Thirty-five Million Canadians Are Not Enough

A nation founded on immigration and diversity? Not quite. How Canada's closed borders wrecked the country's development

Photograph by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Emigrants aboard the Royal Edward, on its first voyage from Avonmouth Dock to Canada. Photograph by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

My starting point is an often-overlooked question: Why, if our national mythology portrays us as a nation of immigration and diversity, are there so few of us? Why has Canada failed to attract people, or keep people, for so much of its history?

The story begins half a century before Confederation, when Canada’s British rulers, in the ugly aftermath of the War of 1812, launched a second war—this one a war of ideas—to ensure that the emerging Canada would be a closed, ethnically homogeneous colony whose political and economic function would be limited to the provision of raw materials to the imperial capital and whose population would be restricted mainly to small-hold farming. This was a vastly different place from the pre-1812 Canada. Though tiny and sparsely populated, that earlier Canada had been defined by an ambiguous and open border, diverse immigration, and a free-flowing trade in goods, people, and ideas with the new-born United States—all of which were now forbidden by a colonial regime that sought only to become a storehouse and backstop for a declining overseas empire.

The decision to become a closed, trade-protected, ethnically homogenous, colonial, and agrarian colony had disastrous consequences for Canada’s development and even worse consequences for many of its peoples. It is also anomalous: in no other present or former colony was the number of settlers who arrived in the nineteenth century outnumbered by those who decided to leave.

At a moment when the Industrial Revolution was becoming a central fact throughout the Western world, when the old closed and protected colonial trade patterns were being replaced with open international competition, when subsistence agriculture was giving way to urban economies and capital-intensive commercial farming, Canada’s leaders concluded that the most pressing problem was that it had the wrong sort of people.

This estimation marked the beginning of a century-long racialization of Canadian politics. Canada’s development strategy in the Confederation era was built on simply filling the land with people in order to claim sovereignty—without any regard for the creation of viable economies and communities or any recognition of the well-developed global economic role of the Indigenous peoples who had long lived on that land. By the final decades of the nineteenth century, the dominant voice in Canada had concluded that Indigenous people in Canada should be seen not as partners but as obstacles to British supremacy and territorial expansion. Rather than trying to build successful economies and communities—a process that implies co-operation and compromise—Canada during much of this period would simply attempt to fill territory through mass importation of anglophones.

The new country initially placed very few legal restrictions on who could immigrate—but in practice, there were heavy restrictions on what sort of people were sought. Ottawa made it very clear, during every immigration campaign from pre-Confederation decades until the Second World War, that Canada did not want those who would immigrate to the United States: educated people, merchants, entrepreneurs, urbanites. Canada wanted farmers and not much else; it rejected people with urban or entrepreneurial ambitions.

And even those who did arrive rarely stayed: the protectionist, restricted economy made it too expensive and unrewarding to make a living. During every decade of the nineteenth century during which immigration records were kept but one, more people chose to leave Canada than arrived as immigrants. When the largest emigration boom in history was sending more than 40 million people from Europe to the New World in the second half of the nineteenth century, Canada suffered a net migratory loss—mostly to the United States. After the 1850s, and in the three decades following Confederation, Canada attracted 734,900 immigrants from England, Wales, and Scotland and lost at least 1.2 million emigrants, mainly to the United States—a net migratory loss of Canadian population of at least 433,000 people, at a time when other former colonies (including those with identical weather) saw growth in the tens of millions.

By the end of the nineteenth century, it was clear to many Canadians that this minimizing impulse had become a self-reinforcing spiral. Low population density starved the government of revenues and crushed economic productivity, making Canada reliant on tariff walls and unable to build trading relationships beyond raw materials. This drove prices up and choked off business development within Canada, discouraging immigrants from settling and Canadians from staying. The loss of population growth increased ethnic homogeneity and, therefore, political pressure to remain a colonial resource economy.

By 1893, Wilfrid Laurier had come up with one answer: it would not be enough to tinker with the details of national policy. Canada would need a shock program in which it would change its approach to immigration and population, its trade relationships, and its economic basis. He would die believing that he had failed on both fronts. His goal of seeing 40 million Canadians by the 1920s was not even close to successful, but his fifteen-year-long “Canadian century” renewed a war of ideas over how Canada should grow and develop.

