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Starting Points: Researching Canadian Immigration and Ethnic History

So you’re interested in researching a topic that deals with Canadian immigration and ethnic history? This short post will give you an overview of the field and suggest some starting points to help get your research underway.

In the early part of the twentieth century, scholars in Canada and the United States began to discuss the role of the state in formulating immigration policy and its influence on newcomers. Lacking a theoretical or conceptual framework on which to base their studies, scholars in the United States began by viewing immigration as a ‘problem.’ In Canada, early scholarship focused on the settlement of the Canadian West. As a field of study, immigration history in both countries remained overlooked and at times was ignored.[1] In the 1930s, sociologists and historians began to question the role of ethnic identity and immigration in government policy and the socioeconomic fabric of their societies. Scholarship maintained an interdisciplinary nature as historians and sociologists used their respective methodologies. In this period many works held ethnocentric views that diminished or degraded groups into ethnic and racial hierarchies prevalent at the time.[2]

American scholarship profoundly influenced the emergence of works on Canadian immigration history and ethnicity. In 1951, Harvard historian Oscar Handlin published his influential Pulitzer-Prize-winning thesis, The Uprooted.[3] In his book, Handlin argued that the immigrant experience in coming to the New World included a break with the past in which immigrants encountered alienation, assimilation and uprootedness. Thirteen years later, University of Toronto sociologist Raymond Breton argued that the establishment of ethnic institutions permitted immigrants to maintain their old world cultures and heritage. Breton demonstrated that ethnic groups including Germans, Greeks, Italians and Poles who erected their own community halls, parishes, businesses and banks maintained a high rate of “institutional completeness.” Smaller ethnic communities were considered to hold a low level of “institutional completeness” for they lacked many of these same institutions.[4] By the mid-1960s, scholars of immigration and ethnicity began to question Handlin’s thesis of uprootedness. University of Minnesota historian Rudolph Vecoli illustrated that immigrants “transplanted” their identities and cultural heritage to their country of settlement. As a result, the immigrant experience in coming to Canada and the United States did not include a break with the past, but rather demonstrated that newcomers maintained agency when choosing to immigrate and adapt to their new home.[5]

Without a generation of scholars such as Handlin and Vecoli who could examine the non-Anglo-Irish or French immigration experiences, Canadian scholarship lagged behind. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s the study of Canadian immigration history and ethnic communities began to spark greater interest. In part due to the recommendations of the Bilingual-Bicultural Royal Commission, the introduction of the points system in 1967, and an official multiculturalism policy in 1971, Canadian researchers became increasingly interested in the country’s ethnic communities and immigrant newcomers. The emergence of social history and the study of the past “from the bottom-up” directly questioned Canada’s established national history in an attempt to bring forth the experiences of workers, women and newcomers previously marginalized in articles and books on Canadian history. The early works on ethnic communities and immigrants were heavily filiopietistic in nature as community “insiders” including academics and professionals promoted idealized visions of themselves, their fellow members and their community’s contribution to Canada.[6]

In the early 1980s, historian Roberto Perin argued for a distinct space in historiography for immigrants, separate from the ethnic community. Perin proposed the use of the terms “immigrant communities” or “immigrant cultures” instead of “ethnic.”[7] In the last three decades, scholarship on the immigrant experience and ethnic communities in Canada continued to build on the early works of community insiders, social historians and sociologists interested in immigration and ethnicity.[8] In recent years, scholars have examined the role of ethnicity, ‘race,’ sexuality, gender, disability, lifestyle, culture, religion, politics, ideology and economics in the immigrant and ethnic experience in Canada. Research and writing continues with scholars moving towards new avenues in immigrant and ethnic history including work that focuses on ethnic foodways, detention, deportation, medicine/disease, customs and immigrant children, to name a few.

Now it’s up to you! Explore and shed light on this rich part of Canada’s past. The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but provides a diverse collection of sources to give you a starting point for your research. Good luck!

Overview of Canadian Immigration and Ethnic Historiography

Hoerder, Dirk. “Ethnic Studies in Canada from the 1880s to 1962: A Historiographical
Perspective and Critique.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 26.1 (1994): 1-18.

Iacovetta, Franca. “Manly Militants, Cohesive Communities, and Defiant Domestics: Writing
about Immigrants in Canadian Historical Scholarship.” Labour/Le travail 36
(1995): 217-252

-.The Writing of English Canadian Immigrant History. Ottawa: Canadian Historical
Association, 1997.

Palmer, Howard. “Canadian Immigration and Ethnic History in the 1970s and 1980s.”
International Migration Review 15.3 (Autumn 1981): 471-501.

Perin, Roberto. “Clio as an Ethnic: The Third Force in Canadian Historiography.” Canadian
Historical Review
64.4 (1983): 441-467.

