We’ve Been Here A Long Time

Canada’s Immigration and Discrimination Policies

The politics of racism played a large role in the arrival of many Black Canadians

1910 Government Legislation – Immigration Act

In 1910 the government of Canada implemented a new Immigration Act that barred immigrants into Canada who were from races deemed undesirable. It allowed the government to regulate the number, ethnic origins, and occupations of incoming immigrants. Very few Black people entered Canada during this time as they faced difficulties immigrating, often being targeted by racist propaganda campaigns, and forced to undergo numerous medical examinations. The Act also allowed the government to arbitrarily prohibit any immigration deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.

The Act disallowed courts and judges from reviewing, revising, or interfering in any way in the decisions. Further rules were passed which enhanced the restrictions on immigration policies, immigrants from Asia were required to have $200 before being permitted entry while all other immigrants were required to have a minimum of $25 upon arrival into Canada. Various preceding immigrant acts all continued to instill rules against immigration centered around ethnicity or occupation. It wasn’t until 1967 that Canada drastically changed their immigration policies and implemented a points system that looked at personal skills. For the first time in Canadian history, the new immigration act also defined refugees as a immigrant group and required the government to meet its obligations to refugees under previous international agreements.

West Indian Domestic Scheme

The West Indian Domestic Scheme began in 1955, it permitted approximately 3,000 single women from the Caribbean ages 18-35, who had at least an 8th grade education, and who were in good health to work in Canada as domestics. The gendered nature of the scheme along with the limited work options provided, allowed the government to hold strict regulation on who and how many were allowed to immigrate.

The pay was low and work hours long, they also faced other hardships like poor employment standards, cultural differences, isolation, and the general low-class stigma associated with domestic workers which excluded them from white Canadian society. But after one year, the women were granted immigrant status and was permitted to seek education and employment opportunities in other fields. They were also eventually allowed to sponsor other family members’ residency in Canada. After five years, regardless of if they continued their work as domestics, they were eligible for Canadian citizenship. They faced racial discrimination within Canada, and many did not continue working as domestics after the first year.

Notably, Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to Canada’s House of Commons, and the first Black woman to serve in the federal cabinet, first arrived as part of the domestic scheme.


Refugee Policies

Canadian Refugee Policy, 1945-1990s

The disruptions brought about by the Second World War displaced many people and led to the largest refugee migration in European history. Canadian refugee policy changed to welcome these postwar refugees. Not least because the Canadian economy was now booming and there was a need for more workers. The Canadian government would subsidize hundreds of thousands of migrants’ journeys to Canada.

Canadian Refugee Policy, 1990s-2015

From the 1990s – early 2010s, Canada enacted a number of policies aimed at curtailing the number of refugees. In the aftermath of 9/11 and the increased focus on national security, more resources were diverted to strengthening border enforcement. There was also a general attempt at decreasing the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. As a result, refugees were often wrongfully depicted as being linked to criminality and terrorism.

In 2004, Canada and the United States signed the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement. The agreement recognized both countries as being “safe third countries” for asylum seekers. As such, it was possible for both countries to prevent asylum seekers from coming in from the other country to apply for refugee status.


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Under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper, the rhetoric against refugee claimants was intensified. Many groups of asylum seekers were accused of being “bogus refugees” and fraudulent. The government viewed many refugees as individuals trying to take advantage of Canada’s immigration system. This attitude characterized the government’s approach to the Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers on the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in 2009-2010. The Tamil migrants were imprisoned and accused of being part of a human smuggling operation despite many later being granted refugee status by Canada’s refugee system.

In 2012, the Canadian government passed Bill C-31, or the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act. The Bill drastically restructured Canada’s refugee and immigration policies. Bill C-31 introduced a number of restrictive changes to refugee advocates in Canada. Moreover, Bill C-31 made it easier to exclude political prisoners and activists from the refugee definition. The Bill also put in place mandatory detention provisions for certain groups of refugee claimants. It also incorrectly linked refugees fleeing persecution to human smuggling offences. This is in spite of international refugee law that understands that refugees often have to use smugglers to escape danger and reach asylum.

Bill C-31 created a list of designated countries of origin, of “safe countries,” which denied appeal procedures and significantly shortened timelines. These countries were determined to “not likely produce refugees.” However, this approach did not take into consideration individuals’ different experiences based on gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation in any particular country. The safe country provision was successfully challenged at the Federal Court in 2015, when the lack of appeal procedures for refugee claimants coming from these countries was deemed unconstitutional.

Healthcare for refugees was drastically cut under the Conservative government. This policy was also successfully challenged at the Federal court in 2015, Justice Anne Mactavish would secribe these cuts as being “cruel and unusual treatment.” In February 2016, the Liberal government reversed the cuts and fully reinstated healthcare for all refugees.

The Vancouver port of immigration building at the foot of Thurlow St, 1972, possible point of arrival for new immigrants.

