“The doors which once were opened wide are now but slightly ajar. The countries that boasted of their liberal attitudes toward new settlers – particularly the countries of the Western Hemisphere – are much more strict in their requirements today in permitting a foreigner to enter their boundaries for permanent settlement.”
– Harold Fields, The American Journal of International Law, 1932.

Pier 21 is best known as Halifax’s receiving station for almost one million immigrants to Canada, and as a key embarkation facility during the Second World War. However, most of the people who passed through the waterfront facility only saw one of the most important areas of the site if something went wrong during their examinations. If there was a problem with their admissibility—perhaps a job arrangement that fell through, or a discrepancy in papers that required a check—applicants for entry could be delayed and detained. They would then be placed in Pier 21’s immigration quarters.

Canada’s early twentieth-century immigration policies deliberately excluded groups thought unsuited for integration. Beyond ordinary screening overseas, Canadian officials often took extraordinary steps to prevent these “undesirable” immigrants from traveling to Canada. These included rigorous screening overseas, the head tax, and even diplomatic agreements to limit emigration from other countries. However, Canadian authorities encountered circumstances in which identifying undesirable immigrants as such was politically difficult. For example, British subjects from India or the West Indies could claim privileged legal status in Canada, despite being likely targets for exclusion based on “race.” Canadian authorities responded with indirect restrictions in these cases, requiring immigrants from these places to have more money in their possession, or make a continuous journey from their country of origin to Canada. Between indirect policies and screening measures, Canada’s authorities developed a robust regime of preventative exclusion. However, their efforts to forestall Black immigrants from the United States went well beyond these other examples. Canadian immigration officials used their authority to obstruct African-American applicants for immigration to Canada in the early twentieth century through the selective enforcement of regulations, deception, bribery, and other questionable methods.

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