Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

For Purity or Prosperity: Competing Nationalist Visions and Canadian Immigration Policy, 1919-30

Academic journal article British Journal of Canadian Studies

For Purity or Prosperity: Competing Nationalist Visions and Canadian Immigration Policy, 1919-30

Article excerpt

This study examines how Canada's immigration policy became the site of competing nationalist visions in the post-First World War period, when Canadians struggled with a changed sense of the nation's identity and purpose. It focuses on two groups, divided largely along gender lines: female civil servants new to Ottawa's immigration department, and Canada's leading industrialists. At the crux of the immigration debate in this period, as now, was whether cultural or economic interests should take precedence in policy. Exploring the debate in an historical context reveals immigration policy formulation to be an enterprise that responds to constantly changing social and economic systems, and relations of gender and power.

IN 1919, as Canadians struggled to understand the meaning of the First World War, many sought some higher purpose, some redemptive possibility, in their shock and grief. On the home front, citizens reexamined public policy and came to expect a significant shift in priorities toward the achievement of social salvation, or building a moral nation. For its part, the state struggled to find solutions to new war-related problems as well as to older, persistent ones, and in the process was willing to give serious consideration to several demands of social reformers. Ottawa introduced prohibition and the female franchise in wartime, and then turned its attention to immigration (long a concern of reform groups) just after the war, while its broadened wartime powers were still in effect and made far-reaching change possible (Koven and Michel 1993: 29; Mackenzie 2005: 4). The debate surrounding immigration policy, which had simmered under the surface during the war years, took on renewed importance with the war's end as Canadians re-imagined the nation's future. While a whole range of opinions on immigration found voice in the media, labour union halls, chambers of commerce and religious organisations, at the crux of the debate was whether cultural or economic interests should take precedence in policy.

There is no doubt that immigration policy was a high stakes area in Canada's interwar years; it became a site of conflict among interest groups with incompatible nationalist visions. This study focuses on two such groups and the tactics they used to bend policy toward their particular objectives. The reformist vision was espoused by an idealistic and determined contingent of Anglo-Canadian female civil servants, newly hired by Ottawa's Department of Immigration and Colonization. After the suffrage victory and women's laudable public contributions in wartime, female reformers were invited to enter the Canadian immigration department in significant numbers, a development which to some degree upset traditional relationships and practices. Their rivals were Canada's railway and shipping magnates, all male, whose vested interests in migration were matchless. These groups occupy the centre of this study because of the unusual policy influence each exercised at given times in the 1920s, and because their interactions with senior immigration officials, politicians and each other reveal much about Canada's changing social and economic systems, as well as relations of power.

To the Prime Minister and cabinet, and to anyone who would listen, female social reformers described a nation teetering on a threshold, facing the choice of falling back into the haphazard, lenient pre-war approach to immigration, or moving toward a promising future in which only the 'best' newcomers were welcomed and 'quality above quantity' was the maxim. Working as professionals and volunteers, reform-minded women aimed to construct an image of themselves as the nation's 'guardian angels' whose task it was to keep out misfits and tend to the needs of 'deserving' migrants.1 Canada's big businesses, of which railway and transatlantic shipping companies were the most vocal, responded forcefully to this reform impulse, pushing an opposing narrative in which they played the leading role as nation-builders who generated prosperity by importing the labour Canada needed on a large scale. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.