The change in Canada’s population and prosperity during this era was unprecedented. Through the first decade of the twentieth century, Canada experienced annual economic growth rates approaching a staggering 10 percent and saw similar increases in almost every other measure of well-being. This was in good part because the number of Canadians increased even more dramatically. In 1897, only 21,716 immigrants entered Canada, and most were from Britain. By 1901, that number had doubled to more than 50,000 annually; by 1906, it had quadrupled again to 200,000 (and British immigrants had fallen to less than a third). In Laurier’s final year in office, it hit 300,000, and in 1913, before the Borden government found a way to shut down the Laurier immigration drive, it would reach an all-time peak of 400,000, or 5 percent of the population. For similar growth rates to occur today, Canada would need to receive 1.75 million immigrants per year.

In his effort to launch Canada’s population into the tens of millions, Laurier knew he needed to recruit the majority of new Canadians from beyond Britain and western Europe. And he knew that this would require the sort of recruitment, advertising, and promotion campaign that no colony had ever undertaken. He appointed Clifford Sifton, a Manitoba politician who acutely understood the problems of underpopulation, as his interior minister with specific responsibility for immigration.

A significant proportion of the newcomers to Canada in the Laurier years were de facto refugees who had to flee illegally to other countries before they could be enticed to make a passage to Canada. Many European governments had outlawed the emigration of their citizens, so a big part of Canada’s immigration campaign during the Sifton years was a clandestine program to circumvent European governments. Carried out through the misleadingly named North Atlantic Trading Company, the program involved a secret network of shipping agents in key port cities who were paid bonuses by Ottawa to redirect settlers and emigrants to Canada. The agents were paid a fee for every European adult (defined as anyone over twelve) they persuaded to take free passage to Canada.

Significantly, the program operated in a wide range of European regions: Russia, Austria, Germany, Romania, Switzerland, northern Italy, Belgium, Holland, and France (the latter was probably used to channel central and eastern European migrants into Canada). Many Canadians considered immigrants from some of these places to be civilizationally incompatible with Anglo-American society. Slavs and southern Europeans in particular were considered not just alien in the early twentieth century, they were widely described as members of different and incompatible races who could never assimilate or intermarry with Westerners.

But Sifton and Laurier did not see culture as a major factor to consider when selecting new Canadians—though skin colour would prove to be another matter. They both broadly expressed the opinion that most anyone possessed of agricultural or labour skills could become a successful member of Canadian society. “We have not been disposed to exclude foreigners of any nationality who seemed likely to become successful agriculturalists,” Sifton told Laurier in a 1901 memo.

This pluralist view also had strong circles of support in the private sector and included an understanding that immigrants from minority language and cultural groups tend to integrate more effectively—and arrive in greater numbers—if they are permitted to cluster together in self-supporting communities so they can build up networks of mutual support in their effort to establish themselves. This was known at the time as “block settlement” and was applied especially to the huge numbers of Ukrainians who settled during these years. It went even further with some minority communities and religious sects (notably Mennonites, Hutterites, and Doukhobors), who were allowed to form self-sufficient settlements, set up their own independent school systems within those settlements, and, in some cases, even be exempted from military service. Most of these settlements thrived and, within a generation or two, blended into the Canadian fabric while keeping some distinct characteristics.

The use of self-regulated ethnic settlements is arguably the only pure example of multiculturalism Canada has experienced; the 1970s policy of that name was devoted to a far milder form of pluralism that hardly bears any comparison.

Laurier-era pluralism certainly had its limits—particularly with regard to Asian immigrants, black Americans (only a couple of thousand of whom, at most, were allowed into Canada during this decade, at the height of their Great Migration), and Jews (whom Laurier begrudgingly admitted in limited numbers, including to some Prairie settlements, but generally used policies to discourage). Those self-imposed racial and ethnic restrictions and the rising backlash from opposition Conservatives against communities of Asians and non-Western Europeans in Canada would become the most significant impediment to Laurier’s achieving his population goals.

