Immigration Legislation Shift from ‘restrictive’ legislative policies to an open, non-discriminatory system

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A Historical Overview of

Immigration Legislation
Shift from ‘restrictive’ legislative policies to an open, non-discriminatory system.

In 1869, Parliament passed the first Immigration Act, establishing the Canadian Immigration Service. In the decades following Confederation, the government spent millions of dollars on programs designed to encourage American and European immigration to Canada. On the other hand, when federal politicians enacted legislation regarding immigration, it was generally designed to prohibit certain groups of people from entering the country. The following provides a brief historical overview of federal immigration legislation:

  • The Chinese Immigration Acts (1885, 1900, 1903) – Known informally as “Head Tax legislation,” these Acts were meant to discourage Chinese immigration to Canada by forcing all Chinese immigrants to pay a certain sum of money upon entering the country. In the 1885 Act, the amount was set at $50 Canadian. Subsequent Acts raised the amount of the Head Tax and reduced the number of Chinese who were exempt. By 1904 the tax on Chinese immigrants was $500 Canadian. As a result, many Chinese males who had immigrated to Canada in search of work could not afford to bring their families over.

  • The 1923 Chinese Immigration Act – Known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, this piece of legislation virtually prohibited all persons of Asian descent from entering Canada, with a few exceptions such as diplomats, children born in Canada, and workers in a few specified categories. The legislation remained in place for over 20 years before it was finally repealed.

  • The Immigration Act (1906, 1910) – the 1906 Act expanded the groups of persons who could not immigrate to Canada to include individuals such as prostitutes, persons judged insane or mentally ill, and epileptics. The 1910 Act expanded the federal Cabinet’s power to regulate immigration through Orders-in-Council. Under an Order-in-Council issued in 1919, Doukhabours, Hutterites and Mennonites were prohibited from entering Canada.

  • The Immigration Act (1952) did not specifically discriminate against certain races. Instead, it allowed Cabinet to deny entry to individuals based on criteria such as “nationality, customs, or unsuitability to the Canadian climate or culture.” This allowed officials to discriminate on the basis of race without it being explicitly stated in the legislation.

  • In 1956, changes to the regulations accompanying the 1952 Act created a “Favoured Nations” list, which gave open preference to immigrants from Britain, the United States, and other Commonwealth nations.

From Racial Discrimination to Open Immigration Policies

In the 1960s, the federal government finally dissolved the links between ethnic origin and immigration to Canada. The Immigration Act (1967) removed the racial discrimination found in previous legislation, and introduced a ‘points’ system for rating applicants – a system still in use today.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s, however, that the Government passed legislation that truly recognized immigration as a positive force in Canadian society. The Immigration Act (1976) came into effect in 1978 and represented a major change in Canada’s immigration policy.

Key features of that groundbreaking legislation included:

  • It set clear objectives for Canada’s immigration policy. These included promoting Canada’s social and economic goals, reuniting families, and fulfilling Canada’s international humanitarian obligations under agreements such as the 1951 United Nations Convention;

  • It created four distinct categories of immigrants : independent, family, assisted relatives (such as parents) and humanitarian;

  • It formally separated refugees (persons who apply to come to Canada because they fear persecution in their home country) from other immigrants by placing them in a ‘humanitarian’ category. This distinction served to illustrate that Canada’s goals and objectives in admitting refugees differed from its goals and objectives in admitting other classes of immigrants;

  • When discussing selection criteria, it replaced the term “prohibited” with “inadmissible;”

  • It committed the federal government to developing an annual plan for immigration policy that included setting annual targets for the number of immigrants that Canada would welcome in each category;

  • It committed the federal government to consult with the provinces before setting target immigration levels;

  • It required the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration to table an annual report on the government’s immigration plan in Parliament ; and,

  • It allowed the federal government to enter into agreements with individual provinces.

Since 1978, the Immigration Act has been amended several times. However, new immigration legislation, designed to better reflect life in 21st century Canada, was not passed until 2002.

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