Canadian Immigration Acts and Legislation


Canada has regulated immigration since 1869, and laws have been shaped by the social, political, and economic climate, as well as race, desirability, and integration. Elements of discrimination have often been prominent in Canadian immigration policy. In 1967, immigration policy was liberalized with the introduction of the “points system..” The cultural diversity of Canadian immigrants to Canada is now a key component of Canadian identity. Immigration legislation reflects Canada’s changing beliefs and its history of inclusion and exclusion.

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.