Explaining Canada’s Immigration Restrictions

Christopher G. Anderson, Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control, 1867-1967. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2013. ISBN 9780774823937.
Since September 11, 2001, the Canadian government has taken many steps toward tightening Canada’s national borders in order to restrict the movement of people without impeding the movement of goods. This has led to increased activism by non-governmental agencies and others that have argued for greater respect for the basic rights of migrants. Christopher Anderson, a political scientist at Wilfried Laurier University, defines this tug-of-war between restrictive state control and rights-based opposition movements as the “control/rights nexus.” Although it may seem to be a recent phenomenon in the early twenty-first century, this nexus has had a long history in Canada – as in other liberal democracies – and it has been much more complex than it has often been made out to be. The history of this control/rights nexus in the field of immigration is the topic of Anderson’s book.
The nineteenth century is commonly considered the century of free migration; unlike in the previous centuries, governments no longer pursued mercantilist policies of controlling emigration of their population; at the same time, the classic immigration countries, especially in the Americas, had not yet implemented the massive immigration restrictions of the post-World War One period. Yet, Anderson begins his account of border control right in the middle of the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the post-Confederation government was intent on settling the country rather than restricting immigration. This open-border policy, he argues, was based on an acceptance of people’s rights to move freely. It was embedded in an ideology of Liberal Internationalism, which he sees clearly outlined in the debates in the House of Commons and the Senate as well as government documents – the main sources of this study.
With the rise of racial nationalism in the late nineteenth century, however, there was a shift to an ideology of Liberal Nationalism that called for race-based restrictions on immigration. Liberal Nationalists succeeded in implementing policies that barred “Asiatics” – Chinese, Japanese, East Indians as well as Jews from Europe – from entering Canada. This shift was tied to an increasing emphasis on the principle of state sovereignty, which, according to Liberal Nationalists, “trumped the due process and equality rights that could be claimed by non-citizens” (129). These restrictive approaches increased over the next decades up until the end of the Second World War. The pendulum swung back in the control/rights nexus toward a more open policy after 1945. Anderson’s account ends with the introduction of open-border policies during a resurgence of Liberal Internationalism in the 1960s. As we know, the pendulum swung back again during the 1990s toward greater border control.
How can we explain these pendulum swings within the control/rights nexus? According to Anderson, rights-based politics emerge in reaction to restrictive controls. Thus, because in the second half of the nineteenth century “there were no significant rights restrictions controlling movement across the border, […] rights-based politics did not arise” (42). While the state was concerned about letting in the “right” kind of immigrants, it focused on the problems of keeping settlers in the country and fighting cronyism within the immigration apparatus. This changed in the period 1887 to 1914, when two counter-currents emerged: this period saw a dramatic expansion of immigration to Canada; at the same time, “the conceptual and legislative foundations of a rights-restrictive approach that would remain in place until the 1960s – and that continues to shape the politics of control – were established” (58). Thus, as immigration was peaking in the decade before the First World War, the House and Senate passed increasingly restrictive legislation.
As is typical of the rights/control nexus, however, increasing restriction led to greater rights-activism. At times, this made control less effective and the state, in turn, implemented even further restrictions. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the East Indian community resisted these restrictions, both through circumventing controls and contesting them in courts, often successfully. As a result, however, the government increased and sharpened the tools it could use to control immigration and deport immigrants. They began to use these tools of control in the period between 1914 and 1945, a period which saw “the domination of liberal nationalism” (93). Indeed, despite oscillating immigration numbers – from a peak in 1913 to almost no immigration during the First World War back to high immigration in the second half of the 1920s and again back to nearly no immigration during the Great Depression and Second World War – there was continuity in the government’s building up of measures that allowed the state ever-greater control of who to let into the country and who to remove. The application of such measures culminated in the near-complete refusal to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany and the deportation of Japanese and Japanese Canadians at the end of the war.
As before, this Liberal Nationalist restrictionism provoked a rights-based response that now shifted from the nineteenth century ideals of British Liberalism to an international recognition of human rights in the wake of the Second World War and the emergence of a United Nations framework. Although Liberal Nationalists were on the defense in the first postwar decade, they remained in charge of defining restrictive policies, as was evident in the Canadian government’s refusal to sign the United Nations Conventions Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) and the introduction of a restrictive Immigration Act (1952).
Nevertheless, during the 1950s and 1960s, proponents of open-door immigration policies gained strength. Throughout the 1950s, parliamentary opposition and human rights organizations attacked the restrictive regulations of the 1952 Immigration Act, successfully making their case in Parliament, in courts, and in public and thus slowly chipping away at its regulations. Although the Act was not replaced until 1976, by 1962/67 ethno-racial discrimination had been largely expunged from Canadian immigration policy. In 1969, Canada signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. The 1970s were, in a sense, the apex of Liberal Internationalist immigration and citizenship policy. From the late 1960s on, this shift in ideology and policy effected a major change in the intake of new immigrants and refugees.
Throughout the century under review, while the pendulum of the rights/control nexus swung back and forth, the two ideological interpretations of national sovereignty, immigration objectives, and the rights of citizens and non-citizens have become increasingly interwoven with each other so that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Canadian government could proclaim Canada to be a multicultural country of immigration while at the same introducing some of the severest and racialized rights restrictions in the history of Canada (193). Anderson’s fine study helps us understand this paradox.
Alexander Freund, The University of Winnipeg