Skip to the Content

“This is Ticklish Business”: Undesirable Religious Groups and Canadian Immigration after the Second World War

Through the 1950s and 1960s, Canadian immigration officials viewed conservative religious groups, and in particular the Amish, as undesirable immigrants. Historian Steven Schwinghamer examines how these immigrants were singled out for more rigorous screening, and likely refusal, based on religious prejudice.

Canadian Immigration Facilities at Victoria, BC

The history of immigration facilities at the port of Victoria, British Columbia, extends from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. However, Victoria’s role was marginalized by the emergence of Vancouver as a key port of entry in the 1920s. The development, operation, and diminution of the city’s immigration facilities reflected changing immigration policies and practices. First, Victoria’s economic and social role in British Columbia and in Canada changed substantially, which also changed the nature and scope of immigration to the city. Second, public health interests often overwhelmed - and sometimes completely displaced - the implementation of civil immigration policy. Finally, Victoria’s immigration facility history reflects periods of cooperation and conflict between the provincial and federal governments. In addition to shedding light on Victoria’s role in immigration history, an examination of these three factors provides some useful information on the development of Canada’s early national immigration structures.

Medical Facilities at Pier 21

The manual used by immigration staff in the 1950s stated that medical and physical requirements of the Immigration Act were “[f]or the protection of residents of Canada, and to ensure that persons seeking admission do not become public charges…” This connection between public health and medical controls on immigrants in Canada has deep historical roots in Canada, notably in Halifax, which suffered several cholera outbreaks and scares connected with migration during the nineteenth century. In response to the perceived public health risks, the immigration branch required prospective immigrants to clear medical examinations overseas and at their port of entry. These policies were updated regularly, which led to the medical facilities being the most dynamic structures in historic Pier 21. This also influenced personal experience and practices at Pier 21, for immigrants and staff alike.

Deportation from Canada during the Great Depression

“The doors which once were opened wide are now but slightly ajar. The countries that boasted of their liberal attitudes toward new settlers – particularly the countries of the Western Hemisphere – are much more strict in their requirements today in permitting a foreigner to enter their boundaries for permanent settlement.”
– Harold Fields, The American Journal of International Law, 1932.

Exploring Pier 21’s Immigration Quarters

Pier 21 is best known as Halifax’s receiving station for almost one million immigrants to Canada, and as a key embarkation facility during the Second World War. However, most of the people who passed through the waterfront facility only saw one of the most important areas of the site if something went wrong during their examinations. If there was a problem with their admissibility—perhaps a job arrangement that fell through, or a discrepancy in papers that required a check—applicants for entry could be delayed and detained. They would then be placed in Pier 21’s immigration quarters.

The Colour Bar at the Canadian Border: Black American Farmers

Canada’s early twentieth-century immigration policies deliberately excluded groups thought unsuited for integration. Beyond ordinary screening overseas, Canadian officials often took extraordinary steps to prevent these “undesirable” immigrants from traveling to Canada. These included rigorous screening overseas, the head tax, and even diplomatic agreements to limit emigration from other countries. However, Canadian authorities encountered circumstances in which identifying undesirable immigrants as such was politically difficult. For example, British subjects from India or the West Indies could claim privileged legal status in Canada, despite being likely targets for exclusion based on “race.” Canadian authorities responded with indirect restrictions in these cases, requiring immigrants from these places to have more money in their possession, or make a continuous journey from their country of origin to Canada. Between indirect policies and screening measures, Canada’s authorities developed a robust regime of preventative exclusion. However, their efforts to forestall Black immigrants from the United States went well beyond these other examples. Canadian immigration officials used their authority to obstruct African-American applicants for immigration to Canada in the early twentieth century through the selective enforcement of regulations, deception, bribery, and other questionable methods.