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Anti-Black racist history in Canada: 1911 order sought to stop Blacks from immigrating

Last Updated Jul 1, 2020 at 10:02 am EDT

A Black colony in Athabasca Landing, Alta. The photo is undated but Athabasca Landing was a trading centre from 1876 to 1913. Photo credit: Canada Department of Interior/Library and Archives Canada/PA-040745

Every year on Canada Day several people take their oath of Canadian citizenship at various ceremonies across the country – a national virtual ceremony will be held this year due to COVID-19. Canada has always been viewed as a country that welcomes immigrants from around the world who are seeking a better life. But that has not always been the case. There was a time – even up until the mid-20th century – when immigration policy in this country was discriminatory towards certain groups of people, including Black people in 1911.

Starting today, we are launching an online series that documents Canada’s anti-Black racist history, providing you with written snapshots that highlight different moments. The first installment of this series looks at the Immigration Act of 1910, which allowed the government to prohibit immigration based on race, and an order-in-council in 1911 that tried to stop Black people from entering the country.

Immigration Act of 1910

This act gave the government expanded discretionary powers to control who could enter the country and be deported. It also gave the “governor in council” the ability to make orders or regulations that prohibited “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.”

In an archived document posted on the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21’s website, Section 38 of the Immigration Act of 1910 states:

“The Governor in Council may, by proclamation or order whenever he deems it necessary or expedient, —
(c) prohibit for a stated period, or permanently, the landing in Canada, or the landing at any specified port of entry in Canada, of immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character.”

According to the national museum of immigration, orders-in-council were brought forth during that time to restrict people from entering the country, including an order-in-council in 1911 that sought to ban Black people from immigrating to Canada.

Black Americans met with racism in Canada

Faced with rampant discrimination in Oklahoma, several Black Americans in that state sought to immigrate to Canada, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. At the time, the Canadian government was offering free land to Europeans and Americans. The society states that more than 1,000 Black Americans immigrated to Canada between 1908 and 1911 and settled in Alberta of Saskatchewan.

But the hopeful immigrants were faced racism on this side of the border as well, with Canadians opposing their arrival. The society states that  immigration officials tried to restrict their entry by using propaganda campaigns and having them undergo meticulous medical examinations.

Order penned to ban Black immigrants

In 1911, Frank Oliver — the Canadian interior minister and an MP in Edmonton at the time — recommended an order-in-council that banned “any immigrant belonging to the Ne**o race.”

According to an archived document obtained by the Canadian Museum of Immigration, Order-in-Council P.C. 1324 states:

“His Excellency in Council, in virtue of the provisions of Sub-Section (c) of Section 38 of the Immigration Act, is please to Order and it is hereby Ordered as follows: For a period of one year from and after the date thereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrant belonging to the Ne**o race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”

The order was adopted on Aug. 12, 1911, and signed by then prime minister Wilfred Laurier. It was not officially legislated or included in the Immigration Act and was cancelled on Oct. 5, 1911. According to a document available at Library and Archives Canada, the order was cancelled after after “having been inadvertently passed in the absence of the Minister of the Interior.”

Immigration policies since 1910-1911

Various governments re-framed its immigration policies over the years, including amending the Immigration Act in 1919, which still prohibited certain groups from entering Canada, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1947, and the Immigration Act of 1952 – which was the first new immigration act since 1910. However, the new act still discriminated against people based on their ethnicity or occupation.

The Immigration Act of 1976 was viewed as a turning point in immigration policy, which allowed for family reunions and classified refugees as immigrants.