The Debate on Family Reunification and Canada's Immigration Act of 1976 (1)

Article excerpt

On April 10, 1978, a new Immigration Act came into force in Canada after a lengthy legislative reform process initiated in September 1973 aimed at clarifying and modernizing the immigration legislation. The Act's introductory clause spelled out the objectives of the nation's immigration policy, among which were welcoming refugees, fulfilling the country's economic, social, and demographic needs, and guaranteeing family reunification. While few people disputed these objectives, the relative importance attributed to each, and especially the number of visas allocated annually to the various immigrant categories, was more controversial. It was one of the issues at the center of the protracted debates that had taken place both within political circles in Ottawa and the Canadian public in the preceding years.

Throughout its history, Canadian immigration policy has been influenced by demographic and economic considerations: the young nation needed to import hands and brains. Until at least the middle of the 1960s, the immigration program was regulated by what some have called the "tap-on and tap-off system," submitting the immigrant intake to short-term economic fluctuations, namely real or perceived labor market needs and constraints. (2) At the same time, explicit and indirect devices ensured the stability of the nation's racial and ethnic makeup. The dialectics of racial and economic factors in the history of Canada's immigration policy have been well documented. (3) Less well known, however, are other aspects of immigration policy such as family reunification, which has at various periods achieved significant political visibility in Canada.

This paper analyzes the political debate concerning the role and significance of family reunification in the context of the 1970s, when the nation examined its immigration policy objectives and admission categories or types of immigrant visa--family, economic, and humanitarian--were more precisely delineated. Indeed, the increasingly sophisticated admission paths reflected the state's growing concern for the creation of relevant and efficient bureaucratic means to achieve its policy objectives. Yet the persistent gap between the lawmakers' intention and the actual process of immigrant admissions, which remained largely determined by administrative discretion, led to further political debates as well as legislative and administrative reforms. The dynamics at work in such debates and reforms, including organized interests competing for the lawmakers' attention, an institutional framework favoring Cabinet discretion and strong ideological currents pitting the supposed national interest against humanitarian policies, made long-term planning and consistency difficult for Canada's successive governments. In such a context the issue of family reunification partook of a struggle between two conceptions of immigration policy objectives: one that saw such objectives as complementary, and another that put them in competition with one another.

The origins and development of family reunification in Canada

Family reunification has always had special significance for Canada. Even during the period of strict immigration restrictions corresponding to the Great Depression, foreign relatives of Canadian citizens or residents were accepted. With the displaced persons crisis in the aftermath of the Second World War, the Canadian government cautiously opened up the categories for the admission of relatives in spite of the country's restrictive immigration program and deliberately positioned Canada on the international stage as the champion of separated families. (4) Since then Canadian government officials have proclaimed their country's deep attachment to family reunification--a principle which, along with the integration of refugees, has come to be associated in official discourse with the so-called "humanitarian" aspect of the country's immigration policy and is presented as the hallmark of the nation's "compassion. …