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Colonialism, Capitalism and the Making of the Apartheid System of Migration in Canada




H. Walia

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ZNet Magazine

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Attention to national borders has figured prominently in the post-9-11 world and many have argued that 9/11 has created a new fortified world. The events of 9/11 certainly has reconfigured, but has not created, Canadian border policies, which has historically been distrustful of racialized migrants. A comprehensive history and analysis of Canadian immigration processes unearths how the quest for “security”- of borders, of the nation, and of those deemed Canadian- has been a prominent feature of immigration enforcement for the past century.

History and Shifting Discourses

Until the 1960s, the Canadian state explicitly chose its immigrants on the basis of racial categorization with preference for immigrants of Northern European (especially British) origin over the so-called “black and Asiatic races”. For example, when it came to Americans, the Immigration Branch solicited only white farmers while black agriculturalists were rejected through administrative processes such as imposing more stringent medical requirements. Although never proclaimed, a 1911 Order in Council prohibited “any immigrant belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada”.

The first wave of Japanese immigrants arrived between 1877-1928 and in 1907, at Canada's insistence, Japan limited the number of males who could emigrate to 400 a year. This was largely in response to the riots of 1907, organized by racist lobby groups. The Vancouver Trades and Labour Council was involved in the formation of the Asiatic Exclusion League in response to reports that the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway was planning to import thousands of Japanese labourers. In 1928, Canada and Japan further revised the “gentlemen's agreement” of 1907 to restrict Japanese immigration to Canada to 150 persons annually.

In order to discourage South Asian migration, the Laurier government amended the Immigration Act in 1908 with the "continuous-journey regulation", under which travel to Canada required a continuous passage from country of origin. Since no shipping company provided direct service from India to Canada, this provision served to close the door to all Indian immigration and the Hawaii route for Japanese immigration. The continuous-journey regulation was dramatically challenged in May 1914, when 376 Indians arrived in Vancouver harbour on board the Komagata Maru, which lay in the harbour for weeks, deprived of food and water by Canadian authorities, and was eventually turned back. The regulation remained in effect until 1947.

In 1923, the government abolished the Chinese Head Tax (initially a $50 head tax, later raised to $500) that had been imposed on Chinese immigrants since 1885, only to replace it with a new Chinese Immigration Act virtually excluding all Chinese immigration. The new law went into effect on 1 July 1923, dubbed "Humiliation Day" by the Chinese community. From that date until it was repealed in 1947, less than 50 Chinese were allowed to come to Canada

The assertion of Canada’s sovereign right to be selective about whom it allows to enter and remain has always represented the bottom line in immigration law. To paraphrase Michael Walzer, membership is the primary good bestowed by the liberal nation; membership must be settled before questions of justice can be addressed. As stated by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1947, “I wish to make it quite clear that Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting persons whom we regards as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada, It is a privilege... The people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make any fundamental alteration in the character of our population.”

This statement is symptomatic of embedded sentiments to maintain Canada’s purity, therefore undesirable and excluded migrants were those thought to be impure. The 1952 Immigration Act, conceived essentially as a gatekeeper's act, codified racial and moral bases of exclusion. For example the Act gave Cabinet the power to exclude people based on the grounds of those who had “peculiar customs, habits”, those who were “unsuitable having regard to the climactic, economic, social, industrial, educational, labour, heath, or other conditions” and those who are unable to become “readily assimilated”.

Race officially ceased to be an overt factor with the introduction of the point system in the 1960s. However as Anna Pratt has written “over the past fifty years, as human rights doctrines became more consequential and legal rights talk more established, explicitly racist, moralistic, and ideological grounds for exclusion were delegitimized. Instead, the categories of crime and criminality proliferated and merged with a reconfigured and expanded understanding of national security.” A mere reconstruction of the discourse and the three C’s of multiculturalism (costume, cuisine, and craft) did not alter the racist foundations of immigration policies.

desirable/ undesirable

The border is a historically specific creation and state monopolization of the legitimate means of movement and migration contributes to the reification of the nation-state and its citizens. While certain government practices act upon those deemed worthy, coercive practices of state sovereignty ultimately expel others from the nation. Despite its name, the recently enacted Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) is less about protecting refugees and more about protection of the Canadian public and nation. The protection of rights-bearing and deserving (genuine) immigrants and refugees has become contingent upon the identification and exclusion of others thought to be security threats, criminals, or system abusers.