CVA 447-78, City of Vancouver Archives.

Recent Changes to Canada’s Refugee Responses

Canada’s response to the conflict in Syria highlights how a change in government can have profound effects on refugee policies domestically and internationally.

By 2015, a large number of Syrians had been displaced by the civil war in their country. As the scale of the refugee crisis increased and shocking pictures of Alan Kudi’s – a three year old Syrian migrant – dead body washed up on a beach were published, Canadian public opinion shifted. More action was demanded in favour of helping Syrian refugees. However, the Conservative government only committed to resettling a small number of Syrians over the course of multiple years.


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In contrast, the Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau committed to resettling 25,000 by the end of the year. The issue was ultimately decided by a federal election in Fall 2015 which resulted in a Liberal victory. While the original goal set by the Liberals was too ambitious, Canada did resettle around 54,000 Syrian refugees by 2017.

New governments, powerful pictures, and shifting popular opinions reveal the speed with which policy responses towards refugees change. Forced migration is a highliy complex phenomenon, and migration policies often blend together international and domestic politics.

Ongoing Challenges

In 2018, Canada resettled more refugees than any other country. According to the annual global trends report released by the UNHR, Canada took in 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees who were resettled across 25 countries. The report also shows that over 18,000 refugees became Canadian citizens that year, making it the country with the highest rate of refugees to gain citizenship.


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While Canada resettles more refugees than most other countries, it is not the country which receives the most refugees. Most refugees are typically asylum seekers who flee to neighbouring countries for protection as opposed to being resettled. Due to Canada’s isolated geographis position, the country only receives a small number of asylum seekers compared to other countries. These other countries tend to get a much larger number of refugees at their borders whereas Canada gets to choose the number of resettled refugees it welcomes.

There has, however, been an increase in the number of asylum seekers presenting themselves to the Canadian border, this was notably the case during the years of the Donald Trump administration in the United States. That administration’s hostility towards irregular migration pushed many asylum seekers to seek refuge in Canada. However, due to the Canada-United Sates Safe Third Country Agreement, these migrants’ refugee claims would be denied if they tried to enter via an official point of entry. To bypass this issue, asylum seekers have been performing irregular border crossings into Canada. The government reacted to this increase in irregular migration by setting up checkpoints at these unofficial border crossings to intercept and process irregular migrants’ claims. However, once in Canada, these asylum seekers can apply for refugee status and are protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Jean Augustine arrived in Canada, from Grenada, through the West Indian Domestic Scheme. Already a qualified teacher at the time, she continued her education. Among her many achievements, she was the first African-Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons as the Member of Parliament from the GTA constituency of Etobicoke-Lakeshore.

Wikimedia Commons

The Canadian Customs and Immigration Building at Sumas, BC, 1949.                                                      CVA 586-111.02, City of Vancouver Archives.


Historically, Canada’s treatment of refugees was characterized by significant discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity to discourage certain groups of migrants. These racist measures included, for instance, the Chinese Head Tax and the Chinese Immigration Act.

1948 - National Unity Association

An anti-discrimination organization founded in Dresden, Ontario by Hugh Burnett. Mostly comprised of Black farmers and tradespeople from Southwestern Ontario, the organization pushed for equal rights in Dresden and the surrounding area but gained a reputation across Canada. Regarding advocacy, the NUA had success at the provincial level, such as the passing of the 1954 Fair Accommodations Practices Act, an early anti-discrimination law in Ontario.

1944 - Racial Discrimination Act (Ontario)

The 1944 Racial Discrimination Act was one of the first pieces of legislation in Canada solely aimed at combatting discrimination. The Act criminalized signs or publications that expressed racial or religious discrimination and was followed the same year by the Community Halls Act, which proscribed discrimination in halls that received public funds. The Racial Discrimination Act ushered in an era of anti-discrimination laws nationwide.

1951 - Fair Employment Practices Act (Ontario)

The 1951 Fair Employment Practices Act was an act of provincial legislation which criminalized employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or nationality. The Act is notable for its sweeping purview, which included both the public and private sectors, and the creation of a designated provincial commission to address complaints.

1953 - Fair Employment Act (Manitoba), 1955 (Nova Scotia), 1956 (New Brunswick, Saskatchewan, BC), 1964 (Quebec)

Similar to Ontario’s Act, these provincial acts were part of an era of anti-discrimination legislation nationwide. The Acts all had similar purviews, making discriminatory attitudes and actions illegal in both the public and private spheres, and establishing legal protocols for discriminatory behaviour.

1954, 1955 - Fair Accommodations Act/Employment Acts

The Acts listed out a series of laws that criminalized employment discrimination based on race, sex, religion, or nationality. Adopted at various times at a provincial level, the acts signaled the beginning of a new era of civil rights legislation. The various acts were also notable for being the first pieces of legislation to explicitly combat discrimination as their sole purpose.

