Port of Entry, Process and Gatekeepers – A History of Immigration at the Port of Quebec during the Great Depression

In May 2015, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened new exhibitions on the history of the Pier 21 National Historic Site of Canada and at the end of June will unveil a new exhibition on the history of immigration to Canada. This blog is based on research that informs these new exhibits.


From the eighteenth century onwards, Quebec City’s migrating local populace and incoming European immigrants had a major impact on the development of the city’s institutions, trade and modes of transportation. All three aforementioned areas shaped the city’s port area. In turn, the Port of Quebec later helped to diversify the sociocultural and political composition of the surrounding city.[1] In the twentieth century, local politicians, business leaders, immigration officials and European immigrants were instrumental in shaping the port’s facilities, thereby increasing the flow of passenger traffic and the port’s significance as a major Canadian shipping and transportation hub.[2]

The Port of Quebec during the Great Depression

The Great Depression era offers us an opportunity to examine events at the Port of Quebec during a period of global socioeconomic instability. During the 1930s, Canadian immigration officials stationed at Saint John and Halifax during the winter season were often sent to Quebec City in the spring once the St. Lawrence River thawed and the transatlantic passenger season commenced. Saint John and Halifax remained open year round. Vessels that docked at Quebec City before continuing on to Montreal included ships from Canadian Pacific and the Cunard-White Star Line. However, Canadian Pacific luxury liners including RMS Empress of Britain and RMS Empress of Australia terminated their voyage at Quebec City and were docked at l’Anse-au-Foulon. Passengers were inspected aboard ship, in the immigration building or up river at Rimouski to prevent any possible delays with a stop at Quebec City. In the 1930s, immigration facilities were concentrated at the Immigration building on the Louise Embankment. Canadian immigration officer Fenton Crosman, described the edifice as “a low concrete building, at least one-eighth of a mile in length, with windows, veranda and examination room all fortified with metal cages to discourage the illegal entry of any persons who had not yet passed examination. Similar to the immigration sheds at Saint John and Halifax, it contained a large examination room, detention quarters, kitchens and dining rooms, medical quarters, baggage room, ticket offices and office accommodation for both Canadian and U.S. Immigration staff.” More modern facilities for the reception and processing of immigrants were soon constructed at l’Anse-au-Foulon.[3]

Immigrants Contest the Conditions within the Immigration Facility at Quebec

During the Great Depression, some passengers were placed in detention due to poor health, a lack of necessary funds, improper travel documentation or a past criminal record. Passengers in detention at Quebec City were increasingly subjected to poor conditions. On 17 September 1930, thirteen immigrants (seven from Scotland, three from England, two from Ireland and one from the Netherlands) complained in a letter to the Cunard-Anchor Line of the dismal state of the detention quarters at Quebec City. Detained for twelve days, the group claimed that their bedding sheets were changed once, while the blankets were only fumigated once a year to which the travellers noted that “their present condition certainly bears this out […] such a state of affairs is simply disgusting.” When it came to washing, the detention quarters featured six basins with only one rubber stopper between all of them! The men were able to exercise on the roof of the immigration hall which was covered by sparred boards covering years of filth. The food given to the detainees was also deplorable, where one of the men attributed the onset of sores to his improper diet while in detention. The group claimed that some its members were forced to spend their own funds to purchase food in order to survive.[4]

In an effort to appease concerned steamship companies who were worried that travellers would choose another destination or defer their travel to Quebec City, the Department of Immigration and Colonization informed the Canadian Pacific Railway that food prepared in the immigration hall was properly cooked “although it did not please everyone.” Bed linens were changed once per week, and if an immigrant was held longer in detention, they were supplied with new linens which were fumigated after each use. Officials also had to defend themselves from charges that “vermin” existed in the immigration hall. They replied that such accusations were the result of detention rather than from a lack of other comforts. While immigration officials claimed that each detainee was entitled to a clean bed and properly cooked food, many immigrants found that their surroundings were not congenial. As a result, the department noted its need “to call in some independent witnesses” in light of the public accusations.[5] Each spring prior to the arrival of the first transatlantic passenger vessel, twenty women were hired for a period of two weeks to clean the immigration facility. This work included the cleaning of windows, walls and detention quarters with the heaviest labour reserved for the male guards on site.[6]

In 1931, “Hangar A” or “Shed A” was erected along the railway line as an administrative building that could also process immigrants.[7] The immigration building on the Louise Embankment was home to an Immigration Officer-in-Charge, Odilon Cormier, from Quebec City, and an assortment of inspectors, interpreters, women officers, guards, matrons, cooks, kitchen helpers and office staff. Most of the staff at the Port of Quebec was French Canadian, although a sizable Irish contingent was also employed at the site.