“Genuine refugees” are seen as helpless victims forced to leave their country due to persecution and through no personal fault of their own, while “bogus refugee claimants” are regarded with suspicion as being system-abusers and “voluntary economic refugees”. Ironically, economic migrants who immigrate through the point system as skilled workers- - the model minorities- are deeply valued. This contradictory notion of the “economic migrant” is better understood from a state perspective: the acceptable economic immigration of skilled workers benefits the national economy, while bogus economic refugees are seen as selfish and simply improving their own economic circumstance. Therefore it is only the genuine refugee and the independent immigrant, though not the bogus economic refugee, who deserves the benefits of Canadian citizenship, thus creating falsified legal boundaries for inclusion that control peoples right to self-determination.

The Realities of Refugee Protection and Migrant Detention

It is a myth that Canada accepts a large number of refugees. For every 443 Canadians born, 1 refugee is admitted. This number is further declining with the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed between the Canada and the US. This agreement, which took effect on December 29 2004, will not allow (with minor exceptions) asylum-seekers into Canada if they first arrive in the U.S. Considering that the route of most asylum-seekers involves migrating through the US, advocates estimated that this highly exclusionary Agreement would affect approximately 40% of claimants, thus creating a “Fortress North America”. Indeed, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board’s own statistics, the number of pending claims at the end of 2003 was 41,575, compared to 27,290 at the end of 2004. Simultaneously, removals from Canada have increased from 8946 removals in 2001 to over 10,000 removals in 2004. Racialized trends are further revealed through the statistics on government-assisted refugees: in 1998, 59% of government-assisted refugees came from Europe versus only 12% from Africa.

Contrary to public perception, there are not an infinite number of appeals that a refugee claimant can access in Canada. For the overwhelming majority of claimants, refugee determination is a one-step process because there is no full merit-based appeal, although provided for in IRPA in 2002 that previous Immigration Minister Denis Coderre promised would be implemented within one year. Currently, one of the limited avenues in the refugee process, the Pre-Removal Risk Assessment, had an overall national acceptance rate of less than 3% in the year 2004.

The assertion of absolute state sovereignty is nowhere more apparent than the detention regime. Unlike prisons, immigrant detention does not pretend to serve any purpose other than forcible confinement and control to ensure deportation. The detention center in Laval is officially designated the “Immigration Prevention Center”. There are two main grounds for detention: firstly, a likelihood that a person poses a danger to the public; or secondly, that the person is likely not to appear for removal. This second rationale creates a catch-22: those who express fear of deportation and a desire to remain in Canada are often considered flight risks and subject to continued detention. The new IRPA has increased the powers of detention based on identity which allows immigration officers to detain any “foreign national” if unsatisfied of the person’s identity. During 2002-2003, on any given day over 400 people were in immigration detention across Canada and over the year, over 11, 000 people were detained for a total of approximately 165,000 days. Only a handful of these detentions were on security grounds, making the majority of detentions to be what many have termed “detention based on convenience”.

Imperialism, Globalization, and Migration

The reality of migration is one that reveals the asymmetrical relations between “rich” and “poor,” and between North and South, where the effects of colonialism and corporate globalization have created political economies that compel people to move. Such forces are the same forces that have perpetuated genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples within the colonial project of "North America." A salient example of the impact of capitalism and neo-colonialism on migration trends is the US-Mexico border. As part of its inclusion in NAFTA in 1994, Mexico was forced to adjust its constitution’s Article 27, which guaranteed rights to communal lands (ejidos). A symbolic illustration of NAFTA’s effects is the fate of Mexican corn: the Mexican government was forced to eliminate subsidies to corn, meanwhile corn produced in the US remained subsidized, thus making it cheaper to buy US corn inside Mexico than Mexican corn. Over 1.5 million Mexican farmers who subsequently lost their farms migrated North to work in low-paying sectors and maquila factories. Wages among California’s 700,000 farm workers, half of whom are undocumented, is approximately $6.75 an hour.

