL lobbied for legislation that would result in the establishment of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In 1933, only a year after the founding of the Canadian Radio League, the Dominion Drama Festival was inaugurated, and in 1939 the world–renowned National Film Board had its beginning. All three institutions would play invaluable roles in helping to shape and preserve Canadians’ sense of identity.

If the First World War encouraged the growth of Canadian nationalism, it also heralded the growth of anti–foreign sentiment and the advent of several precipitous declines in immigration. In 1915, the year after hostilities erupted in Europe, immigration plunged to 36,665, the lowest figure since 1898, with three–quarters of this number arriving from the United States. The following year, immigration increased to 55,914, and in 1917, to 72,910. Then the number skidded to 41,845 in 1918, the year that the war ended. The following year it soared to 107,698.

top of page  The First World War and foreign–born Canadians

Besides slowing down the movement of newcomers to Canada, the First World War created difficulties for many foreign–born Canadians. Germans, who had previously ranked high on the list of desirable immigrants, were not the only ones to suffer. Deemed “enemy aliens” because they had once been citizens of Germany or of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, Hungarians, Czechs, Romanians, Poles, and Ukrainians also experienced hardship as a result of the war.

Although these people had freely settled in Canada and were contributing to this country’s economic and social development, the Canadian government regarded them as a potential problem. Colonel Sam Hughes, the tempestuous and bungling Minister of Militia and Defence, even went so far as to suggest that native–born Germans, Austro–Hungarians, and others of enemy–alien extraction should “be encouraged to go to the United States.” Many Canadians were unsympathetic to their plight, having come to regard “foreigners,” especially German immigrants, with apprehension and distrust, if not outright hostility.

Unsubstantiated rumours of imminent invasions of Canada by large forces of German–Americans and alarming reports of suspicious activities in the German–American communities of several American cities increased Canadian anxiety about foreigners in their midst. This uneasiness was further heightened by an incautious statement made by a Winnipeg prelate, Bishop Nykyta Budka. On 27 July 1914, while the world anxiously awaited Austria’s response to the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the bishop urged his Ukrainian parishioners to remember their duty to the Austro–Hungarian Empire if war should occur and to hasten to the defence of the threatened fatherland. The bishop affirmed his loyalty to the British Empire in a second pastoral letter, but his initial statement was not soon forgotten.

In the early months of the war, Robert Borden’s Conservative government urged Canadians to adopt an attitude of tolerance and restraint towards enemy aliens. Nevertheless, harassment of enemy aliens not only continued but intensified as the conflict dragged on. Southwest of Toronto, in Berlin, Ontario, a prosperous city where persons of German ancestry made up three–quarters of the population, anti–German feeling ran so high that a statue of Kaiser Wilhelm was pulled down and heaved into the lake in Victoria Park. In 1916, the city’s name was changed to Kitchener.

While it might have encouraged restraint on the part of the citizenry, the government itself began interning enemy aliens in camps across the country at the outbreak of hostilities, thereby removing political and labour activists from the public arena. Later it instituted vigorous censorship of the foreign–language press, banned a number of “foreign” organizations, and prohibited groups that employed enemy languages from meeting.

The Wartime Elections Act, invoked in the 1917 federal election, was perhaps the most extraordinary measure taken against enemy aliens. In addition to giving the federal vote to women in the armed forces and to the wives, sisters, and mothers of soldiers in active service (Canadian women as a whole had not yet won the right to vote in federal elections), the Act withdrew this right from Canadians who had been born in enemy countries and had become naturalized British subjects after 31 March 1902. To become naturalized, each immigrant had had to bring an application for naturalization before a court official and swear an oath of allegiance. The court official, on being satisfied that the applicant was of “good character” and had fulfilled a three–year—five–year after the passage of the Naturalization Act in 1914—residency requirement, would then have issued a naturalization certificate. Like native–born Canadians, these naturalized immigrants were subjects of the British Crown, not Canadian citizens, because British nationality, or British “subjecthood,” was then the basic identity of all peoples living under the British Crown.

