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  • Canadian Ethnic Studies in the Changing Context of Immigration: Looking Back, Looking Forward
  • Loyd Wong and Shibao Guo

The year 2018 marks the 50th anniversary of Canadian Ethnic Studies / Études Ethniques au Canada! The journal started fifty years ago as an interdisciplinary publication devoted to the study of ethnicity, immigration, inter-group relations, and the history and cultural life of ethnic groups in Canada. As we celebrate this important milestone, it is important to look back at its history by reflecting on the following questions: How has immigration contributed to the transformation of Canada into an ethno-culturally diverse nation? How has past immigration, settlement, and integration policy in Canada affected and shaped ethnic studies in Canada? What are the future directions for immigration, and racial and ethnic studies in Canada?

Canadian Immigration and Nation-Building

Prior to Confederation in 1867, for the territory that was eventually to be included in Canada, there was principally a free-entry period for immigrants. Moreover, even immediately after 1867 there was essentially a free-entry period for three decades until the late 1890s when the first coherent immigration policy was introduced–the Immigration Act of 1896. When a formal state policy is established by a nation state that encourages and sets the parameters for immigration then it becomes formally recognized as an immigration society. Some of the tenets of an immigration society are that they: 1) employ a principled framework to regulate admission; 2) generate programs to facilitate the integration and settlement of immigrants; 3) entitle immigrants to all rights, including the right to permanent residency and citizenship; and 4) see immigration and immigrants as society-building assets and central to national identity (Fleras 2015, 79).

Immediately after WWI the Canadian Government passed legislation under the Immigration Act to define a prohibited class of undesirable people while concurrently [End Page 1] creating a list of preferred nations from which immigrants would be welcome. Essentially ethnocentrism and racism were the underpinnings in the creation of prohibited classes of people who were deemed undesirable because of their perceived inability to integrate into Canadian society. Hence a list of preferred countries, that in effect included the United States and European countries, was created so there could be prohibition by reason of nationality and citizenship. In this time period there was virtually no immigration from non-white countries and this included those in Africa, Asia, and South America. It was not until after WWII that Canada’s immigration policy slowly started to become non-racist, at least in terms of its language. However, the political discourse was still very exclusionary and racist. In post-WWII Canada during the 1950s and 1960s, there was a tremendous amount of industrialization in Central Canada and a return to the notion of nation-building via immigration policy. This economic boom was one factor in bringing to an end a fifty-year period of an overtly ethnocentric and racist immigration policy. Another factor was increased international pressure on Canada, and other countries, to change their immigration policy as it was now a changing world where racism could not be applied as openly as before and racism was in retreat from public discourse.

By 1967 the Canadian government established an overtly non-racist immigration policy through regulations that established three basic classes of immigrants. These included the following: i) Family Class; ii) Independent Class; and iii) Refugee Class (using the United Nations definition of refugee). These classes of immigrants remain basically the same today with only changes in terminology.

When the Points System was introduced in 1967, it established universalistic criteria based on human capital to determine the potential eligibility of people wanting to immigrate to Canada to work under the independent class (now referred to as the economic class). These included factors such as their level of education, job skills, occupation, work experience, age, and knowledge of an official language. Over the past fifty years this Points System has undergone minor modifications over the years with adjustment to the points allocated to each factor and the minimum pass level. While on the surface these apparently universalistic criteria appear to be neutral it can be argued that they still...


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