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Immigrants in Canada During The Great Depression

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October 29. 1929, also known as Black Tuesday, will forever be known as one of the most significant days in the 20th century. It was on this day that the stock market crashed rattling the United States and Canadian economies. For Canadians, this time meant unemployment, starvation, homelessness, and reliance on governments relief for survival. The Canadian government plunged into debt and could not provide the resources that many people needed to survive, such as many of the social services that were needed. Medical care decreased, leaving a large portion of the population without treatments they needed, and people began to become desperate for survival. Families were struggling as the patriarchs failed to find suitable work and could not provide the luxuries that many had enjoyed the previous decade. It took an entire decade for Canada’s economy to repair itself and fully recover from this treacherous time. Life was grim for many people caught in the middle of this time, but there is a group of people that suffered extreme consequences during these times: immigrants in Canada. Immigrants were hit hard by this downturn. and many were unable to continue the lives they had built in the country because they could not support themselves financially, or because they were deported and sent home. They were blamed for unemployment and seen as a threat, they were generally not tolerated among society until well after the time period was over and the economy had been restructured.

The Great Depression had a devastating impact on immigrants in Canada because of high rates of intolerance, restrictions for entry, and deportation that these hard times produced. Immigration was negatively impacted by The Great Depression because it led to significant intolerance and harsh treatment of non-Canadians, which made life worse for these people. During this time, Canadians across the country were suffering from debt, shortage of work, and starvation. They were unhappy and were not able to find work to provide for their families because the work was simply not available. The immigrants who had come to the country prior to the 1930s had done so in order to seek new opportunities for work, and therefore the majority of these people were laborers. At this time, many people were losing their jobs and blamed immigrants for taking jobs and earning money while Canadians were left out of work. Over a quarter of the Canadian workforce was out of work by 1933. Additionally, Canada’s gross domestic product fell by 30% by 1930, leaving one in ten Canadians relying on relief. Industries began to close and people began to lose jobs, and the shortage of new jobs left many people struggling to make ends meet and relying on the government relief that was scarcely available. Therefore, many people believe that immigrants were a problem and turned to strong notions of intolerance towards those who were not born Canadian. 

Immigrants were not welcome by those in their communities and this is widely indicated in a variety of newspaper articles, letters and surviving documents written by Canadian citizens at the time. For example, in a well-known letter from 1931, W.B Williston, a resident of Ontario, stated that “the public rightly ask, that you remove from this place, the Russian and other European people” because they were “sending all their earnings back to Europe.” This first part of his letter echoes a common sentiment of the time: that immigrants who had not been in the country for a long time were taking Canadian earned money and not putting it back into the country’s economy. In the eyes of Canadian citizens, this meant they were enemies of the country and were not helping the problems that the country was facing, as they were supporting the economies of other countries while taking advantage of those in Canada. Williston’s letter continues to state that they “should not be allowed to have the work on the Power and the R.R Construction, while hundreds of Canadians are standing in the bread line.” Here, Williston brings up the point that many Canadians felt that they should not be waiting for social assistance and struggling to make ends meet while they were born and bred Canadian, while immigrants who were not from this country got the jobs they could be doing. Many Canadians were relying on government programs funded by their municipalities in order to receive some type of compensation while some immigrants were still able to work in various industries. This caused Canadians to view immigrants as a threat. They were a threat to their way of life, their jobs, and their families. Immigrants were seen as people who should be hated because they did not support the Canadian way of life and they took opportunities away from hard-working Canadian people. These types of sentiments caused harsh treatment and negative views toward those immigrants in the country and changed the way that people looked at and treated immigrants. They began to treat them as enemies, not allowing them in groups and forcing them to remain living as outsiders in the world of Canadian citizens. In some provinces, immigrants of certain races and nationalities were not allowed to vote, and they were banned from doing certain things or working in certain job positions. Anti-Asian sentiment had already been occurring, but it was made worse during the Depression because now the Canadian people had more reasons to hate those who were not from Canada originally. These views also encouraged new types of legislation passed by the Canadian government that prevented immigrants from entering the country because policymakers believed preventing immigration was the main element in dealing with the crisis. 

