Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

From Strangers to "Humanity First": Canadian Social Democracy and Immigration Policy, 1932-1961

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

From Strangers to "Humanity First": Canadian Social Democracy and Immigration Policy, 1932-1961

Article excerpt

From 1932 to 1961, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political party born of the Great Depression, contributed a social-democratic vision to Canada's national political conversation. This social-democratic outlook provided a distinct alternative to the Liberal and Conservative parties in the matters of economic and social planning and civil liberties. At times, the CCF also provided an alternative on the twin issues of immigration and naturalization. Much as socialist and social-democratic parties throughout the Western world have struggled to reconcile immigration with labour rights and national self-definition, so did the CCF, whose approach could prove inconsistent. Though relegated to third-party status in Parliament and less constrained by the challenge of governance, the CCF still had ideological and electoral concerns that forced such inconsistencies. Like their constituents, party leaders James Shaver Woodsworth and Major James Coldwell identified economic and cultural problems posed by the influx of foreign families and labourers and, on that basis, at times bowed to political expediency. Yet, increasingly, the party also embraced a budding civic nationalism informed by socialist egalitarianism and Christian brotherhood. The party's quest for economic and social justice ultimately rested not only on Canadian workers' concerns over cheap imported labour but also on the achievement of humanitarian ideals regardless of national origin. Though historians have drawn attention to these occasionally conflicting aims, the scholarly community still awaits an in-depth study on the complex factors involved in the formulation of a social-democratic position in the field of immigration.

Concerned with the CCF and its approach to immigration policy from 1932 to 1961, this article considers the evolution of the party's vision through three distinct phases: the Great Depression along with the circumstances that gave rise to the party; World War 11 and its immediate aftermath; and the period beginning in 1947, when the governing Liberal Party redefined its immigration policy. Over the course of three decades, the CCF sought to represent the interests of Canada's working class. Yet, like other left-leaning parties that departed from Marxist orthodoxy, it was not always content to offer economic solutions to social or cultural problems, which is made plain by election platforms, works published by leading party figures, and the official CCF paper. Immigration policy could not be disentangled from the difficult questions of national identity and racial and ethnic justice. Citing the latter, the party called for a wider admission of Jewish refugees, opposed the deportation of Japanese Canadians, and challenged discriminatory policies in the postwar period. In the process, it found working-class allies. Throughout its existence, when taking positions on principle, it would use the language of economic nationalism to uphold its social-democratic credentials.

One can easily overemphasize the part played by immigration policy in Canadians' political behaviour. Likewise, historians must take care not to exaggerate what might appear as a selfless, politically sacrificial commitment to humanitarian principles on the part of the CCF. A cursory overview of contemporary documents indicates either reluctance to discuss immigration and naturalization, or these issues' relative insignificance for the party and its political base. A statement titled Towards the Dawn, from 1938, provided no information on the matter. In 1943, David Lewis and F.R. Scott lamented the exclusion of East Indian, Chinese, and Japanese residents from full citizenship rights and called for a better organization of manpower capacities; a leaflet titled The Case for Socialism, published the same year, offered little more. A series of lectures released as Planning for Freedom made no mention of refugees or immigration. In Left Turn, Canada, published in 1945, leader M. …

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