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Canadian Immigration Facilities at Victoria, BC

by Steve Schwinghamer, Historian

“Conditions are so much different out here from what you have in the East”

The history of immigration facilities at the port of Victoria, British Columbia, extends from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. However, Victoria’s role was marginalized by the emergence of Vancouver as a key port of entry in the 1920s. The development, operation, and diminution of the city’s immigration facilities reflected changing immigration policies and practices. First, Victoria’s economic and social role in British Columbia and in Canada changed substantially, which also changed the nature and scope of immigration to the city. Second, public health interests often overwhelmed - and sometimes completely displaced - the implementation of civil immigration policy. Finally, Victoria’s immigration facility history reflects periods of cooperation and conflict between the provincial and federal governments. In addition to shedding light on Victoria’s role in immigration history, an examination of these three factors provides some useful information on the development of Canada’s early national immigration structures.

Temporary Quarters

Although the city had already dealt with massive infusions of migrant labourers after the gold rush of 1858, the first major ocean arrival of immigrants to Victoria occurred in September of 1862. The SS Tynemouth arrived with two hundred seventy passengers, including sixty-two women, bolstering the small colonial community at Victoria.[1] The arrival created “excitement, confusion, spectacle, and challenge.”[2] It also resulted in the first well-organized immigrant reception space in Victoria: the Marine Barracks were converted to accommodations that included living space for the women, storage for their luggage, and ample provision for guards.[3] However, the space was only temporary. Even as Victoria grew substantially through the latter part of the nineteenth century, to over 23,000 residents, there were only limited facilities for immigrants and immigration staff.[4] Early federal immigration agents, appointed in the 1880s, shared office accommodation with provincial government workers and struggled to find or rent a suitable building for examining and housing or detaining newcomers.[5] In 1884, the local immigration agent, John Jessop, rented a twenty-room, two-storey converted hotel in Victoria at Simcoe and Dallas roads for the purpose of accommodating several families in need, as “the local government considered it advisable to provide temporary accommodation for such as required it.”[6] However, the actual immigration office remained in a provincial government building.

This ad hoc arrangement remained in place until 1892, when J.M Gordon, a travelling inspector for federal agencies, wrote to the premier of BC, Theodore Davis, stating that he was “instructed to dispose of the contents and close the Immigration Offices and Homes at Victoria and Vancouver.”[7] It appears that the combination of restricted Asian immigration and an effort to push immigration responsibilities back to the provinces contributed to this surprising action. In 1896, the Department of the Interior requested Public Works “take the building in hand” as “this building is not now required for immigration purposes and it is not likely to be needed again for any purpose by this Department.”[8] In the end, the immigration home was maintained, but for several years it operated without federal presence. The geographic and political situation of the city led to the withdrawal of federal services and the near-demise of Victoria’s immigration home in the late nineteenth century.

As the federal immigration presence dwindled in Victoria, the city was successfully establishing notable local medical infrastructure. The Victoria Royal Jubilee Hospital opened in 1890, and in 1891 added an isolation ward in response to a local smallpox outbreak.[9] This public health scare was closely followed by another. On 18 April 1892, a vessel arrived carrying a smallpox case among her steerage passengers. Dr. MacNaughton Jones, then medical officer for the port of Victoria, permitted more than five hundred Chinese men to disembark at the rudimentary quarantine station Albert Head. This action caused a controversy both due to public health fears but also due to racial tensions of the time.[10] The links between immigration and public health in Victoria strengthened as time passed after the small pox controversy. The administration of medical and health services provided the catalyst in resurrecting appropriate immigration facilities in the city of Victoria.

At the turn of the twentieth century, medical inspectors at Canadian ports were regularly authorized to act as immigration agents—that is, to admit or to deny immigrants.[11] In the words of the chief medical inspector of the day, Dr. Peter Bryce, “it would seem desirable that the same officer be clothed with the double powers of Immigration Agent and of Medical Inspector in order to make his authority under the several clauses of the Act unquestionable.”[12] In September of 1904, Dr. G.L. Milne corresponded with Bryce to confirm his appointment as both medical inspector and immigration agent for the port of Victoria.[13] This was an important step, as after the withdrawal of federal services in the 1890s, Victoria had no designated federal immigration agents. Customs agents would act ex officio as immigration authorities. By way of startling contrast, there were eight American immigration officers, a medical officer, and associated office staff situated in Victoria to meet trans-Pacific ships.[14]