Borden’s Conservative government sought to justify the disenfranchisement of citizens of enemy–alien birth, but its motives remained suspect. In the words of one blunt–speaking Liberal Member of Parliament, the only ground upon which enemy aliens were being disenfranchised was that the government suspected them of committing “the high crime and misdemeanour of being liable to vote Liberal at the next general election.”

Rosalie Silberman Abella:
Outstanding Public Servant

Photo of the young Rosalie Silberman AbellaGerman–born jurist Rosalie Silberman Abella has chalked up many impressive accomplishments over the years. In the process she has received 17 honorary degrees, become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and earned a reputation as one of Canada’s most tireless advocates for the fair and equal treatment of its citizens.

Born in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1946 to Holocaust survivors, young Rosalie Silberman embarked for Halifax with members of her family on an American troop ship in May 1950. Not yet four years of age, she was officially a displaced person, one of 250,000 displaced persons and other refugees who were admitted to Canada between 1947 and 1962.

The ship carrying her family, the General Heintzelman, docked at Pier 21, from 1928 to 1971 the point of entry at Halifax for many immigrants to Canada. From Pier 21, she, her younger sister, her parents and her grandmother boarded a soot–filled train for Toronto, where they would start their lives all over again.

Within days of arriving in Toronto, her father, a lawyer, approached the Law Society of Upper Canada to ask what tests he had to write to become a lawyer in Ontario. None, was the reply. Non–citizens could not become lawyers. Since Jacob Silberman had a family to feed he could not wait the five years necessary to qualify for citizenship. He therefore became an insurance agent.

Recalling this chapter in her family’s saga, Judge Abella said in 1999, “The moment I heard that story as a child about my father not being able to be a lawyer, was the moment I decided to become one. But as I grew up, people told me that girls were not lawyers. Not so, said my parents. This is Canada. With hard work anything is possible.”

Thanks to hard work, Rosalie Silberman Abella obtained a BA from the University of Toronto in 1967 and an LLB from that university in 1970, two years after her marriage to historian Irving Abella. She practised civil and criminal law from 1972 until 1976, when, at the age of 29, she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court, becoming Canada’s first Jewish woman judge.

Rosalie Abella, who describes herself as “a cautious optimist,” served as a member of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 1975 to 1980 and as an Ontario Family Court judge from 1976 to 1987. She was the sole commissioner on the 1983–84 federal Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, which created the term and concept of employment equity. Between 1984 and 1989 she chaired the Ontario Labour Relations Board. In 1992, she was appointed Justice of the Ontario Court of Appeal, which position she still holds.

Judge Abella has been a visiting professor in the law faculty at McGill University and a senior fellow at Massey College. She has also written four books and more than 70 articles. She and Prof. Abella have two sons—Jacob, born in 1973, and Zachary, born in 1976.

When she arrived in Canada 49 years ago, Rosalie Silberman Abella was presented with a precious gift—the possibility of endless possibilities, as she phrases it. Her life and career demonstrate that she has indeed made the most of that possibility.

top of page  The return of peace

Peace brought a renewal of immigration, but not at the levels of pre–war days. In fact, with the exception of a few years in the 1920s, Canada would not again receive substantial numbers of immigrants until the 1950s.

Recession, uneven prosperity, and the anti–foreign sentiment of the pre–war and war years all combined to create antipathy to immigration and to throttle the movement of newcomers to this country in the early post–war period. At war’s end, the European economy was in a shambles and destruction was widespread. Canada could have responded to Europe’s plight by opening its doors to the continent’s homeless. Instead, this country erected one roadblock after another to discourage immigration from Europe.

Anti–foreign sentiment played no small role in this. Canadians, like their neighbours to the south, had succumbed to a “Red scare” following the Russian Revolution of 1917. As a result, they took a jaundiced view of Canada’s accepting European immigrants, fearing that these newcomers would bring with them dangerous ideologies in addition to their foreign languages and strange lifestyles.

In any event, because of the widespread unemployment that came in the wake of the armistice in Europe, Canada was not about to welcome immigrants in large numbers. The unemployment rate had risen dramatically because the wartime demand for the products of Canadian industry had ceased, and the situation was only exacerbated by the rapid demobilization of Canadian servicemen. Inevitably, Canadians became increasingly disillusioned with a peace that had held such promise but that appeared to produce nothing but hardship.