Furthermore, the nature of the refugee determination system is far from being a simple exercise in humanitarianism. It can more accurately be labeled as a manifestation of Canada’s aggressive foreign policy. For example, Canada towed the ideological line of the US by being slow to react to the admission of Chilean refugees who were supporters of Salvador Allende after the violent US-backed coup of Allende's socialist government in 1973. By comparison, Canada was far more “humanitarian” in accepting approximately 60,000 refugees from South-East Asians Vietnams and Laos who fled Communist regimes in the wake of Saigon's fall in 1975.

Economics of the Immigration system and (Im)migrant labour

It is not a novel assertion that while free trade agreements open borders to capital, borders are increasingly tightening to those whom capital has displaced. In 2001, the Canadian government signed the Canada-US Smart Border Accord which ensures that border restrictions will not impair the economic necessity of ensuring free flow of goods and services. However, it is also important to note that while repressive immigration policies are intended to exclude those deemed undesirable, they are not intended to act as fortresses against all racialized people. It is not in the best interests of the Canadian economy to deport all non-status migrants. Instead, border controls serve to create a constantly internalized fear of instability and vulnerability. The legally-sanctioned right of the state to deny permanent legal status to most who migrate guarantees that a growing number of migrants will constitute a highly exploitable pool of labour.

Therefore the efforts to achieve a borderless capitalist global economy depends on securing territorial borders against undesirable outsiders while creating a pool of non-citizens whose hyper-exploitable labour free markets depend on. The notion of “illegals” is a constructed one that allows for the maintenance of social hierarchies based on race and class. The term “illegal” does not conjure up images of American students who have illegally overstayed their tourist visas. As Nandita Sharma argues, “Categories of legality and illegality are … deeply ideological. They help to conceal the fact that both those represented as foreigners and those seen as Canadian work within the same labour market and live within the same society.”

In 1947, Canada established a contract-labour program under which potential employers in the mining, logging, or lumbering industries would forward applications to the Department of Labour requesting that a certain number of labourers be brought in under prearranged contracts covering minimal wages and living conditions of servitude. Shortly after its introduction, the program was expanded to include other industries and specialized agricultural workers.

This form of contract agricultural labour continues today under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Approximately 18,000 migrant farm workers from the Caribbean and Mexico arrive in Canada to work the fields, orchards and greenhouses every year, typically for periods of 3 to 10 months. Temporary migrant workers are separated from their families performing rigorous rural labour that few Canadians choose to do. The low wages of migrant workers has contributed to the multi-million dollar agricultural industry, while the structure of the SAWP- particularly the lack of secure work and status- silences the struggles of the workers.

Migrant women of colour on temporary work visas most directly experience the hypocrisy of liberal democracies that promise opportunity while creating categories of exploited workers. The Foreign Domestic Movement Program came into effect in 1981, which allowed migrant women into Canada if they could find employment as a domestic worker, but the women were not granted citizenship. In 1992, the Live-In Caregiver Program (LCP) replaced the Foreign Domestic Movement Program. Under the Live-in Caregiver Program migrant women- predominantly Filipinas- enter Canada as temporary workers. Although the program calls for a 49-hour maximum workweek, the live-in aspect allows employers to call on the caregivers at any time and renders the women subject to labour rights violations and gross abuse. Women are required to work for two years within a window of 36 months in order to qualify for permanent residency. Many advocates have called for the abolition of the LCP and to allow women with domestic and caring work skills to immigrate and access full rights of residency.

Yet even immigrants with permanent residency rights face conditions of underemployment and inequities in income. For example under provincial employment standards in BC, it is possible for workers who are new to the labour force to be paid a $6 per hour "training wage", instead of the regular $8 per hour minimum wage, for the first 500 hours of work. A more endemic issue is that immigrants who are trained within non-western educational or scientific traditions experience great difficulties in gaining recognition for their training and skills. A Statistics Canada study indicates that even after 10 years in Canada, one-fifth of university-educated immigrants are still working in low-income jobs. Research by the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada conducted over ten years reveals that the poverty rate amongst Canadian-born in the year 2000 was 14.3%, compared to a poverty rate of 20.2% amongst all immigrants, and 35.8% amongst recent immigrants. Therefore the oppression of migrants is inextricably linked to the systemic oppression of all racialized people.

