Immigration and Labour: Australia and Canada Compared

By Iacovetta, Franca; Quinlan, Michael et al. | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 1996 | Go to article overview

Immigration and Labour: Australia and Canada Compared


Iacovetta, Franca, Quinlan, Michael, Radforth, Ian, Labour/Le Travail


AUSTRALIA AND CANADA -- both countries built on successive waves of immigrants -- offer a useful point of comparison for exploring critical themes regarding the complex interplay among immigration, male and female immigrant workers, and the labour movements of receiving societies. Despite the huge distances separating the two countries, there are plenty of similarities. As nations with vast territories, impressive natural resources, and small populations, national development in each country has been critically affected by successive migration streams. Immigration has profoundly affected the workforces and labour movements of each nation. Historically, both countries have had similar economies. (1) They have inherited British political and legal institutions, although the French fact in Canada, particularly Quebec, has made for some important differences. They share, too, a history of paradox -- receiving societies with strong anti-immigration traditions, especially regarding non-Anglo-Celtic immigrants. In both countries, the labour movement historically has been a major contributor to such traditions, although, once again, in both contexts, the recent past has witnessed a shift from long-standing exclusionary policies regarding "foreign" workers towards a policy of greater incorporation. In neither case, however, has this shift obliterated the persistence of ethnic/gender segmentation in labour markets, especially regarding job ghettos of immigrant women. In the post-World War II era, both Canada (1962) and Australia (1973) largely dismantled their racist immigration policies, and since the 1970s, each has adopted multiculturalism as official policy. (2)

There are also differences of degree and kind. Substantial migration to Canada dates further back than immigration to Australia. Particularly in the 1660s and 1670s, the colonizing French state sent to Canada demobilized soldiers, indentured male labourers, and single women sponsored by the crown. Prior to the British conquest in 1760, about 9,000 European migrants settled in the St. Lawrence Valley, and migration from France was never again significant. Increases in the French-Canadian population have been due almost entirely to natural growth. (3) After 1815, migration to Canada and Australia was for more than a century dominated by immigrants from the British Isles. Not until the 1980s did British nationals cease to be the numerically largest group among immigrant arrivals. British immigrants have also affected trade union developments and labour politics in both countries: their presence has been felt in the 19th-century craft unions, the rise of pro-worker parties, and post-1945 union campaigns. Some important distinctions emerge, however. British immigrants overwhelmingly dominated Australia's immigrant intake until the post-1945 era, when a mass migration of non-Anglophone workers occurred. A shift away from an overwhelming dependence on British immigrants occurred 50 years earlier in Canada, during the first 3 decades of the 20th century, when significant numbers of non-British immigrants, especially Americans (who included ethnic Americans) and continental Europeans, began to arrive.

Canada's proximity to the United States has also produced some significant differences vis a vis Australia. The US has been both an important source of immigrants for Canada and a magnet drawing successive waves of French- and English-Canadian emigrants to its borders. During the two decades before 1900, for example, more people left Canada than came (1,600,000 emigrants went to the US; 1,225,000 arrived in Canada from overseas). The emigrants included Quebec farm families on marginal lands who developed extensive migration chains to the New England textile mills, where there were jobs for women and children. This trend was reversed by the early 1900s, but concerns about out-migration to the US, including the "brain drain" of well-educated and professional Canadians, has been a continuing theme. …

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