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

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Chapter 5
Towards the Canadian Citizenship Act

top of page  The growth of Canadian nationalism

As it had after the First World War, Canada emerged after the Second World War with more self–assurance and confidence. There were good reasons for this. Despite having fewer than 12 million people, it had made a huge contribution in manpower and material to the Allied war effort and had developed a host of new and durable industries in the process. However, the cost of its participation in the war had been great: 43,000 men and women had died and the national debt had quadrupled. Yet casualties were much lower than they had been during the earlier conflict. Moreover, most of the wartime spending had been in Canada, resulting in the doubling of the gross national product.

The Statute of Westminster (1931) had accorded legal recognition to Canada’s status as a self–governing dominion. A decade later, the Second World War confirmed Canada’s place in the world. It also compelled this country to grow up technologically. Forced by wartime conditions to reduce their dependence on European and American goods, the leaders of the Canadian economy became far more daring, innovative, and self–reliant. As a result, the range and volume of Canadian industrial production increased dramatically. By war’s end, the country’s steel–making capacity had increased by more than 50 percent and Canadian factories were producing many items—aircraft, plastics, diesel engines, electronic equipment—that they had not made previously.

Although everybody had expected that the Second World War, like the First World War, would be followed by a severe recession, no such slump materialized. Instead, the country enjoyed a wave of prosperity. Initiated by wartime spending, it would last, with minor fluctuations, until the early 1970s, fed by a pent–up demand for consumer goods. Canadians had money in their pockets and they were eager to spend it. One by–product of Canada’s new self–awareness in these buoyant years was a vigorous nationalism, which found expression in the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947.

top of page  The Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947

The vast majority of Canadians believed that the war had truly confirmed Canada as a sovereign nation and they wanted the rest of the world to recognize the country’s recently won status. For that to happen, however, the remaining emblems of colonialism had to be removed and the symbols of independent nationhood substituted.

It would be a slow process. Not until 1949 would the practice of appealing decisions of Canada’s Supreme Court to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London be abolished; not until 1952 would this country acquire a Canadian–born Governor General; and it would be two decades before a distinctive Canadian flag made its debut. But one significant symbol of independent nationhood—Canadian citizenship—would find legal recognition in 1947, two years after the war. Up until that point, Canadian nationals had been legally defined as British subjects, both in Canada and abroad.

Photo of Paul Martin Sr

Liberal Cabinet Minister Paul Martin Sr.

National Archives of Canada
(PA 47288)

The credit for fathering the project that gave legal recognition to the term “Canadian citizen” goes to the Liberal Cabinet Minister Paul Martin Sr. The Minister first conceived the idea of a separate Canadian citizenship during the Second World War, but it was not until he visited the military cemetery at Dieppe after the war that the idea really seized hold of him. At Dieppe, while pondering the status of those who had served their country and were buried there, he resolved to incorporate into law a definition of what constituted a Canadian.

The deplorable state of Canada’s naturalization laws added a note of urgency to his mission. Not only was there no such thing in law as a Canadian citizen; there were also ambiguities in the Naturalization Act of 1914, the Canadian Nationals Act of 1921 (it provided a definition of “Canadian nationals,” a requirement for Canadian participation in the League of Nations and membership in the International Court of Justice), and the Immigration Act of 1910, the three pieces of legislation that dealt with citizenship. The result, as Martin noted in Parliament, was unending confusion and embarrassment.

There were other anomalies. Married women, for example, did not have full authority over their national status. Classified with minors, lunatics and idiots “under a disability,” they could not become naturalized or control their national status as independent persons, except in very special circumstances.

When introducing the bill relating to nationality and naturalization in the House of Commons on 22 October 1945, the Minister said:

Our “new Canadians” bring to this country much that is rich and good, and in Canada they find a new way of life and new hope for the future. They should all be made to feel that they, like the rest of us, are Canadians, citizens of a great country, guardians of proud traditions and trustees of all that is best in life for generations of Canadians yet to be. For the national unity of Canada and for the future and greatness of this country it is felt to be of utmost importance that all of us, new Canadians or old, have a consciousness of a common purpose and common interests as Canadians; that all of us are able to say with pride and say with meaning: “I am a Canadian citizen.”


The Canadian Citizenship Act, which was enacted on 27 June 1946 and came into force on 1 January 1947, provided for the conferring of a common Canadian citizenship on all Canadians, whether or not they had been born in Canada. Canadian citizenship, however, was deemed a privilege to be granted only to those considered qualified.