Around this time, the 1953 Fair Employment Act, a piece of federal legislation, anchored this change as it criminalized employment discrimination for the civil service. The act was followed by several acts of provincial legislation soon after.


1955 - West Indian Domestic Scheme

The 1955 West Indian Domestic Scheme was a targeted federal immigration program that created a direct path for women from the Caribbean to emigrate into Canada to work as domestic labourers. Throughout the course of the program, which ran until 1967 to meet Canada’s demand for domestic labour, over 3,000 women moved to Canada. The program became a unique opportunity for Black emigration to Canada during a time when discriminatory policies limited non-white immigration. Despite strengthening relations with Caribbean countries, many labourers were paid less than anticipated and were confronted with racism and discrimination while in Canada.

1959 - Anti-Discrimination Commission which became the Human Rights Commission in 1961

The original Ontario Human Rights Commission was established in 1959 as a way to raise awareness around a series of new anti-discrimination statutes that had come into effect in the years prior. In 1961, the purview of the Commission was expanded, with a new mission to prevent discrimination and advance human rights through administering the Ontario Human Rights Code. It has since become a pillar of Ontario’s human rights system alongside the Human Rights Tribunal and Human Rights Legal Support Centre.

1962 - Canada abolishes racial discrimination in the selection of immigrants

1962 saw the revision of Canada’s immigration system. Ellen Fairclough, Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, introduced a new system that replaced race or national origin with skill as a determining factor for admissibility. This change helped eliminate overt racial discrimination from Canadian immigration policy by specifying that non-sponsored immigrants (those moving to Canada without domestic connection or support from family or an employer) would be evaluated on skill rather than country of origin.

1968 - West Indian Domestic Scheme ends, replaced by Points system for Immigration

As part of the reforms, a points system was created for immigration. Instead of including race or national origin as qualifications or determining factors in immigration, the system used a different set of standards for evaluating potential immigrants. The system became based on selectors such as education, work experience, occupational demand in Canada, and personal characteristics. This helped create a fairer and less racialized selection process, which resulted in a significant increase of immigrants to Canada from developing nations. The creation of the points system, however, meant the cessation of immigration schemes such as the West Indian Domestic Scheme, and the creation of new temporary work permits.

1969 - Canada signs 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

 The 1951 UN Refugee Convention signaled a watershed moment in human rights worldwide, as the declaration defined the term “refugee” and established a legal responsibility for States to protect them. Later, a 1967 Protocol enforced the Convention, legally binding signatories to protect refugees and not return them to their home country (known as non-refoulment). Canada signed onto the Protocol in 1969, thus laying the groundwork for a new era in Canadian immigration policy and allowing Canada to position itself in the international community as a liberal, open country; an international beacon for the protection and enforcement of human rights.

1971 - Canada adopts an official multicultural policy

In April of 1971, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau introduced the idea of “multiculturalism in a bilingual framework,” thus enshrining multiculturalism as an official Canadian policy. The idea was that the federal government (the bilingual framework) would support and encourage the growth of various ethnic, religious, and cultural communities within Canada. As a direct response to Lester B. Pearson’s 1963 declaration of biculturalism, which officially recognized the primacy of French and British culture, the new policy pushed Canada to become a more diverse society – as Trudeau puts it, “there are two official languages, there is no official culture.”

Following Trudeau’s announcement and years of policy-making, and official Federal Act promoting multiculturalism was later passed in 1988, promoting the implementation of multicultural policies and practices, as well as working to address barriers to equal opportunity and integration.


1976 - A new Immigration Act recognizes refugees as an official category of immigrants in Canada

The 1970s saw a major shift in the federal government’s approach towards immigration as the government became more proactive towards handling immigration as a matter of national concern as immigration increased and decades old policies were revisited. No act was more influential in this change than the Immigration Act of 1976. The Immigration Act laid out fundamental objectives of Canadian immigration policy, created different classes of immigrants, defined refugees as a unique class of immigrants, and officially mandated the federal government with the responsibility of future immigration plans. A key feature of the Act was the recognition of refugees as a separate class of immigrants which reaffirmed Canada’s legal commitment to the UN directives regarding refugees. Additionally, as refugees had previously been accepted on an ad hoc basis, there was now a clearly defined path for their resettlement.

2002 - The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act replaces the 1976 Immigration Act

In 2002, the federal government under Jean Chretien signed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act into effect, thus replacing the 1976 Immigration Act as the primary piece of legislation regulating immigration to Canada. The 2002 Act differed in several significant ways through the establishment of new guidelines for the goals of Canada’s immigration program. Although it provided clarity on admissibility of immigrants and expanded accessibility in some ways, the 2002 Act repealed the Geneva Convention’s definition of a refugee and made immigrating as a refugee more difficult through the repeal of an appeals board for refugees.