The problems of the double role given to the new Canadian agents were made apparent in Vancouver, where another doctor was also cross-appointed as both immigration and medical inspector. Dr. J.A. McAlpin found himself embroiled in allegations of conflict of interest and abuse of authority. He was accused of monopolizing care of medically detained immigrants – something he understood to be his duty – but he also was the arbiter of who would be detained and treated, and that treatment occasioned an additional charge which would profit him as the attending doctor.[15] McAlpin was accused of imposing treatment (apparently for trachoma) upon detained passengers “by physical force.”[16]

The Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver further accused McAlpin of extortion of medical fees under fear of deportation, having obtained medical opinions that McAlpin’s treatments were unnecessary.[17] In March of 1905, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier ordered William Cory, deputy minister of the interior, to have McAlpin investigated.[18] Although McAlpin was largely exonerated by corroborating examination from another doctor confirming his finding, Bryce remarked to Laurier in correspondence in a few weeks later that McAlpin “has not proved in every way a judicious officer” and recommended that the inspection and treatment duties be separated.[19] This separation of duties led to several direct conflicts between McAlpin and his colleagues in immigration, including a case in which he bribed or intimidated a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) guard in Vancouver in order to get access to persons awaiting deportation and then – apparently on his own contradictory medical finding – McAlpin was able to get four of the cases delayed and brought to court.[20]

The doctor/agents Milne and McAlpin embodied the strong interweaving of civil and medical authorities around immigration in British Columbia at this time. In fact, the powers were so intertwined that they become confused, with the medical branch bypassing the immigration branch in some ways. For instance, Milne repeatedly complained to the chief medical officer (but not to the superintendent) regarding the awkwardness of processing arrivals in any numbers without a dedicated immigration shed in Victoria.[21] Bryce recommended to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier in 1905 that a permanent immigration building with a dock be created in Victoria, and that Drs. Milne and McAlpin be drawn into full-time and exclusive employment for the immigration branch, bypassing the superintendent of immigration, whose authority extended to these matters. Later in the same year, Milne returned to his complaint regarding the lack of facilities after three Japanese stowaways arrived aboard a Chinese ship. He rather acidly commented on the need to borrow facilities from the United States immigration authorities, stating to his superior in the medical service, Bryce, that “you will notice again the necessity of having sheds or places to keep all kinds of immigrants at this station” before pointing to the danger of escapes – again, a civil rather than medical matter. The tangled authorities resulted in problems in the examination of immigrants. An official of the Department of the Interior observed during a visit to Vancouver in 1905 that “there is no civil examination of passengers arriving at the Port of Vancouver” and commented that the acting immigration agent was “not so familiar with the routine of Immigration matters as would be expected of [a full time agent].”[22] On the other hand, McAlpin’s letter to Bryce of 23 January 1905 points to a belief in a disjuncture between federal policy and local implementation, stating that “conditions are so much different out here from what you have in the East that it requires numerous contingencies to arrive before things are on a smooth basis.”[23]

Bryce continued to press the superintendent of immigration of the day, W.D. Scott, to respond to the lack of facilities in Victoria, which resulted in Scott making a visit to the port in 1906. The shift in the organization’s approach to infrastructure at Victoria following the visit is striking. Scott’s memorandum to Oliver on the subject of the facilities at Victoria of October 1906 makes only the barest acknowledgement of an argument regarding the need for facilities, moving from saying “we have absolutely no accommodation either for incoming immigrants or those found to have minor contagious disease” immediately to naming specific lots that may be purchased for an immigration building.[24] The rapid change in the situation for immigration agents in Victoria was an occasion for wry humour. Bryce chastised Milne for calling the proposed building a “detention shed” while discussing the matter with the press:

“I hereby give you warning that from this time forth if you do not use the more dignified terms ‘Immigration Hospital’ or ‘Immigration Building’ in connection with the proposed elegant structure we intend to put up on the site already designated you will get into trouble, not only with the Department but, which is of course of much more account to you, you will hurt my feelings greatly.”[25]

Bryce did note carefully, however, that the proposal would only benefit from all the care and dignity they could offer it in public discussion. At this time, the acquisition was moving relatively quickly within the department, and Bryce’s note carries the air of his not wishing to jeopardize an unexpected stroke of luck. Oliver and Scott set the purchase of proposed land in motion in early November 1906.[26] The Department of Public Works set the allocation for immigration buildings in Victoria to fall during the 1907-08 fiscal year, but the purchase had to be hastened along by continuing pressure from the immigration branch in order to ensure they secured the property at the original price.[27]

The Immigration Hospital

A large building sits behind a gated fence, as seen from across the road.