Deportation of Immigrants during the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, many Canadians and recent immigrants became ‘public charges’ due to a lack of employment. The Immigration Act permitted Canadian officials to deport any unemployed immigrant who was deemed to be a ‘public charge.’ With official complaints from municipal authorities, these individuals were examined by a Board of Inquiry, and later trainloads of deportees were brought to Quebec City and other Atlantic ports of entry to be returned home to the United Kingdom or continental Europe.[8]

While ‘public charges,’ were being deported, Canada closed its doors to immigration in the belief that this would prevent further strain on its economy. Order-in-Council P.C. 695 of 21 March 1931 limited immigration to American citizens, and British subjects from the United Kingdom, Ireland, Newfoundland, Australia, New Zealand and the Union of South Africa “who has sufficient means to maintain himself until employment is secured.” Wives, unmarried children under the age of eighteen, or fiancées of men already residing in Canada were also admissible, meanwhile agriculturalists with “sufficient means to farm in Canada” were also permitted entry.[9] Along with deporting unemployed immigrants, the Port of Quebec had its own share of distress as it was saddled with considerable debt due to the global financial crisis.


The port played a central role in the development of Quebec City’s institutions, trade and modes of transportation. It also helped to diversify the sociocultural and political composition of the city. During the Great Depression, the Port was used as a social and economic gatekeeper: deporting unemployed immigrants deemed as ‘public charges,’ and denying entry to immigrants without sufficient financial means to support themselves during a period of global instability.

  1. David-Thierry Ruddel, Québec : L’évolution d’une ville coloniale, 1765-1832 (Hull : Musée canadien des civilisations, 1991), 31.
  2. For a historical overview of the Port of Quebec, see Pierre Camu, “Le déclin du Port de Québec dans la deuxième moitié du XIXe siècle,” Northern Mariner/le marin du nord 20.3 (2010): 251; Charles N. Forward, “The Development of Canada’s Five Leading National Ports,” Urban History Review 10.3 (1982): 26. A sizable amount of literature exists on the Port of Quebec, see Albert Faucher, “The Decline of Shipbuilding at Quebec in the Nineteenth Century,” Canada Journal of Economics and Political Science 23.2 (1957): 195-215; Judith Fingard, “The Decline of the Sailor as a Ship Labourer in 19th Century Timber Ports,” Labour/Le Travailleur 2 (1977): 35-53; Forward, “The Development of Canada’s Five Leading National Ports;” Judith Fingard, Jack in Port (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982); Robert J. Grace, “Irish Immigration and Settlement in a Catholic City: Quebec, 1842-61,” Canadian Historical Review 84.2 (2003): 217-251; Robert J. Grace, “A Demographic and Social Profile of Quebec City’s Irish Populations, 1842-1861,” Journal of American Ethnic History 23.1 (2003): 55-84; Christopher Andreae, “Evolution of the Port of Quebec, 1858-1936” (PhD diss., University of Western Ontario, 2006); Marc Vallières and Yvon Desloges, “Les échanges commerciaux de la colonie laurentienne avec la Grande-Bretagne, 1760-1850,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française 61.3-4 (2008): 425-467; Serge Rouleau, “Un regard archéologiques sur le port colonial français de Québec,” Archéologiques 22 (2009): 208-223; Camu, “Le déclin du Port de Québec dans la deuxième moitié du XIXe siècle;” Keith Mercer, “Northern Exposure: Resistance to Naval Impressment in British North America, 1775-1815,” Canadian Historical Review 91.2 (2010): 199-232.
  3. Fenton Crosman, “Recollections of an Immigration Officer:” The Memoirs of Fenton Crosman, 1930-1968 (Ottawa: Canadian Immigration Historical Society, 1989), 15.
  4. Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Immigration Branch (hereafter IB) fonds, RG 76, vol. 665, file C1077 “Inspection of Immigrants,” letter from Harry C. Duncan et al. to Mr. F.B. Barrow, Cunard-Anchor Line, 17 September 1930.
  5. LAC, IB, RG 76, vol. 665, file C1077 “Inspection of Immigrants,” letter from Assistant Deputy Minister, Department of Immigration and Colonization to William Baird, Steamship Passenger Traffic Manager, Canadian Pacific Railway Company, 10 October 1930.
  6. LAC, IB, RG 76, vol. 667, file C1596, pt. 3 “Immigration Building, Quebec, P.Q.,” memorandum from Division Commissioner to A.L. Jolliffe, Commissioner of Immigration, Department of Immigration and Colonization, 28 March 1931.
  7. Canada’s Historic Places, “Champlain Maritime Station,” http://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=10393.
  8. Crosman, “Recollections of an Immigration Officer”, 16, 18.
  9. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, House of Commons Debates: Official Report, Third Session – Twentieth Parliament, Volume 3 (Ottawa: King’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1947), 2644.

Jan Raska, PhD

A man stands in front of floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Dr. Jan Raska is a historian with the Canadian Museum of Immigration. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Waterloo. He is curator of the museum’s past temporary exhibitions, Safe Haven: Canada and the 1956 Hungarian Refugees and 1968: Canada and the Prague Spring Refugees. He is the author of Czech Refugees in Cold War Canada: 1945-1989 (University of Manitoba Press, 2018) and co-author of Pier 21: A History (University of Ottawa Press, 2020).