Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada

II: Setting the Scene: Immigration:

1896-1947 An Overview

National and international factors combined to produce the flood of immigration to Canada between 1896 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. As world trade recovered from the depression of the 1880s and middle 1890s, the demand and prices for foodstuffs increased in Great Britain and Western Europe. For most of the century, the U.S. had been regarded as the land of opportunity. However, by 1890 its good free lands had been occupied, and the tide of immigration turned northward to the Canadian West. Dry-farming methods and faster maturing strains of wheat, which had been developed in the U.S., were ideally suited to the low rainfall and short growing season of the prairies. Transportation for settlers and their products was available on the Canadian Pacific Railway, and the presence of the North West Mounted Police ensured the preservation of law and order.

In 1896, the new Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier instituted an aggressive policy designed to encourage massive immigration to Canada. To Laurier, as to John A. Macdonald before him, large-scale immigration and western settlement were essential for national development. The 1891 Census showed barely a quarter million people in Manitoba and the Northwest Territories. In particular, Laurier and his Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton, initiated a vigorous campaign to attract settlers to the prairies: advertisements in American and British newspapers, exhibits at fairs around the world, agents in Europe, special rates on steamships and on colonist railway cars across Canada, and free train tours for farmers and newspaper editors to see the so-called last, best West for themselves. In addition, a free grant of 160 acres of land was offered to immigrants who would settle in the West. By 1911, nearly two million people had immigrated to Canada. The influx reached a peak in 1913 when 400,870 immigrants were admitted. While some migrated to the cities or the new northern mining and lumbering areas, over a million settled on the prairies and in British Columbia. The wave of immigration resulted in the creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905.

The majority of immigrants during this period were English-speaking and came from the U.S., Britain, and Ontario. There was also a sizable minority from Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, Ukraine, Austria, Poland, and Italy, along with some 40,000 Asians, mostly Chinese. Sifton was criticized for introducing new elements into the Canadian population that would upset the cultural balance. Nonetheless he defended his interest in the stalwart peasant of central Europe who would make the prairie sod productive and the Canadian West one of the great wheat granaries of the world. During the years 1896 1914 there were few restrictions against Caucasian immigrants. Conversely, however, non-white immigrants- Japanese, East Indian, and especially Chinese- were the victims of discriminating legislation.

The arrival of so many people in a short period had profound effects on the history of Canada. There were social and racial tensions at the time, and there would be problems in the future with the Doukhobors in the West, and the Chinese, Japanese, and Hindus on the coast. Nevertheless, the immigrants of the early twentieth century contributed quickly to national prosperity, expanding exports, stimulating the industry of eastern Canada through their need for machinery and manufactured goods. Such growth led to the expansion of the railway and the construction of two new continental lines.

Immigration dwindled during World War I and the post-war adjustment period, but increased again in the boom years of the middle and later 1920s. Canada's attitude toward immigration following the war was described by the Toronto Globe as an open door, with a firm hand on the knob. The government of William Lyon Mackenzie King, elected in 1921, promoted the entry of farm hands and domestic servants and gave preference to persons of British stock. Nevertheless, the immigration office in Paris was reopened and new offices were established in Eastern Europe. Selected groups were offered reduced rates on ocean lines. In addition, the CPR loaned money on favourable terms to prospective settlers in the West. The policy of the King government during this period was to bring the landless man to the man-less land. During the 1920s, almost 1,250,000 immigrants were admitted to Canada. At the same time, further restrictive measures were imposed against the entry of Asian immigrants, particularly those of Chinese descent. The stringent Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 ended Chinese emigration to Canada almost completely, as it was intended to do.

By the end of the decade, however, it was clear that the influx of immigration had caused serious strains in Canadian society. English-speaking western farmers and organized labour feared the competition. Protestants claimed that the new immigration policies were unfairly favourable toward Catholicism. Some Canadians objected to foreigners being aided while they had to depend on their own resources. Still others believed that Canada should close her doors altogether until all recent arrivals had been assimilated.

In the 1930s, immigration levels sank to their lowest point in seventy years. Such a dramatic reduction resulted not only from the devastating effects of the Great Depression but also from a major shift in government policy. In 1929 and 1930, control over natural resources was transferred from the federal government to the prairie provinces, an official sign that the great national plan for immigration and western settlement had been completed. In March 1930 the government also announced that assisted immigration was at an end. At the same time, the depression intensified hostility toward immigrants and the fear that certain ethnic groups were a threat to the fabric of Canadian society. Prior to the 1930s, those most victimized were Chinese, Japanese, and East Indian immigrants. During the depression years, the most vicious hostility was directed against Japanese immigrants. Fear of the alien became most pronounced in the late 1930s when thousands of Jewish refugees from Nazi persecution sought sanctuary in Canada. In one of the most regrettable episodes in Canadian history, the government bowed to political pressure and instituted increasingly stringent anti-Jewish policies.

It was not until the end of World War II that a renewed stream of immigrants began arriving in Canada. The newcomers sought to escape the austerity of Britain, the over-population of Holland and Italy, and the refugee camps and political uncertainties in a number of European countries. During this period, in contrast to the Laurier era, a greater proportion of immigrants settled in the cities, heightening the urban-industrial character of Canada. Many were skilled workers and brought some capital with them. There was not as much negative reaction to the perceived differences of the immigrants as in the pre-war era. By now, the idea of cultural diversity, or Canada as a mosaic, appealed to many people, at least in English Canada. French Canada, however, continued to regard immigration and multiple ethnic origins as a threat to its survival, especially as the majority of European immigrants chose to become English-speaking rather than French-speaking.

The maturing of Canada as a nation, and the addition of so many and such varied newcomers, brought the question of Canadian citizenship to the fore. In 1946, the Mackenzie King government passed the Canadian Citizenship Act. It defined, and established for the first time, a status as Canadian citizen additional to that of British subject. (Technically there was no such thing as a Canadian citizen until the Act came into force.) Moreover, the Act repealed discriminating legislation against aliens and ethnic groups and codified the rights of alien residents in Canada.


Avery, Donald H. Reluctant Host: Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995.

Bothwell, Robert; Drummond, Ian; English, John. Canada, 1900-1945.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987.

Census of Canada, 1891. 1901. 1911.

Clippingdale, Richard. Laurier: His Life and World. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1979.

Granatstein, J. L. Mackenzie King: His Life and World. Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1977.

Kage, Joseph, Jews, The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2nd Ed. Vol. 2. Pp. 1110- 1111. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988.

Neatby, H. Blair. William Lyon Mackenzie King, Vol. 3, 1932-1939: The Prism Of Unity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976.

Schull, Joseph. Laurier: The First Canadian. Toronto: Macmillan, 1965.

Skelton, Oscar Douglas. Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier. Vol. 2. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1965.

Statutes of Canada. 1946.

Wickberg, E. B. Chinese, The Canadian Encyclopedia. 2nd Ed. Vol. 1. Pp. 415-417. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1988.