Immigration Detention Hospital, Victoria BC, 1909.
Library and Archives Canada PA-046388

The new Immigration Hospital opened in Victoria on 13 November 1909; Milne and the other immigration staff moved in to the building at the start of December.[28] It was located at Dallas and Ontario streets, adjoining the site of the former immigration home that had been rented by Jessop in the 1880s. The building attracted some attention in the local press, and the details of its fitting-up and function provoked an ongoing exchange within the immigration branch proper. The proposed facility was a two-storey structure, with a combination of racially-segregated wards, medical inspection areas, and administrative space that reflected both the needs and the imagination of the authorities of the time. The building was designed to accommodate ninety-six Hindus, thirty-six women, twenty-four Chinese, forty-eight Japanese, and sixteen others.[29] Milne reflected on many details, ranging from plumbing suitable for immigrants accustomed to washing themselves with water rather than using toilet paper, to obtaining the best sunlight for inspection rooms. He remarks of the cultural accommodations he recommends in design that “these things may not be in accordance with our habits but we must in some degree comply with the Customs of these we have to deal with.”[30]

In speaking to the press regarding the building a few years into its operation, Scott addressed a different cultural sensibility, assuring “white people” that “care is taken that they shall not commingle with the Orientals at any stage of their stay” in the facility.[31] This speech addressed a contemporary domestic context in BC and in Canada regarding immigration that was nativist and frequently racist, including racially-motivated violence such as the riot in Vancouver of 1907. This domestic environment contributed to governments choosing policies contrary to the interests of potential immigrants while competing to avoid political damage with the voting publics of British Columbia and Canada. This was neatly illustrated in early 1908, when the arrival of Kaga Maru and Monteagle provoked a stern reminder from L.M. Fortier, then acting as superintendent of immigration, to federal immigration staff that they must “strictly enforce regulations of January eighth requiring possession of twenty-five dollars after February fifteenth, and of January eighth as to exclusion if not on through tickets.”[32] This was a scarcely-veiled exhortation to refuse and deport as many of the Asian immigrants aboard these vessels as possible, using the flexible pretexts of the discretionary authority within those immigration regulations. Milne and Munro affirmed their compliance in immediate telegraphed replies.

In 1905 Milne claimed Victoria was the busiest port in Canada based on examinations of ships.[33] In July of 1908, more than thirty thousand passengers from foreign ports arrived at Victoria.[34] Bryce mentions that Victoria’s traffic was such that it kept Milne “constantly employed and like no other port except Vancouver the work is daily all the year round.”[35] However, the combination of politics and geography had already critically undermined the city as an immigration destination in favour of Vancouver; much of its traffic was, and remains, visitors from the US rather than new entries. Indeed, by 1922, civil examination was suspended entirely in Victoria for Chinese immigrants carrying on to Vancouver: they were simply examined there after passing a medical upon arrival in Victoria.[36] Through the following decade, immigration agents began using Victoria regularly as an advance stations for inspection to speed arrival and processing at the regional centre, Vancouver.[37] This method of boarding and pre-screening aboard ship was similar to that used at Quebec, with officers joining the vessel at Father Point to reduce wait times ashore.

By the late 1920s, Vancouver was routinely receiving three times as many immigrants as Victoria.[38] This diversion meant the facilities in the city were less used, and after decades of underuse, the immigration building closed its doors in 1958. A newspaper article of the day stated that “Immigration officials were not sorry to leave the old building…[it] abounded with tragic stories of destitute settlers” although some officers did admit feeling nostalgic about the site.[39] In a similar vein of conflicted memory around the site, reports noted both the building’s beautiful grounds – and a controversy around reports of substandard conditions for immigrants held within. One complaint about the Victoria Immigration Building from 1952 was picked up abroad by a Communist newspaper in Austria, and reported under the title “Misery as in a Prisoner of War Camp.”[40] This public image existed alongside that created by picturesque photographs of the building with its garden and flagpole, captioned with a testament that the building was “reputed to have one of the nicest settings of any Immigration Building in Canada.”[41] The difficult place of the site in public heritage continued long after its closure. In one unusual heritage proposal responding to the dereliction of the site, the chair of Victoria’s Heritage Advisory Council suggested in 1977 that it “would make a marvelous ruin; I’m all for ruins but they are not fashionable.”[42] Ultimately, Victoria’s immigration building sat deserted for twenty years after closing and was only finally demolished in 1978.[43]