Given these conditions, it is not surprising that many Canadians pressed for the dismissal of foreign workers to make way for Canada’s war heroes. Leaders of business and industry went along with these sentiments, perhaps because they had their own agenda. Fearing that returned veterans would embrace socialism if they did not obtain immediate employment, various companies and employers’ organizations declared that they would dismiss enemy aliens and offer their jobs to demobilized soldiers. The International Nickel Company, located in Sudbury, Ontario, was one such company, demonstrating where its sympathies lay by dismissing 2,200 of its 3,200 employees, the overwhelming majority of whom were foreigners.

George Ignatieff: Peacemonger

George Ignatieff (1913–1989), one of Canada’s most celebrated diplomats and a man devoted to the cause of peace, was among the comparatively small number of Russian newcomers who landed on Canadian shores in the 1920s.

Ignatieff, whose father was a famous Russian aristocrat, was born in St. Petersburg on 16 December 1913. Within a few brief years, the Russian Revolution and civil war had put an end to his sheltered childhood and the wealth and privileges enjoyed by his family. His public–spirited and highly respected father, once an education minister under the Czar, was arrested and jailed in 1918 by the Bolsheviks, but then was miraculously released in time for the family to escape to England.

In England, the neophyte émigrés operated a dairy farm. Young George attended St. Paul’s, a boarding school, until the sale of the farm forced the family to move once again. While his father tried to raise funds in Europe for Russian refugees, Mrs. Ignatieff set out in 1928 with George and his brother, Leonid, for Canada, where two other brothers of George’s, Nick and Jim, had already settled.

Although there was barely enough money for basic necessities, George’s resourceful mother managed to squeeze enough out of the household budget to send her young son to Montreal’s exclusive Lower Canada College. The stock market crash of 1929, however, put an abrupt end to George’s private–school education. With the advent of the Great Depression, Ignatieff and the rest of his family united under one roof in Thornhill on the northern outskirts of Toronto.

After graduating from Toronto’s Jarvis Collegiate Institute, George Ignatieff enrolled at the University of Toronto as a student of political economy. This turned out to be a particularly fortunate move because at the university he was exposed to the innovative ideas and influence of Donald Creighton and Harold Innis, then the rising stars of Canadian political and economic history. From these two inspiring teachers Ignatieff gained, in his words, “an insight into both the unity and the diversity of the country, the need to balance its cohesive forces against its economic regionalism and the cultural duality of the founding races.”

Graduation from the University of Toronto was followed by a stint at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. George Ignatieff’s time at Oxford coincided with the Spanish Civil War and the growing militarization of the Axis powers. To make sure that he was not misinterpreting what he believed were the portents of another world war, Ignatieff travelled as often as he could in Italy and Germany. Some chilling discoveries awaited him, especially at Nürnberg. There he was appalled by the sight of a sea of storm troopers parading in front of the Führer.

After the outbreak of the Second World War, George Ignatieff enlisted in the British army. He was still in the army when, at the urging of Lester B. Pearson, then serving at the Canadian High Commission in London, he wrote the examination for the position of third secretary in Canada’s foreign service. His top standing in the exam landed him a post in Canada’s Department of External Affairs in 1940.

As a civil servant, George Ignatieff developed an expertise in East–West relations, particularly at the United Nations, where he served as Canadian Ambassador from 1966 to 1969 and as President of the Security Council from 1968 to 1969. He also served as Ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1956 to 1958 and as Permanent Representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) from 1963 to 1966. During the 1950s and 1960s Ignatieff participated in highly charged negotiations involving most of the world’s hot spots—the Middle East, Suez, Korea, Czechoslovakia, Cyprus—and discussed disarmament with anybody who would listen to him.

After retiring from the Department of External Affairs, George Ignatieff served as Provost of Trinity College, University of Toronto, from 1972 to 1979 and as Chancellor of that university from 1980 to 1986. In addition to his work in higher education, he continued to champion the cause of disarmament, speaking frequently and eloquently on the subject.

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