Emigrants and Immigrants

A group of East Indians at the Canadian Pacific Railway station in Frank, Alta, 1903 (photograph by M.T. Good, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-125113).

Most of Canada's population, other than Aboriginal peoples, is immigrant. The decision to leave one country for another does not necessarily come easily, especially where immigrants leave behind all that is familiar to start a new life elsewhere.

People move because of the push of difficult conditions in their home country, including war, poverty and natural disaster, or the pull of better conditions elsewhere, including the hope of prosperity and peace, and even a better climate (not that this always applies to Canada!). Immigrants were driven here in great numbers in the 1830s from Britain to escape the economic hardship and poverty brought on by the Napoleonic Wars, and in the 1840s from Ireland because of the potato famine.

Prosperity also beckoned. Asians chased the gold rush first to California and again up the Fraser River to Barkerville, BC, in 1862. Later, railway owners contracted Chinese workers to build the railways, and later still, Chinese men left poverty-stricken China in search of work abroad to secure the future of families left behind.

While Canada wanted to attract immigration in the late 19th century and early 20th century, the government also unabashedly stated its preference for European immigrants and its dislike of Indians and Chinese immigrants. In the early 1900s, the Canadian government sent agents to woo landless Eastern Europeans to the prairies. In contrast, it deemed the Chinese undesirable residents and, following the lead of the United States, tried to restrict their immigration with a head tax, and later, excluded their immigration altogether. While not excluded, Japanese immigration was also severely limited. Until these and other discriminatory policies were reversed after the Second World War, immigration to Canada was completely dominated by Europeans.