The popular view of the First World War as a battle between races shaped a debate in Canada about the preferred "racial" composition of Canadian society

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1914-1945: Overview / War Years / Interwar Years / World War II / Changing Attitudes

War Years

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anti-german sentiment, 6 jan. 1917

The popular view of the First World War as a battle between races shaped a debate in Canada about the preferred "racial" composition of Canadian society. Many British, American, and natural-born Canadian observers saw the war as a defence of Anglo-Saxon "civilization" against German and Austrian aggression and militarism. Though discredited now, these racial understandings brought about a sharp re-examination of Canada's immigration policies because they had encouraged the immigration of hundreds of thousands of continental Europeans. Canadians found the presence of enemy alien immigrants in Canada (those immigrants born in nations now at war with Canada) still more distressing.

The war's beginning prompted a backlash against German and Austrian immigrants, even if they had long resided in Canada and were now
Canadian citizens. The 1914 War Measures Act gave the federal government new powers to arrest, detain, exclude, or deport enemy aliens residing in Canada. The legislation, introduced by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Robert Borden, was one of many measures directed against immigrant groups during the war years. Taken together, these measures made immigrant communities bitter towards the Conservative party for many years after the war ended. The act itself prohibited specific enemy aliens from possessing firearms and forced them to register with the federal government and to carry ID cards. It also undermined cultural freedoms by prohibiting the possession and publication of materials in enemy alien languages-it thereby stopped the production of the numerous German-language newspapers in Canada.

Anti-German Sentiment, 6 Jan. 1917.

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War Years

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the war measures act, 1914

An economic slump that had begun just before the war and that lasted until the war economy began to raise national production left immigrants in a precarious legal position. In the first year of the war, industries and businesses laid off considerable numbers of enemy alien employees. Many became public charges dependent upon the charitable aid provided by local municipalities. At the very same time, the war made their political standing uncertain as the government began to monitor their behaviour more carefully. Some 400,000 German, 100,000 Austro-Hungarian, 5,000 Turkish, and hundreds of Bulgarian enemy aliens then lived in Canada.

german detainees at edgewood internment camp, edgewood, bc, ca. 1916

The War Measures Act (WMA), 1914.

Among other things, the WMA gave the federal government special powers to target immigrants who were deemed "enemy aliens" -- that is, newcomers who originated in one of the countries against which Canada and Britain were fighting: Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, or Turkey

National Archives of Canada (PA-127064).

German Detainees at Edgewood Internment Camp, Edgewood, BC, ca. 1916.

During the First World War, the government detained several thousand immigrants who came from enemy countries in internment camps.

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wartime elections act, 1917

Many enemy aliens also faced internment. Canada interned some 8,000 to 9,000 immigrants, mostly German and Austrian, in twenty-four camps across Canada during the war. The largest camps were in Kapuskasing, Ontario and Vernon, British Columbia. By 1917, the government had released many of these interned immigrants to supply the demand for labour created by the war. About 2,500, however, lived in camps until the war's conclusion.

The government's internment program had roots in the belief that immigrants carried sympathies with their home nations, which were now at war with Canada. As the war progressed, continental Europeans also became associated with radical politics and

labour organizations that were leading strikes in the resource and munitions industries. The Union Government, which Robert Borden formed in 1917 in order to introduce conscription, passed the Wartime Elections Act. It disenfranchised all people from enemy countries, even those who had come to Canada as early as 1902, unless they had sons, grandsons, or brothers serving in the army. Deportation procedures also increased. Immigrants faced deportation on grounds of being public charges, "pro-German," "anti-war," or undermining the war effort by organizing labour. The government, and many Canadians, blamed wartime strikes on enemy-aliens and suspicious immigrants.

Wartime Elections Act, 1917.

This Act enfranchised the mothers, widows, wives, sisters, and daughters of men fighting at the front and disenfranchised conscientious objectors -- individuals who were opposed to military service for religious reasons -- and those "enemy aliens" who were naturalized after 1902.

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War Years

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Meanwhile, public support for British institutions and Anglo-Canadian culture led Prairie provincial governments to revoke provisions giving separate language schools to such immigrant groups as the Mennonites. The belief that unassimilable immigrants were labour agitators and promoters of radical politics became more fixed with the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918. Many eastern Europeans and Russians were sympathetic to the Red Russian victory and had long supported radical, leftist, politics in Europe. Finnish, Ukrainian, Jewish, and Russian immigrants, in fact, often did support radical political movements in their homelands. When conditions worsened for Canadian labour as a result of wartime inflation and strict

rationing, they supported strike action. The radical political sympathies of many immigrants would later lead them to support radical political movements in Canada, such as the United Farmers of Alberta, Social Credit, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).

As historian Howard Palmer has pointed out, however, the radical politics embraced by some immigrants did not constitute the "Red Menace" imagined by many Canadians. Most immigrant groups were internally divided on political questions, and communist party leaders were often English, rather than Russian, Italian, or Ukrainian.

immigrant radicals, 1919

Immigrant Radicals, 1919.

Although many non-British immigrants sympathized with, and even supported, radical leftist political movements, British immigrants often were the leaders of such groups. Nevertheless, native-born Canadians tended to stigmatize "foreigners" (largely immigrants from continental Europe) as the motive force behind bolshevism and other radical movements.

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The stereotyping of continental Europeans as political radicals, however, became still more widespread after the peace was signed as demobilized troops began returning to Canada. Labour conditions worsened and organized strikes loomed, especially when unemployment figures began to rise. Labour papers estimated that 10.2 per cent of organized labour was unemployed in 1919. By 1921, the figure had risen to 16.3 per cent. When inflation and working conditions prompted the massive Winnipeg General Strike in 1919, authorities perceived the city's large and diverse ethnic communities as Bolshevik sympathizers, responsible for the strike action.

crowd gathered during the winnipeg general strike

National Archives of Canada (PA-163001).

Crowd Gathered during the Winnipeg General Strike, Winnipeg, MB, 21 June 1919.

According to many Canadians, immigrants initiated the Winnipeg General Strike and the significant upheaval that it caused. The perception was that the strike was at least partly a consequence of the labour and political radicalism that emerged in Canada during the post-First World War period. Immigrants were major contributors to this process of radicalization.

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An immediate result of the war experience was a new Immigration Act, passed in 1919. It established policy direction for the next twenty-five years. Henceforth, Canadians would discriminate between immigrant groups coming from "most" and "non" preferred countries. Immigration policies discouraged the arrival of immigrants from numerous different political and cultural backgrounds. More heavy restrictions on their entry and the wider application of deportation procedures against specific cultural and political groups became common at Canadian ports and border crossings.

Many of the new policies arose in a context of political and economic uncertainty. More Canadians in the

inter-war years moved to the United States or left rural settings for industrializing cities. Interwar economic problems and widespread unemployment, the spiraling costs of local social welfare programs, and the rise of radical political movements-especially in the West among large immigrant communities-placed new stresses on natural-born Canadians, naturalized citizens, and recent immigrants alike. When ongoing financial problems forced Canadian business and resource industries to enlist more cheap immigrant labour by the mid-1920s, bringing about Canada's second wave of immigration in 1925, new backlashes arose against "hyphenated Canadianism."

Immigration Act, 1919.

The Immigration Act of 1919 determined the kinds of immigrants that Canada would allow to come to its shores and those to whom it would deny entry. The legislation established "prohibited or undesirable classes" of immigrants, groups that the government would no longer accept into the country. The Act was significant because of its restrictive nature and because it defined immigration policy for the interwar period.

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