The practice of using Victoria essentially as a staging point for admission at Vancouver remained in place until the late 1960s, when an integrated approach to screening processes called Primary Inspection Line (PIL) examination was launched. This was done largely in response to the demand for expeditious processing around air travel, and again followed the lead of other ports of entry. These developments further marginalized Victoria’s role as an immigration port of entry. This decline and relative stagnation is evident in statistics: in 1966, 377 immigrants arrived at Victoria, while 11,499 arrived at Vancouver (including 9,025 by air).[44] A decade later, Victoria greeted just over 500 new arrivals, while almost 25,000 arrived at Vancouver – and more than 93% of those by air.[45] In 1996, 60,000 immigrants arrived at Vancouver, while in Victoria, immigration was still at a similar level to the 1960s (or, for that matter, the 1920s) with just 368 entries.[46]

Victoria’s immigration facilities were the site of a complex power struggle. The changing economic and political importance of the city, the tangle of medical and civil immigration authority, and cooperation and conflict between government agents, all contributed to the history of Victoria’s immigration buildings. These factors also contributed to the brief period of Victoria’s centrality as an immigration port, and to its displacement as the West Coast gateway to Canada by Vancouver, the terminus of the inland railway.

  1. Harry Gregson, A History of Victoria, 1842-1970 (Vancouver: J.J. Douglas, 1977), 63.
  2. Adele Perry, On the Edge of Empire: Gender, Race, and the Making of British Columbia, 1849-1871 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001), 97-123; 152-153. In this short blog entry, there is little space to explore the complex issues of race and gender around this movement: Perry’s work is strongly recommended in this regard.
  3. Perry, 158-160.
  4. Gregson, 72; Canada, Department of Agriculture, Statistical Abstract and Record 1886 (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1886), 70; and Canada, Department of Agriculture, The Statistical Year-Book of Canada for 1902 (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1903), 82.
  5. John Jessop to John Lowe, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Victoria BC, 19 December 1883, in Canada, Department of Agriculture, “John Jessop, Victoria, B.C. Suggesting Certain Buildings for Immigration Office”, LAC RG 17 Volume 390 File 42090 (hereafter File 42090); Patricia Dunae, “John Jessop” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, online edition, accessed 25 March 2015.
  6. John Jessop, “Annual Report of Victoria BC Agent 1884”, Victoria BC, in LAC RG 17 Volume 427 File 46601, 10.
  7. Gordon to Davis, Victoria BC, 6 July 1892 in Canada, Department of Immigration, “Victoria, British Columbia - Immigration Building”, LAC RG 76 Volume 314 File 300404 (hereafter File 300404).
  8. Pereira to Secretary Department of Public Works, Ottawa ON, 12 March 1896, File 300404.
  9. Gregson, 164.
  10. Lowe to W.G. Parmalee, Chief Controller of Chinese Immigration, Ottawa, 21 April 1892, in Canada, Department of Agriculture, “Reporting Empress of China Arrived – 1 Chinese with Smallpox – Quarantine Officer has Allowed 531 Chinese to Land on His Own Responsibility”, LAC RG 17 Volume 723 File 83161.
  11. Bryce, “Memorandum of Instructions re the Medical Inspection of Steamships arriving at Ports in British Columbia”, undated (likely 1904), in Canada, Department of Immigration, “Medical Examination of immigrants at the ports of Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia”, LAC RG 76 Volumes 331 and 332 File 330483 Part 1 (hereafter File 330483).
  12. Bryce to C. Sifton, Minister of the Interior, Ottawa ON, 13 September 1904, File 330483 Part 1.
  13. Milne to Bryce, Victoria BC, 24 September 1904, File 330483 Part 1.
  14. Milne to Bryce, Victoria BC, 13 October 1904, File 330483 Part 1.
  15. Bryce to H.G. Macpherson, Member of Parliament, Ottawa ON, 24 March 1905, File 330483 Part 2.
  16. Declarations of Duk Sue and Chow Fon, Vancouver BC, 21 January 1905, File 330483 Part 2.
