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Laurier House National Historic Site of Canada

III: Figuring out the Facts

1) The Great Boom of 1900 to 1913

From the turn of the century until the outbreak of the First World War, Canada experienced the greatest economic boom in its history. The development was not unprecedented; there had been many booms before, and we know that the years from Confederation to the early 1890s had seen a quite impressive development of industry in central Canada. But the Great Boom of 1900-13 captured the imagination of contemporaries in not only Canada but also Britain and the United States. It has continued to fascinate historians.

During these years the fields and mountains of the Canadian west became as populated as they are ever likely to be. Farmers settled in the thousands on the wheat fields of the prairie provinces; prairie cities grew many-fold. In northern Ontario and Quebec, new mines, fields, and paper mills appeared. In British Columbia, mining and forestry developed apace; the city of Vancouver became the metropolis of its province and a major seaport not only for British Columbia but for the prairies as well. At the same time, rapid urbanization and industrial development occurred in central Canada and Cape Breton Island. The railway network was transformed, as was the financial system which came to resemble the arrangement we know.

(Extract from Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, John English, Canada, 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. P. 55.)


  1. Did the economic boom of the early twentieth century affect all parts of the country?
  2. Did it affect all sectors of the economy?
  3. Do you think this account of the boom is somewhat exaggerated? (For example, the populating of the mountains; the urbanization of Cape Breton Island; the financial system resembling the system in existence today.)
  4. In your opinion, do immigrants help the economy? Do they contribute culturally?
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2) Immigration, the Railroad, and the West

The significance of the railway in the settlement of the West is well known. However, as the following extract illustrates, the importance of the railway was not restricted to the transportation of immigrants.

Settlement ... spread over the prairies, and a network of railway branch lines accompanied that spread. Just as the railways needed the farmer, so the farmers needed the railways and the small mercantile towns that quickly appeared along the tracks. In the process, millions of acres passed from large owner to small occupant. When the dominion purchased Rupert's Land from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1870, the company retained 20 per cent of the acreage in the fertile belt,' an amount that, after downward adjustments because of Indian reserves, national parks, and forest reserves, came to rest at 6,639,059 acres. The rest of Rupert's land consisted of Dominion lands' and reserves. On entering Confederation in 1871, British Columbia transferred 14,181,000 acres to the dominion as a railway land grant. Much of the Dominion land' was passed on to the railway companies as a form of construction subsidy...

The HBC and the railway companies did not always sell the land directly to settlers. Often they sold off large blocks to speculative land companies, which in turn would sell the land at a profit to farmer-occupants. It was precisely because prospects for wheat were buoyant that the land grantees could dispose of huge areas on increasingly favourable terms. Without willing occupants who could foresee a profit from wheat growing, the land grants would have been worthless. The dominion, furthermore, was willing and indeed anxious to sell its remaining land, both en bloc, and in small parcels. The demand for purchased land, however, was limited by the availability of free or cheap homestead land.' Ever since 1871 it had been possible for a settler to occupy and eventually to own a free homestead that was normally 160 acres in size. Title would pass to the homesteader after three years of occupancy, so long as certain improvements were made, on payment of a small fee. In 1908 it became possible for homesteaders to buy an additional 160 acres, or even more, at low prices.

(Taken from Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond, John English, Canada, 1900-1945. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1987. Pp.64-65.)


  1. Why were the railways engaged in selling land?
  2. Why would settlers buy from land companies when free homesteads were available? Which option would you prefer?
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3) Chinese Immigrants

In 1896, when Laurier became Prime Minister, there were few restrictions against Caucasian immigrants. However, Canadian public opinion was generally hostile to the immigration of non-white races. It was widely believed that such ethnic groups were non-assimilable and would substantially alter the traditional Anglo-Saxon and French character of the nation. The issue of Asian immigration into Canada was a major problem for the Laurier government. The Prime Minister believed that such immigration must be stringently controlled. The government was unable to take preventive action against Japanese immigrants because of the alliance between Japan and the British Empire. However, emigration from China was a different matter altogether. There was already a $50 head tax on Chinese immigrants; in 1900 it was increased to $100. In 1902, a Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration declared that such immigrants were unfit for full citizenship.......obnoxious to a free community and dangerous to the state. In 1903, the head tax was raised to a prohibitive $500. This effectively ended immigration from China, as the number of people who subsequently paid the tax dropped from 4719 to eight. Eventually, the number of immigrants increased; however, in 1923 a new Chinese Immigration Act was passed which virtually ended Chinese immigration once again, as it was expressly designed to do. It was not until 1947 that the discriminating legislation was rescinded in the Canadian Citizenship Act.