White Nationalism and Racialization of the Enemy

Patriotic discourses emphasize the nation as a contained entity threatened by outside forces. The illusion of the nation as a place of safety and security is reified through state bureaucratic organizations, such as the military, federal intelligence organizations and immigration departments, which produce the sense that “The Enemy” is outside the realm of “us.” For example within days of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese in North America were seen as enemy aliens. A Minister of Parliament in the British Columbian government announced, "Let our slogan be for British Columbia; no Japs from the Rockies to the seas." And upon the enactment of the “War Measures Act” in 1942, about 22,000 Japanese were relocated, 75% of whom were naturalized Canadians.

With the “War on Terrorism” the identities of North Americans versus the terrorists are being re-imagined. Although "The Enemy" was Osama bin Laden, his image personified all Arabs in the Western imagination and the nation was reconfigured to exclude all Arabs. By comparison, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was considered to be the act of one lone man, therefore resulting in no mass profiling and there was no exclusion of the entire white race from social-political spaces. Borders and nation-states are historically specific systems that shape distinctive cultures and within this culture, terrorism is perceived as a Third World import (without any recognition of Western state-sponsored terrorism whose victims predominantly reside in the Third World and indigenous territories of the First World). Such imagery reinforces the normalization of whiteness in the Western imagination and renders racialized communities as hyphenated citizens- a colonial construction of identity and entitlement. The ability to control immigration reveals a deep-rooted system of apartheid whereby the Canadian state and all those entitled to make pronouncements on immigration (not racialized migrants themselves since they are too “biased” to weigh in) maintain the power to construct migrants as problems to be managed and contained. Thus phrases like “immigrants” do not actually reflect one’s legal status; rather the seemingly innocuous term is actually a euphemism for racialized migrants from the Third World.

Finally, it is worth noting that Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act, which amends the Criminal Code, is scarcely being used to combat “terrorism”. Instead IRPA, which gives the state the powers to charge, detain, and deport non-citizens, is being used through the provision of Security Certificates. While the Anti-Terrorism Act gives the police extraordinary investigative powers, it still requires that those accused are charged with some defined act. Under the Security Certificates regime, however, detainees can be held without charge. Much has been written about how security certificates violate principles of due process; however more significantly, security certificates are a form of legislated racism in only applying to non-citizens. Law professor Audrey Macklin points out, “immigration law has long done to non-citizens what the Anti-terrorism Act proposes to do to citizens–without public outcry and with judicial blessing.”

Although different eras have been dominated by different perceptions of threats to the nation-state, each era has formulated threats as being external to the nation-state thus justifying exclusionary immigration policies. Catherine Dauvergne has written, “one reason why the concept of ‘national interest’ is so vital to immigration law is because of the role this law plays in constituting the nation.” It is not enough to simply defend the “civil liberties and human rights” of immigrants and refugees- a demand that has come to dominate the leftist landscape. Human rights standards have not altered the reality of the immigration and refugee system. For example the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which came into force in 1954, sets standards of treatment for refugees yet does not alter the fundamental fact that states are not obligated to admit those who are not their nationals. Sunera Thobani offers the challenge "What makes it alright for us to buy a t-shirt on the streets of Vancouver for $3, which was made in China, then stand up all outraged as Canadian citizens when the woman who made that t-shirt tries to come here and live with us on a basis of equality?" Instead we must also confront and challenge the nationalistic processes and logic of racialized notions of belonging and entitlement.

- Harsha Walia is an activist and writer based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. A shorter version of this article will appear in the New Socialist Magazine.


Economic sectors

Agriculture and horticulture workers and Occupations in services - Domestic work

Content types

Policy analysis

Geographical focuses

Canada, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, Other provinces, Federal, Nova Scotia, and National relevance