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

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Chapter 5 (continued)
Towards the Canadian Citizenship Act


top of page  A further liberalization of immigration policy

The government responded, in June 1950, by issuing an Order in Council that replaced all former Orders in Council and amendments with respect to immigration; retained the preference for British, Irish, French, and American immigrants; and widened the admissible classes of European immigrants to include any healthy applicant of good character who had skills needed in Canada and who could easily integrate into Canadian society. Later in the year regulations were changed to allow the entry of additional categories of Asians. In a further move, the government took German immigrants off the enemy–alien list (Italian immigrants had been removed from the list in 1947). As a result, Germans joined swelling numbers of Italians in applying for admission to Canada.

Besides lowering immigration barriers another notch or two in 1950, the government established the Department of Citizenship and Immigration. No longer was immigration to be the responsibility of a multi–function department whose other activities bore little relation to immigration. Instead, it would be the responsibility of a new ministry, which had two major branches, the Immigration Branch and the Citizenship Branch. Such a move was considered essential if immigration was to receive the recognition and attention that it warranted.

By and large there was little general opposition to the increased movement of immigrants to Canada. Even organized labour, which had frequently opposed substantial influxes of newcomers in the past, raised little objection. In fact, it willingly assisted in the admission of new arrivals, especially displaced persons, and this despite the fact that these immigrants could compete for jobs. Probably the only trade union which officially and adamantly opposed the entry of qualified displaced persons was the Canadian Medical Association, the major professional association of Canadian doctors.

There was also some shift in the attitude of Quebec’s elites towards immigration. In the post–war years, Quebec academics and newspaper editorialists began to view immigration more positively, having come to realize that non–British immigrants had a great deal in common with French Canadians—both considered themselves Canadians first and British subjects second. Also, most eastern European newcomers had the additional advantage of being Roman Catholic, the religion of the overwhelming majority of French–speaking Quebeckers.

top of page  The 1952 Immigration Act

A long–awaited new Immigration Act, the first since 1910 (there had been significant revisions in immigration policy over the years, but no new Immigration Act) was finally enacted by Parliament in 1952. In many respects, the 1952 Act was similar to its predecessor. Nevertheless, in its major provisions it simplified the administration of immigration and defined the wide–ranging powers of the minister and his officials.

Photo of Immigration Minister J.W. Pickersgill with the Dean of Sopron University of Budapest, 1957

Citizenship and Immigration Minister
J.W. Pickersgill with the Dean of Sopron
University of Budapest, Montreal,
Quebec, circa 1957.


National Archives of Canada (PA 147725)

With respect to the selection and admission of prospective immigrants, the Act vested all–embracing powers in the Governor in Council (that is, the Cabinet). This meant that the Cabinet could prohibit or limit the admission of persons by reason of such factors as nationality, ethnic group, occupation, lifestyle, unsuitability with regard to Canada’s climate, and perceived inability to become readily assimilated into Canadian society. An incriminating letter from Citizenship and Immigration Minister Walter Harris, written in 1952 but placed on record in the House of Commons in 1953 by CCF member Joseph Noseworthy, reveals all too clearly that these provisions were designed to exclude non–white immigrants.

One of the Act’s most significant provisions vested a large degree of uncontrolled discretionary power in the Minister and his or her officials. This would have far–reaching, often negative, implications for Canadian immigration, but when it was used responsibly and creatively, it proved an invaluable tool in aiding desirable and/or humanitarian immigration.

Jack Pickersgill was one Minister who employed the Act compassionately and to good purpose. A flamboyant, fiercely partisan Liberal, who had abandoned an academic career for a stint in the public service and then politics, Jack Pickersgill used his ministerial powers to make fundamental changes in immigration policy when he was Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, from 1954 to 1957. On different occasions he waived immigration regulations and approved the admission, under minister’s permit, of epileptics whose condition could be controlled by drugs, tubercular cases, and people who had a previous history of mental illness, provided these cases posed no danger to the community and were adequately sponsored.

top of page  Refugees from Palestine

When Pickersgill was at the helm of Citizenship and Immigration, Canada took the bold step of admitting some Palestinian Arabs, driven from their homeland by the Israeli–Arab war of 1948. In 1955, when the idea for the scheme was conceived, over 900,000 Palestinian refugees were living in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Gaza.