The following extract describes the harshly restrictive measures of the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 and illustrates the deep-rooted public antipathy toward Asian immigrants.

According to the 1923 legislation, the entry to Canada of persons of Chinese origin or descent irrespective of allegiance or citizenship was confined to members of the diplomatic corps, Chinese children born in Canada, merchants, and university students. The Act also stipulated that every person of Chinese origin was required to register with Dominion officials within twelve months after the Act came into effect. Any Chinese Canadian wishing to leave the country had to give written notices to the Controller before departure, specifying the foreign port or place he planned to visit and the route he intended to take. Those leaving for more than two years would lose Canadian domicile.
The genesis of this legislation is complex. In part, it was rooted in a long-term antipathy toward Asian immigrants that was most pronounced in British Columbia but had also become quite strong in the Prairie west and in Ontario during the post-war years. Hard times in the coast province, combined with a volatile political situation, helped to foster a virulent anti-Oriental campaign. Now, however, business organizations such as the B.C. Board of the Retail Merchants of Canada rather than trade unions were the ones denouncing unfair Chinese competition: To us, it is not merely a question of competitive merchandising, aggravated by a lower standard of living. It is in fact a struggle of far deeper significance in which home, family, and citizenship considerations outweigh mercenary motives.

(Taken from Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Host: Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1995.)


  1. Why was opposition to Chinese immigration so pronounced?
  2. On the subject of immigration, Mackenzie King wrote in his diaries:

    There should be no exclusion of any particular race......but a country should surely have the right to determine what strains of blood it wishes to have in its population and how its people coming in from outside have to be selected.
    (Extract from J.W. Pickersgill & D.F. Forster (Eds.), The Mackenzie King Record, Vol. 4: 1947-1948. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970. P. 33.

    Do you agree with this statement? Should immigration be selective? Are there any reasons why some countries or ethnic groups should be preferred over others? Should training (i.e. education or work skills) serve as the basis of admission rather than racial origin?

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4) Mackenzie King and the Plight of Jewish Refugees

Prior to 1914, Jewish immigrants to Canada encountered relatively few restrictions. However, following World War I and particularly in the mid-1930s, the government imposed increasingly stringent controls on the admission of Jewish refugees. The following extract illustrates the attitude of Mackenzie King toward the immigration of Jewish refugees and the dilemma facing the government in the latter 1930s as a result of Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Hitler's persecution of Jews created another political problem for the government in 1939. Mackenzie King shared the ambivalence of many of his contemporaries towards Jews; he thought of them as aggressive and clannish and disturbingly prominent in international finance, although at the same time he deplored any overt discrimination against them. His first reaction to the Jewish refugee question was that Canada had no responsibility. Jewish organizations and civil liberties groups in English Canada had demanded the admission of refugees but French Canadians had objected to any increased immigration, especially of Jews. In March 1938, at the time of the Austrian Anschluss [the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany], King had seen national unity as an excuse for inaction; my own feeling, he wrote, is that nothing is to be gained by creating an internal problem in an effort to meet an international one. After Munich, however, Hitler's intensified persecution of Jews was less easily ignored. King was influenced in part by the tragedy of the Jews, brought home to him in conversations with Lawrence Freiman, a prominent Ottawa Jew, and with Abraham Heaps and Samuel Factor, both respected Members of Parliament. He also noted, however, that Great Britain and the United States were admitting refugees and that it would be embarrassing if Canada did not co-operate. In November 1938 he decided that Canada should do her part even though it was going to be difficult politically.

King tried to persuade his colleagues by stressing the government's moral obligation. The time has come, he told them, when, as a Government, we would have to perform acts that were expressive of what we believed to be the conscience of the nation, and not what might be, at the moment, politically most expedient. Norman Rogers and T.A. Crerar warmly supported him but Lapointe and Cardin looked glum.