By that time a new political movement was rising in Canada, one whose rallying slogan was “White Canada.” Notions of racial superiority had become more or less commonplace by the end of the nineteenth century. But they exploded into Canadian consciousness shortly after the turn of the century, inflamed by settler rivalries in British Columbia, Conservative politicians inflaming passions against Liberal immigration policies, and a wave of dark ideas emerging from Europe.

In 1907, Canadians came out in droves to see a cross-country speaking tour by Rudyard Kipling, who had just won the Nobel Prize in Literature and who owned land in British Columbia. Only six weeks earlier, Vancouver had endured three days of destructive anti-Asian riots, in which thousands of furious white Vancouverites, whipped up by a group calling itself the Asiatic Exclusion League, had destroyed Chinese and Japanese businesses and homes. “Immigration is what you want in the West,” Kipling told his audience in Toronto on October 18. “You must have labourers there. You want immigration, and the best way to keep the yellow man out is to get the white man in. If you keep out the white then you will have the yellow man, for you must have labour. Work must be done, and there is certain work to do which a white man won’t do so long as he can get a yellow man to do it. Pump in the immigrants from the Old Country. Pump them in; England has five millions of people to spare.” The New York Times covered the speech prominently with the headline “Flood Canada with White Men—Kipling.”

This was potent stuff, and Robert Borden’s Conservatives seized upon it. Borden, whose party had slumped through three unsuccessful federal elections, knew an opportunity when he saw it. He raced to Vancouver to join the emerging “White Canada” movement. “British Columbia must remain a British and Canadian province,” he declared in a Vancouver speech days after the riots, “inhabited and dominated by men in whose veins runs the blood of those great pioneering races which built up and developed not only Western, but Eastern Canada.”

Laurier, who had appeared ambivalent about Asian Canadians before, tried to fight off this new Conservative threat by tightening up immigration laws. He’d raised the Chinese head tax to $100 in 1900 to little effect: as many as five thousand Chinese emigrants a year saved or borrowed enough money to pay this substantial sum. But then, facing pressure from BC parliamentarians, he had raised it to a prohibitive $300 in 1904. This temporarily ended Chinese immigration but caused a rise in Japanese and Punjabi arrivals; until 1908, as many as seven thousand Japanese a year were arriving to fill lumber industry labour shortages. Laurier commissioned his deputy minister of labour, William Lyon Mackenzie King, to investigate; King declared some Asian groups “wholly unsuited to this country” and recommended stronger restrictions. Laurier negotiated a deal with the Japanese government in which they would restrict their own emigration. The numbers would immediately fall, though about five hundred Japanese people a year would migrate to Canada for the next two decades, until they were banned outright.

Laurier’s efforts did little to stop Borden’s anti-immigration campaign. During the tumultuous 1908 election, Borden sent a telegram to the BC Conservatives that ran in the province’s newspapers and was repeatedly read at rallies: “your message received. The Conservative Party stands for a white Canada, the protection of white labour and the absolute exclusion of Asiatics.” (Borden would later claim that he had not written the last six words of this message, though not until after the election was done.)

In response, Laurier passed a new immigration law in 1910 that, for the first time, allowed the exclusion of immigrants based on racial or ethnic identity; its Section 38 permitted the cabinet to place bans on “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” That clause would be applied aggressively in the decades after the First World War. More broadly, the act had the effect of making immigration more difficult and complicated for anyone, immediately placing the Canadian government’s immigration bureaucracy in conflict with Canada’s almost universally agreed-upon need for more people.

Borden’s vision would successfully defeat a tired fourth-term Liberal government and deliver him a parliamentary majority. Canada’s century had ended before its second decade could begin. For most years of the next three decades, Canada would lose more people than it gained, and would grow only through fertility. By 1945, Canadians could claim to have attracted only 3.7 million immigrants over the preceding ninety years; over the same period, they had lost 3.3 million people through emigration to the United States.

Excerpted from Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough. Copyright © 2017 Doug Saunders. Published by Alfred A. Knopf Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Doug Saunders
Doug Saunders is the international-affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail and the author of the books Arrival City, The Myth of the Muslim Tide, and Maximum Canada.