The Great Depression was one of the most destructive times in the history of Canada for immigration because of anti-immigration policies and producers that were implemented to prevent people from moving to the country. Before the 1930s, immigration had been a significant source of development in the country, as people from Europe and other countries were recruited to come to Canada to respond to labor shortages in agriculture, railroad construction, and other industries. This had made the country a promising area for immigrants to come and make money that they could send home to their families. However, during The Great Depression, these hopeful ideals were challenged and immigrants became an issue for the workforce. Many policymakers agreed that immigration was making the unemployment crisis worse, and this sentiment was echoed and supported by many major Canadian employers and business lobby groups, including the Canadian Manufacturer’s Association. With more Canadians out of work and facing threat from non-Canadian workers, the government began to take action that would reverse the prosperity and prevent what they deemed as unnecessary people from entering the country. Under the Conservative government of R.B Bennett, the majority of the immigration offices were shut down and promotional activities aimed at increasing immigration were canceled. Next came legislation that would pose stricter regulations on people who wanted to enter the country. In August 1930, the Canadian Government passed new legislation that prevented immigrants from coming from Europe. The only exceptions to this rule were people who had enough funds to support themselves or who had family that were Canadian residents. The next year, in March 1931, the government passed the Order-in-Council P.C. 695, which allowed only certain groups of people to migrate to Canada. The Order-in-Council P.C. 695 stated that “the landing in Canada of immigrants of all classes and occupations, is hereby prohibited.” except for anyone “who has sufficient means to maintain himself until employment is secured.” This essentially meant that anyone coming from a lower class from another country was unable to come to Canada because they would not have enough money to arrive, and only those who were among the upper classes who had money to spend in the Canadian economy were welcome. Anyone who posed a threat to the economy was not allowed. The order also stated that “the wife or unmarried child under 18 years of age of any person legally admitted to and resident in Canada who is in a position to receive and care for his dependents” was also permitted. This inclusion was intended to ensure that anyone who was bringing someone in from another country as their family member would be able to support them and that those wives and children would not become a burden on the economy or local municipality. The specific groups of people in the Order also included British and American people with enough money to support themselves, agriculturists and farm laborers, and anyone working in the mining or logging industries. Additionally, the Order also stated that “the provisions of this Order in Council shall not apply to immigrants of any Asiatic race.” This indicates that the widespread anti-Asian sentiment that had occurred in Canada was still rampant during these times, and the only people allowed in the country at the time were those people who were believed to uphold real Canadian values and provide a specific type of image for the country. These changes made a significant difference in the number of immigrants in Canada. 

