Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation

by Lindsay Van Dyk, Former Junior Researcher

What do immigration rules tell us about Canada?

Since 1869, Canada has had laws and regulations governing the admission of immigrants. Immigration legislation has evolved and changed over time, shaped by the shifting social, political and economic climate, as well as dominant beliefs about race, desirability and integration. The open-door approach of the late nineteenth century gradually gave way to more restrictive measures that discriminated on the basis of race, ethnicity, and national origin. Overt discrimination remained a part of Canadian immigration policy until the latter half of the twentieth century, when skill and education became the main criteria for determining entrance into Canada, leaving some elements of discrimination still in place. Since Canada’s adoption of multiculturalism as an official policy in 1971, the cultural diversity of Canadian immigrants has been promoted as a key component of Canadian identity. Immigration legislation is ultimately a reflection of society’s beliefs and attitudes, but also reveals Canada’s history of inclusion and exclusion.

Immigration Act, 1869

Canada’s first immigration policy following Confederation contained few restrictions on immigration. The Immigration Act of 1869 primarily focused on ensuring the safety of immigrants during their passage to Canada and protecting them from exploitation upon their arrival. Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald hoped an open immigration policy would encourage the settlement of the West; however, large-scale immigration failed to become a reality as the rate of emigration remained well above the rate of immigration throughout the late nineteenth century.

Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration, 1885

The Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was appointed to prove the necessity of regulating Chinese immigration to Canada. Large number of Chinese labourers came to Canada in the 1880s to work on the western section of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Many politicians, trade unionists and white residents of British Columbia protested that the Chinese were immoral, prone to disease and incapable of assimilation. The commission recommended imposing a $10 duty on each Chinese person seeking entry into Canada.

The Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 was the first piece of Canadian legislation to exclude immigrants on the basis of their ethnic origin. It imposed a duty of $50 on every Chinese person seeking entry into Canada. The implementation of the duty only temporarily reduced the number of Chinese immigrants arriving in Canada. In 1900, the duty increased to $100 per person, followed by an increase to $500 in 1903.

Royal Commission on Italian Immigration, 1904-1905

The Royal Commission on Italian Immigration was called in 1904 to investigate the exploitation of Italian labourers by employment brokers known as padroni. The padroni recruited Italian workers for Canadian companies and oversaw their transport and employment upon arriving in Canada. The system was rife with corruption as many padroni inflated fees for brokerage, transportation, and food supply. The commission focused its investigation on prominent Montreal padrone Antonio Cordasco who primarily recruited labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Immigration Act, 1906

The Immigration Act of 1906 introduced a more restrictive immigration policy. It expanded the categories of prohibited immigrants, formalized a deportation process, and assigned the government enhanced powers to make arbitrary judgements on admission. While the act did not specifically restrict immigrants based on their culture, ethnicity or nationality, the government could prohibit any class of immigrants when it was considered necessary or expedient.

Gentlemen’s Agreement, 1908

In 1908, Canadian Minister of Labour Rodolphe Lemieux negotiated an agreement with Japanese Foreign Minister Tadasu Hayashi to restrict Japanese immigration to Canada. Restrictions on Japanese immigration were deemed necessary following a recent movement of Japanese labourers in British Columbia and a surge of anti-Asian sentiment in the province. Under the terms of the “gentlemen’s agreement,” the Japanese government voluntarily limited the number of Japanese immigrants annually arriving in Canada to 400.

Continuous Journey Regulation, 1908

The continuous journey regulation required prospective immigrants to travel to Canada by continuous journey from the country of which they were natives or citizens on a through ticket purchased in that country. Since there was no direct steamship service between India and Canada at this time, the regulation effectively blocked Indian immigration. It also led to a decline in Japanese immigration to Canada by closing off the primary immigration route through Hawaii.

Immigration Act, 1910

The Immigration Act of 1910 expanded the list of prohibited immigrants and gave the government greater discretionary authority concerning the admissibility and deportation of immigrants. Immigrants determined to be “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada” were prohibited, as were those sponsored by charitable institutions. Decision-making power remained concentrated in the executive branch of government; courts and judges were barred from reviewing, reversing or otherwise interfering in the decisions of the minister responsible for immigration and the proceedings of the boards of inquiry.

Order-in-Council PC 1911-1324

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Canadian immigration agents carried on a concerted campaign to block Black settlement in Canada. Canadian officials claimed no colour bar existed in their policies, but they created numerous obstacles for Black immigrants. This discriminatory practice was driven by pervasive domestic racism, and reached its fullest expression in 1910-1911. In response to persecuted Black farmers attempting to leave the United States in the hope of a more just life in Canada, Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier’s government used the pretext of their supposed climatic unsuitability to pass an Order-in-Council banning all “negro” immigration.

Naturalization Act, 1914

The Naturalization Act of 1914 introduced more stringent requirements for naturalization in Canada. To be approved for a certificate of naturalization, immigrants were required to live in Canada for five years, possess adequate knowledge of French or English, and exhibit good moral character. The secretary of state held absolute discretionary powers to grant and withhold certificates of naturalization with no recourse for appeal.