  17. Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver to Minister of Trade and Commerce, Vancouver BC, 14 March 1905, File 330483 Part 2.
  18. Laurier to Cory, Ottawa ON, 27 March 1905, File 330483 Part 2.
  19. Bryce to Laurier, Ottawa ON, 13 April 1905, File 330483 Part 3.
  20. Dr. McKechnie to Bryce, Vancouver BC, 1 May 1906, File 330383 Part 4.
  21. Milne to Bryce, Victoria BC, 9 June 1905, File 330483 Part 3.
  22. J.S. Fraser to Scott, Ottawa ON, 30 October 1905, File 330483 Part 4.
  23. McAlpin to Bryce, Vancouver BC, 23 January 1905, in File 330483.
  24. Oliver to Templeman, Ottawa ON, 25 July 1906, in Canada, Department of Immigration, “Detention Hospital, Victoria, British Columbia”, LAC RG 76 Volumes 352 and 353 File 381766 (hereafter File 381766) Part 1; Bryce to Milne, Ottawa ON, 7 August 1906, in File 381766 Part 1; Scott to Oliver, Ottawa ON, 11 October 1906, in File 381766 Part 1
  25. Bryce to Milne, Ottawa ON, 26 October 1906, in File 381766 Part 1.
  26. Scott to Oliver (n.b. marginalia), Ottawa ON, 30 October 1906, in File 381766 Part 1; Scott to Public Works, Ottawa ON, 8 November 1906, in File 381766 Part 1.
  27. Gelinas to Scott, Ottawa ON, 3 December 1906, in 381766 Part 1; Scott to Gelinas, Ottawa ON, 12 January 1907, in File 381766 Part 1.
  28. Milne to Scott, Victoria BC, 4 December 1909, in File 381766 Part 2; Unknown author, “Immigration Building is Now in Use”, Victoria Daily Times, 15 November 1909, in File 381766 Part 2.
  29. Bryce to Public Works, Ottawa ON, 8 May 1908, in File 381766 Part 1.
  30. Unknown author, “New Immigration Building Here”, Victoria Daily Times, 5 February 1907 in File 381766 Part 1; Milne to Scott, Victoria BC, 26 April 1907, in File 381766 Part 1.
  31. Unknown author, “Helping Hand to Immigrants”, Colonist, 4 September 1912, in File 381766 Part 2.
  32. Fortier to Munro, Ottawa ON, 18 February 1908, in File 330483 Part 5.
  33. Milne to Herbert Cuthbert, Secretary of Victoria Tourist Association, Victoria BC, 16 February 1905, in File 330483.
  34. Unknown author, “Summer Influx Unprecedented”, Victoria Daily Times, 7 August 1908, in File 330483 Part 5.
  35. Bryce, “Report re: Victoria Detention Hospital”, undated and excerpted, in File 334402 Staff 2.
  36. Milne to Bryce, Victoria BC, 14 July 1922, in File 330483 Part 5.
  37. P.W. Bird, Pacific District Superintendent of Immigration, to G.R. Benoit, Chief of Operations, Department of Immigration, Vancouver BC, 24 March 1961, in Canada, Department of Immigration, “Examination of Immigrants – Vancouver, BC”, LAC RG 76 Volume 791 File 544-23-373. (Immigration officers were somewhat chagrined later, as pre-screening aboard ship continued, that their efforts to convince the Department to permit them to join ship in Honolulu were rebuffed after limited trials.)
  38. With assistance from Jan Raska, based on Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Canada Year Book 1930 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1930), 170; Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Canada Year Book 1937 (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1937), 200; and Canada, Dominion Bureau of Statistics, Canada Year Book 1939 (Ottawa: Kings Printer, 1939), 164.
  39. Humphry Davy, “Doors Shut Tight on Storied Past”, Victoria Daily Times, 24 October 1958.
  40. Unknown author, “Victoria Pictured as Prison Camp”, Victoria Daily Times, 6 February 1952.
  41. Photograph by Irving Strickland accompanying Aileen Campbell, “Diamond Smugglers and $20 Gold Pieces”, Victoria Daily Times, an undated clipping in Greater Victoria Public Library Heritage Room clipping file, “Immigration Building.”
  42. Les Storey, “Ruin Doomed in James Bay”, Monday Magazine, 21 November 1977, 6-7.
  43. Geoffrey Castle, “Victoria Landmarks”, Victoria Times-Colonist, 28 August 1983, C4.
  44. Canada, Department of Manpower and Immigration, 1966 Immigration Statistics (Ottawa: Queen’s Printer, 1967), 23.
  45. Canada, Manpower and Immigration, 1976 Immigration Statistics (Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1977), 17.
  46. Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Immigration Statistics 1996 (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services, 1999), 7; Raska, “Dominion Bureau of Statistics – Canada Year Books.”