The resettlement of these refugees abroad was nothing if not a politically explosive issue in the Middle East. By participating in the operation Canada risked incurring the wrath of Arabs, who might charge that it was part of a Zionist plot to remove Palestinian refugees from the care they received from the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and deprive them of their right to return to Palestine. Nevertheless, in 1955, a young official at the Canadian legation in Beirut, Lebanon, where UNRRA had its headquarters, approached the agency and obtained its co–operation in arranging for a selection of Palestinian refugees to be interviewed by a Canadian immigration team.

The following January, a Canadian immigration mission visited Lebanon and Jordan, and from among 575 applicants presented to it by UNRRA, chose 98 who were “apparently well qualified to become Canadian citizens.” This number was eventually trimmed to 39 heads of families and their dependents and it was this group that departed for Canada in the summer of 1956. Much to the surprise of Canadian officials in Beirut, the undertaking did not trigger nearly as much opposition from Arab sources as they had anticipated.

top of page  The Hungarian refugees

In sharp contrast to the attention given its admission of the Palestinian refugees, Canada’s admission of close to 38,000 Hungarian refugees in 1956–57 attracted a great deal of coverage over the years.

This country’s response to the desperate situation of the Hungarian refugees represents one of the few times in Canadian history when Canadians have whole–heartedly welcomed immigrants. In fact, of all the states that accepted Hungarian refugees for permanent resettlement, none surpassed Canada in its generosity. The Louis St. Laurent Liberal government’s speedy action and the generous admission program that it launched were not solely the result of government initiative, however. They can be attributed directly to the pressure created by the Canadian public, whose sympathies were aroused by the plight of over 200,000 Hungarians fleeing their homeland after Russian tanks brutally crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956.

On 6 November 1956, Jack Pickersgill instructed the Canadian immigration office in Vienna, Austria, where most of the Hungarians had fled, to assign top priority to applications from those Hungarians wishing to emigrate to Canada. While signalling Canada’s recognition of an urgent situation, however, he did not waive or alter any of the normal immigration procedures and provisions.

Many Canadians, including members of religious and ethnic groups, the opposition parties (the CCF and the Progressive Conservatives), and newspaper editorialists, viewed this rather cautious approach as not enough. Pressure steadily mounted outside the government for a more energetic response. It was not long in coming. Immigration procedures were simplified, and in the last week of November Pickersgill initiated steps to charter a ship and aircraft to bring the first influx of refugees to Canada. Then the real breakthrough came. On 28 November, two days after Parliament convened in a special session to debate the Hungarian and Suez situations, the Minister announced that Ottawa intended to proceed with a generous admission program, whose chief feature was free passage for all those Hungarian refugees who met this country’s admission standards.

Photo of three Hungarian children, 1956

Hungarian children waiting in Rouyn–Noranda, Quebec, December 1956.

Canadian Immigration Historical Society — McFaul Collection

After the House of Commons adjourned on 29 November, Jack Pickersgill flew to Vienna to take charge of the situation. There, assuming the role of “commandant,” he made a number of important on–the–spot decisions to facilitate movement of the refugees.

In addition to masterminding the movement and settlement of thousands of Hungarians, the government also had to cope with 108,989 British immigrants spurred to emigrate by the Eden government’s inept handling of the Suez crisis, which had erupted just before the Soviet invasion of Hungary. To handle the tens of thousands of Europeans and Britons heading for Canada, the Canadian government eventually launched an airlift program designated the “Air Bridge to Canada” or the ABC scheme. During the opening months of 1957, over 200 chartered flights brought nearly 17,600 immigrants to Canada, many of them young Hungarians. Indeed, the movement of Hungarians to Canada contained a predominance of young people.

These young Hungarians included a sizeable group from the Faculty of Forestry at the University of Sopron, some 350 students, families and professors. As the first group of this kind to emigrate to Canada, they travelled in a “freedom train” from Halifax to Vancouver, eliciting rousing receptions at stops all across the country. Thanks to initiatives taken by Pickersgill, the Forestry Faculty was incorporated into the University of British Columbia, where it functioned as the Sopron Division of the Faculty of Forestry until 1961. The members of another group, this one from the University of Sopron’s Faculty of Mining Engineering, were assimilated into a variety of faculties at the University of Toronto.