Immigration Act Amendment, 1919

The government amended the Immigration Act in 1919 with more restrictive regulations in response to the postwar economic downturn, labour unrest and growing anti-foreign sentiment. Immigrants from enemy alien countries were denied entry and the restricted categories of political dissidents were expanded. The federal cabinet was additionally authorized to prohibit immigrants of any nationality, race, occupation and class because of their “peculiar customs, habits, modes of life and methods of holding property.”

Empire Settlement Act, 1922

The Empire Settlement Act of 1922 was an agreement between the British government and several commonwealth countries designed to facilitate the resettlement of agriculturalists, farm labourers, domestics and juvenile immigrants throughout the Empire. In Canada, a variety of settlement schemes offered potential immigrants assistance with transportation costs and skill-specific training as incentives for emigration. Approximately 165,000 British immigrants arrived in Canada as participants in different settlement programs, far less than the millions originally envisioned.

Chinese Immigration Act, 1923

The Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 virtually restricted all Chinese immigration to Canada by narrowly defining the acceptable categories of Chinese immigrants. While the entrance duty requirement was repealed, admissible Chinese immigrants were limited to diplomats and government representatives, merchants, children born in Canada who had left for educational or other purposes, and students while attending university or college. Between 1923 and 1946, it is estimated that only 15 Chinese immigrants gained entry into Canada.

Railway Agreement, 1925

In 1925, the Canadian government formalized an agreement with the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Canadian National Railway allowing the companies to control the recruitment and settlement of European agriculturalists in an effort to fulfill Canada’s growing labour needs. Railway companies were permitted to recruit immigrants from countries that had previously been designated non-preferred nations, leading to a significant movement of immigrants from Central Europe. The agreement was cancelled in 1930, precipitated by a change in government and massive unemployment.

Order-in- Council PC 1931-695, 1931

With the passage of Order-in-Council PC 695 on 21 March 1931, the government implemented the tightest immigration admissions policy in Canadian history. Further restrictions were deemed necessary after the onset of the Great Depression in order to combat soaring unemployment and further economic decline. Admissible immigrants were limited to American citizens and British subjects with enough capital to maintain themselves, agriculturalists with sufficient means to farm in Canada and the wives and minor children of Canadian residents.

Canadian Citizenship Act, 1947

The Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947 created the category of Canadian citizenship and allowed residents of Canada to obtain citizenship regardless of their country of origin. Prior to 1947, individuals born in Canada and naturalized immigrants were classified as British subjects rather than Canadian citizens. The new act established the criteria for obtaining citizenship and outlined the circumstances under which citizenship could be lost or revoked.

Immigration Act, 1952

The Immigration Act of 1952 was the first new immigration act since 1910. It was not a significant departure from prior legislation as it largely codified existing practices and established a legislative framework from which the government could enact additional orders and regulations. The primary effect of the act was to reinforce the powers of the governor-in-council (i.e. federal cabinet) and invest the minister of citizenship and immigration with broad discretionary powers over admissibility and deportation.

Immigration Regulations, Order-in-Council PC 1962-86, 1962

The new immigration regulations introduced in 1962 eliminated overt racial discrimination from Canadian immigration policy. Skill became the main criteria for determining admissibility rather than race or national origin. The classes of sponsored immigrants were expanded so that all Canadian citizens and permanent residents could sponsor relatives for immigration. However, an element of discrimination remained as only Canadian immigrants from preferred nations in Europe, the Americas and select countries in the Middle East were permitted to sponsor children over the age of 21, married children and other members of their extended family.

White Paper on Immigration, 1966

The White Paper on Immigration was a policy document commissioned by the government to review immigration legislation and make recommendations on its restructuring. The report suggested that Canada should focus on recruiting qualified immigrants and tighten the controls on sponsored immigration to avoid a significant movement of unskilled labourers. Although the proposal to restrict sponsored immigration was broadly criticized, the white paper laid the foundation for new immigration regulations in 1967.

Immigration Regulations, Order-in Council PC 1967-1616, 1967

The immigration regulations introduced in 1967 established new standards for evaluating potential immigrants. To enhance the objectivity of admissions procedures, a system was set up in which independent immigrants were assessed points in specific categories relating to their education, occupational skills, employment prospects, age, proficiency in English and French and personal character.

Canadian Multiculturalism Policy, 1971

In a statement to the House of Commons on 8 October 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau announced multiculturalism within a bilingual framework as an official government policy. Multiculturalism was intended to preserve the cultural freedom of individuals and provide recognition of the cultural contributions of diverse ethnic groups to Canadian society. The government committed to support multiculturalism by assisting cultural groups in their development, assisting individuals in overcoming discriminatory barriers, encouraging intercultural exchange and assisting immigrants in learning French or English.

Immigration Act, 1976

The Immigration Act of 1976 represented a significant shift in Canadian immigration legislation. It was the first immigration act to clearly outline the objectives of Canadian immigration policy, define refugees as a distinct class of immigrants and mandate the federal government to consult with other levels of government in immigration planning and management. The act was positively regarded as a progressive piece of legislation and it received broad social and political support.

Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988

The Canadian Multiculturalism Act of 1988 provided a legislative framework to the existing policy of multiculturalism and expanded its focus. Revisions to the policy were deemed necessary to better reflect Canada’s increasingly diverse racial and ethnic composition. The act sought to protect the cultural heritage of all Canadians, reduce discrimination, and encourage the implementation of multicultural programs and initiatives within institutions and organizations. Canada was the first country to pass a national multiculturalism law.