Between 1921 and 1931, immigration to Canada had been at a high of 1,166,00 people in the country, but between 1931 and 1941, that number had dropped to a total of 140,000 people in the country. Accordingly, the annual influx in 1930 had been 100,00 people per year, but this number was reduced to under 15,000 people per year by 1933, just three years later. In addition to this new anti-immigration stance, the country also took on an anti-refugee stance as well, and the country is known to have adopted anti-Semitic attitudes despite what was happening in Europe at the time. In fact, in 1939, Canada refused to allow the S.S. St Lous, a ship carrying Jewish refugees who had escaped the Nazi control in Germany, to dock in the country. This particularly well-known voyage is commonly referred to as “the voyage of the damned,” because it was not welcome in Canada, the United States, or Cuba, due to the Great Depression’s anti-immigration policies, and it ultimately had no choice but to return to Europe, where its passengers likely faced death. This stance would continue over time until the Great Depression was over and continued to be enforced as deportation became rampant as another solution to quell the immigration issue. Immigration was also negatively impacted during the Great Depression because deportation rates in Canada skyrocketed due to the new policies in the Exclusion Act, as well as due to demands from the people who wanted immigrants out of the country. Anyone who was not a legal citizen of Canada became at risk for deportation and began to become fearful that any day would be the day they would be sent home. Deportation tactics were used by Canadians in order to “rid” their communities of immigrants who were taking up resources and were seen as “useless.” For many municipalities and communities, unemployed immigrants were a burden because they became public charges and those communities had to pay the cost for them to continue living there. These costs were adding up, often amounting to thousands of dollars a day just for in relief for families, during a time when funding was scarce and cities were entering vast debt to keep their populations afloat. Immigrants who lost their jobs or became unemployed in any other way became public charges relying on municipality funding, but many cities were running out of funds and were spending beyond their means to support those public charges. Therefore, since those communities were already struggling to make ends meet, and it was this mindset that caused these communities to believe that the first thing to go should be immigrants. Therefore, these municipalities lobbed the government to get rid of the “undesirable” and demanded they be sent home so that the Canadian men could find jobs. This method of thinking was that if more immigrants left, Canadians would be able to work and support their families. Any unemployed immigrants at this point were almost guaranteed to be sent home and lived in fear that they would be sent back to where they came from. For many people, this meant going back to an oppressive regime that did not provide opportunities necessary to support their families. The anti-immigration and pro-deportation sentiment caused a significant increase in the number of deportation out of Canada, higher than the majority of previous decades in Canada, and it led to what many historians consider to be a deportation crisis at the time. 

Seen as the easiest and most reasonable choice, anyone who was not born in Canada had to struggle to stay in the country because one wrong step and they would be sent back to their home country. Any time an immigrant was brought to the attention of their municipal government, whether they got in trouble or applied for social assistance, they were put on the radar and reported to the Department of Immigration and Colonization. Sometimes this meant something as basic as applying for government relief, which got many people noticed when they would likely not have been noticed before. Many people were also reported to the government by local community members, such as organization leaders or church groups, who were worried about their own people and wanted to have the immigrants leave. In some cities, such as Sault Ste. Marie, any immigrant who applied for relief was forced to sign a request to be deported otherwise they would not qualify for relief. This saw the immigrants in a catch-22 situation: they needed the relief to survive, but signing up for relief meant being deported. Thus, they were being caught in a trap that occurred in many different cities. After they ended up on the government’s radar, the majority of them were sent home without the intention of being welcomed back. This was seen as the easiest way to deal with the problem of unemployment because these people were considered the responsibility of their home country, and not Canad. Despite claiming otherwise, the Canadian government supported the notion of deportation, and therefore the majority of people who were reported ended up being sent back to their home countries. This situation got so severe that between 1930 and 1935, people who were unemployed were automatically deported from the country. They were not given the chance to look for a new job as they were sent home right away, leaving room for the Canadian born citizens to find the work that would have otherwise gone to immigrants. This made life incredibly hard for people who had to come to the country originally in hopes of creating a new life and finding financial support for their families. They could be sent home at any moment and, at some points, many people ended up giving up and returning to their home countries because they did not have a choice any longer and could not continue to live in Canada. 

The Great Depression had a negative impact on immigrants in Canada because they became subject to intolerance, exclusion policies, and deportation risk. Immigrants seemingly wore a target on their back as social unrest began to lead to their deportation and blame them for the loss of jobs and skyrocketing unemployment rates. At this time, many Canadians supported anti-immigration policies without regard for the lives of those who were coming to the country to start new lives. This is an important context to understand in today’s world because immigration policy and refugee support is a significant topic of interest in North America at this current time. It is a tense subject in the United States at the moment, as the border wall continues to divide the American people. In Canada, during the 2015 refugee crisis, many Canadians were divided on allowing refugees to come to Canada and many people were concerned about the number of people being let in and the background check system used to let people into the country. Many people are divided on these issues and it is important for these modern audiences to understand the extreme consequences that this type of sentiment had during the hard times of the 1930s. The results that occurred during the Great Depression can be used as lessons in context to today’s world in order for Canadians and Americans alike to see the history of these behaviors. 

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