(Taken from H. Blair Neatby, William Lyon Mackenzie King. Vol. III, 1932-1939: The Prism of Unity. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1976. Pp. 304-305.)

While immigration in general was unpopular in a period of high unemployment, the widespread existence of anti-Semitism meant that accepting large numbers of Jews would require an act of more than ordinary political courage. Despite Mackenzie King's own liberal inclinations, he would not press the issue in the face of opposition from his bureaucrats and his Cabinet. In 1938-39, Canada accepted only about 2,500 Jews, one of the worst records of the Western Countries. The denial of sanctuary to Jewish refugees from Europe remains one of the most shameful episodes in Canadian history.


  1. Did King act correctly in bowing to political pressure and public opinion?
  2. Does a government have a moral obligation to admit, on compassionate grounds, refugees who are seeking sanctuary as a result of persecution in their own country? In such circumstances, is a government justified in disregarding public opinion?
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5) i) Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior: Peasant in a Sheep-skin Coat, and ii) Stephen Leacock: The Immigration Problem.

i) The following extract is the famous justification by Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior (1896-1905), for introducing new and foreign elements into Canadian society.

I think that a stalwart peasant in a sheep-skin coat, born on the soil, whose forefathers have been farmers for generations, with a stout wife and a half-dozen children, is good quality.

(Taken from H. Blair Neatby, The New Century, in J.M.S. Careless & R. Craig Brown (Eds.), The Canadians 1867-1967. Part 1. P. 143. Toronto: Macmillan, 1968.

ii) Stephen Leacock, one of Canada's great writers, shared the prejudices of many of his fellow countrymen during the great influx of immigration.

Still more important is the economic and racial character of the immigrants.... They no longer consist of the strenuous, the adventurous, the enterprising; they are not, except in a minor degree, political exiles or religious refugees; they are animated by no desire to build up a commonwealth of freedom to replace an ungrateful fatherland. They are, in great measure, mere herds of the proletariat of Europe, the lowest classes of industrial society, without home and work, fit objects indeed for philanthropic pity, but indifferent material from which to build the commonwealth of the future. They encounter no difficulty in their passage, or none that is comparable to the stern process of earlier history, when the cruel evolution of Nature winnowed out the strong from the weak and the resolute from the feeble.

(Taken from Stephen Leacock, Canada and the Immigration Problem, National and English Review , April 1911.)


  1. Which of the two contrasting opinions is more valid and why?
  2. Do you agree with any of Leacock's arguments?
  3. In your opinion, what have immigrants contributed to Canada?
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6) Status of Aliens in the Canadian Citizenship Act (1947)

The Canadian Citizenship Act was passed in 1946 and came into force on January 1 1947. (Appropriately, Mackenzie King himself was presented with the first citizenship certificate.) The following extract describes the rights and privileges accorded to alien residents.

Status of Aliens.

29. (1) Real and personal property of every description may be taken, acquired, held and disposed of by an alien in the same manner in all respects as by a natural-born Canadian citizen; and a title to real and personal property of every description may be derived through, from or in succession to an alien in the same manner in all respects as through, from or in succession to a natural-born Canadian citizen.

(2) This section shall not operate so as to (a) qualify an alien for any office or for any municipal, parliamentary or other franchise;
(b) qualify an alien to be the owner of a Canadian ship;
(c) entitle an alien to any right or privilege as a Canadian citizen except such rights and privileges in respect of property as are hereby expressly given to him; or
(d) affect an estate or interest in real or personal property to which any person has or may become entitled, either mediately or immediately, in possession or expectancy, in pursuance of any disposition made before the fourth day of July, one thousand eight hundred and eighty-three, or in pursuance of any devolution by law on the death of any person dying before that day.

30. An alien shall be triable at law in the same manner as if he were a natural-born Canadian citizen.

(Taken from the Statutes of Canada. 1947.)


  1. What rights and privileges should be conferred on aliens?
  2. What rights and privileges should not be conferred on aliens (for example, voting rights?)?
  3. Do you think that it is important that the rights and privileges of alien residents are codified in the Canadian Citizenship Act ?