Among the changes introduced by the new Act were the following:

  • All Canadian citizens would have automatic right of entry to Canada.
  • As a rule, immigrants (including those from the Commonwealth) would not qualify for full citizenship until they had been resident in Canada for five years and had taken out citizenship papers. However, immigrants who were already British subjects would not lose their existing rights, including the right to vote after they had resided in Canada for only one year. Immigrants who had served in the Canadian armed forces during the First or the Second World War would qualify for naturalization after only one year.
  • Married women would be given full authority over their nationality status.
  • Citizenship would be lost under certain circumstances, such as the adoption of citizenship of another country.
  • Provision would be made for instruction in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship and for appropriate citizenship ceremonies, including a revised oath of allegiance.
  • An applicant for citizenship could substitute 20 years of residence in Canada for a knowledge of English or French.

With the enactment of this revolutionary piece of legislation Canada became the first Commonwealth country to create its own class of citizenship separate from that of Great Britain. Henceforth Canadian citizenship could be acquired by immigrants who had been naturalized in Canada, non–Canadian British subjects who had lived in Canada for five or more years, and non–Canadian women who had married Canadian citizens and who had come to live in Canada.

In a moving and historic ceremony, staged on the evening of 3 January 1947 in the Supreme Court of Canada chamber, 26 individuals were presented with Canadian citizenship certificates. Among them were Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who received certificate 0001, and Yousuf Karsh, the internationally acclaimed Armenian–born photographer.

Photo of first citizenship ceremony, 1947

First Citizenship Ceremony, 3 January 1947.

National Archives of Canada (PA 197414)

top of page  Post–war rise in immigration

Not surprisingly, the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947 coincided with a post–war rise in immigration. This upsurge in immigration did not follow immediately on the heels of the war, however. Proponents of a more liberal immigration policy had wanted to see Canada lower its immigration barriers as soon as the hostilities ended, but Canadian immigration policy continued to be highly restrictive in the first year or two after the war. Although it could have been a land of hope and promise for Europe’s war–weary and oppressed, Canada admitted few bona fide immigrants and displaced persons (the label given to those individuals who had been uprooted or displaced in their own homeland by war) during this period. Immigration barriers also blocked the entrance of most refugees (people who had fled totalitarian regimes before the outbreak of the war and those who, starting in 1945, had left East European countries that had come under Communist control).

No matter what their designation—refugee or displaced person—all these people were essentially refugees without a country, home, material possessions, or future, and their plight aroused the concern of increasing numbers of Canadians. Despite the demands of these compassionate observers for a more humane immigration policy, however, Canada’s doors remained virtually closed to new arrivals. To justify its inflexibility, the government frequently cited a lack of suitable passenger vessels to transport people from Europe to Canada. Still, a few did make it.

Notable among the new arrivals to Canadian shores in the early post–war period were British war brides who had married members of Canada’s fighting forces. During and after the war, some 48,000 of them arrived in this country, often with tiny babies in their arms and toddlers clinging to their skirts. Although most of the war brides and their approximately 22,000 offspring settled in Canada’s towns and cities, some of them made their homes in rural or remote regions of this vast land.

Eventually, the requirements of this country’s booming economy, a call from the Senate’s Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour for a more open immigration policy, and mounting pressure from ethnic organizations, religious groups, transportation companies, and returning diplomats who had seen first–hand conditions in Europe forced the government’s hand. In reaction to all these pressures, Mackenzie King’s Liberal government began to slowly open the doors to Europe’s homeless.

top of page  Polish war veterans admitted to Canada

Polish war veterans were among the first beneficiaries of Canada’s tentative move towards a more liberal immigration policy. They were admitted after the government passed an Order in Council in July 1946 providing for the admission of some 3,000 Polish Free Army veterans who refused to be repatriated from Great Britain to a homeland occupied by the Red Army. Each veteran was bound by contract to serve on a farm for one year, after which he was free to renew or discontinue the contract. When their term was up, the majority of workers chose not to continue this arrangement and headed for Canada’s cities in search of better–paying jobs.

Photo of Polish soldier immigrants in Halifax, 1946

Polish soldier immigrants arriving on the Sea Robin in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 12 November 1946.

National Archives of Canada (PA 111595)

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