Whitaker, Reginald. Canadian Immigration Policy since Confederation. Ottawa: Canadian
Historical Association, 1991.

Zucchi, John. A History of Ethnic Enclaves in Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical
Association, 2007.

Comprehensive Surveys of Canadian Immigration and Ethnic History

Avery, Donald H. Reluctant Host: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers. Toronto:
McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1995.

Dirks, Gerald E. Canada's Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal: McGill-
Queen’s University Press, 1977.

Hawkins, Freda. Canada and Immigration: Public Policy and Public Concern. Montreal:
McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988.

Kelley, Ninette, and Michael Trebilcock. The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian
Immigration Policy.
Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy,
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997.

Malarek, Victor. Heaven’s Gate: Canada’s Immigration Fiasco. Toronto: Macmillan, 1985.

Palmer, Howard. Ethnicity and Politics in Canada Since Confederation. Ottawa:
Canadian Historical Association, 1991.

Roberts, Barbara. Whence they Came: Deportation from Canada, 1900-1935. Ottawa:
University of Ottawa, 1988.

Whitaker, Reginald. Double Standard: the Secret History of Canadian Immigration.
Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Limited, 1990.

Bibliographies and Oral History Collections

Gregorovich, Andrew. A Bibliography of Canada's Peoples: Supplement 1, 1972-1979.
Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1993.

-.Canadian Ethnic Groups Bibliography: A Selected Bibliography of Ethno-Cultural
Groups in Canada and the Province of Ontario.
Toronto: Department
of the Provincial Secretary and Citizenship, 1972.

Forte, Nick. G. and Gabriele Pietro Scardellato. A Guide to the Collections of the
Multicultural History Society of Ontario.
Toronto: Multicultural History
Society of Ontario, 1992.

Fortier, Normand. Guide to Oral History Collections in Canada / Guide aux collections
d'histoire orale au Canada. Ottawa : Library and Archives Canada, 1993.

Magocsi, Paul Robert. Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples. Toronto: Multicultural History
Society of Ontario, 1999. (Available Online:

Rogers, Renee and Gabriele Pietro Scardellato. A Bibliography of Canada’s Peoples: 1980-
1989: Thematic Entries.
Toronto: Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1996.

Immigration Statistics

Canada. Department of Citizenship and Immigration. “Immigration Statistics = Statistique
de l'immigration.”

Statistics Canada. “Canada Yearbooks Historical Collection.” (1867-1967)


Connecting Canadians: Canada’s Multicultural Newspapers

Multicultural Canada (

Multicultural History Society of Ontario (

Ethnic and Mainstream Newspapers in Canada

Ethno-Cultural Groups, Library and Archives Canada

Our Roots / Nos racines (

  1. Dirk Hoerder, “Ethnic Studies in Canada from the 1880s to 1962: A Historiographical Perspective and Critique,” Canadian Ethnic Studies 26.1 (1994): 1-18.
  2. Franca Iacovetta, The Writing of English Canadian Immigrant History (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1997), 3. For example, see James Shaver Woodsworth, Strangers at our Gates or Coming Canadians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1909) and John Murray Gibbons, Canadian Mosaic: The Making of a Northern Nation (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1938).
  3. See Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted: The Epic Story of the Great Migrations that Made the American People (Little, Brown and Company, 1951).
  4. Raymond Breton, “Institutional Completeness of Ethnic Communities and the Personal Relations of Immigrants,” American Journal of Sociology 70:2 (1964), 193-205; Roberto Perin, “Clio as an Ethnic: the Third Force in Canadian Historiography,” Canadian Historical Review 64.4 (December 1983): 441-442. Perin notes that Raymond Breton’s thesis “said more about the geographical, social, or cultural isolation of the individual than about the institutions’ vitality was not immediately apparent to these theorists.”
  5. See Handlin, The Uprooted; Rudolph J. Vecoli, “Contadini in Chicago: A Critique of The Uprooted,” Journal of American History 51.3 (December 1964): 404-417, and John Bodnar’s The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1985); Franca Iacovetta, “Manly Militants, Cohesive Communities, and Defiant Domestics: Writing about Immigrants in Canadian Historical Scholarship,” Labour/Le travail 36 (1995): 220-225.
  6. Iacovetta, “Manly Militants, Cohesive Communities, and Defiant Domestics,” 220-225; Iacovetta, Writing of English Canadian Immigrant History, 3; Howard Palmer, “Canadian Immigration and Ethnic History in the 1970s and 1980s,” International Migration Review 15.3 (Autumn 1981): 472-473.
  7. Perin, “Clio as an Ethnic,” 202.
  8. Ibid., 217-218.