In carrying out the resettlement of the Hungarian refugees (approximately one–third were settled west of the Great Lakes, one–third in Ontario and the remainder in Quebec and the Maritimes), the Department of Citizenship and Immigration succeeded in overcoming many restrictions in the system. In the years ahead, the lessons learned would prove invaluable to immigration authorities, allowing them to respond more quickly and with greater flexibility to both refugee and ordinary immigration movements.

top of page  The downturn in immigration

Although there was a downturn in the Canadian economy in 1957, immigration to Canada that year was higher than in any year since 1913–14, totalling 282,164. While the influx of Hungarians and Britons contributed significantly to this figure, other factors were also at work, including the burgeoning numbers of sponsored immigrants (immigrants brought to Canada by relatives who could provide for their lodging, care, and normal settlement needs) and Ottawa’s aggressive promotion of unsponsored immigration (that is, immigrants who applied for permanent residence in Canada on their own merit and who usually had skills of use to the Canadian economy).

As the Canadian economy became more and more sluggish, the newly elected Progressive Conservative government, which had assumed power in 1957, turned off the tap. As a result, immigration dropped off sharply. In 1958–59, the number of people immigrating to Canada plunged to 124,851; the following year, the number dropped again, to 106,928. Not until 1962 did it move upward again, one year after British immigration had skidded to its lowest level since the Second World War.

top of page  The new wave of immigrants

Unlike the newcomers in the earlier boom period of Canadian immigration (1900–1914), those who arrived in the late 1940s and 1950s were a more heterogeneous body, with a greater diversity of skills, training, and occupations. They arrived in a country much changed since the days when, in the picturesque phrases of the Senate Standing Committee on Immigration and Labour, the early immigrants had “laid axe to tree or struck long furrows in the Middle West.” By 1957, the year that marked the end of the post–war boom period in Canadian immigration, Canada, which now included Newfoundland, boasted a population of 16,610,000 and ranked as a major industrial nation, with manufacturing providing its major source of income and employment. It was therefore the urbanized and industrialized provinces—Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, and British Columbia—that benefited most from immigration.

During these years the United Kingdom and the United States continued to furnish Canada with large numbers of newcomers, but no longer were they the predominant sources of immigrants. Now the majority of new arrivals came from continental Europe, especially Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands.

Despite a lack of consensus in Canada about the desirability of immigration, there could be no doubt that it had made an invaluable contribution in the 1940s and 1950s to the size and quality of the Canadian labour force. It accounted for two–thirds of the labour force’s increase between 1950 and 1955 and for almost half the total increase between 1950 and 1960. Moreover, many of the new professional and new skilled jobs were filled by immigrants—saving countless dollars in professional and educational training in Canada.

Ludmilla Chiriaeff:
Ballet Celebrity

As founding director of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and its schools, Latvian native Ludmilla Chiriaeff (née Otzoup–Gorny) played a prominent role in establishing ballet in Quebec.

Born in Riga in 1924, she trained in Berlin, studying ballet under many distinguished teachers. Choreographer Michael Fokine, a family friend, had a particularly powerful influence on her artistic development. As a resident of Switzerland after the Second World War, she danced and choreographed for various companies and directed her own Ballet des Arts in Geneva (1949–1951).

In 1952, when still in her twenties, Ludmilla Chiriaeff immigrated to Canada. That same year, in Montreal, she established a ballet school and formed the Ballets Chiriaeff, a troupe of eighteen dancers. The company made its official debut on Radio Canada–CBC in 1952, where over the years to come it would perform in some 300 televised shows. The new company, in which Ludmilla Chiriaeff continued to dance, performed live on stage in 1955. Three years later, in 1958, it evolved into Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

Before the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s forged a new Quebec, religious conservatives openly denounced ballet as an immoral activity. Notwithstanding this opposition, Chiriaeff succeeded in establishing Les Grands Ballets Canadiens as one of Quebec’s major cultural institutions. The company would soon be acclaimed across Canada and abroad.

Chiriaeff choreographed many of the company’s ballets, among them Suite canadienne (1957), Cendrillon (1962), and Pierrot de la Lune (1963). She received a number of awards over the years, including the Order of Canada (1972; Companion of the Order 1984), the Molson Prize (1986), the international Nijinsky Prize (1992), and the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award (1993).

Ludmilla Chiriaeff remained the company’s artistic director until 1974 and continued to direct its schools until 1992, when ill health forced her to retire. She died in Montreal in 1996.

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