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Imperialism and Racism

Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource.ca and The Famous Five Foundation

Queen ElizabethAlthough immigration was necessary for economic development in Canada, until the end of the 19th century, comparatively few "foreign" immigrants had come to Canadian shores, and Canada's population was largely composed of British, French, and Aboriginal groups. Between 1896 and 1914, the status quo underwent a drastic shift as 3,000,000 people immigrated to Canada. Between 1901 and 1911, the country's population increased by 43 percent. To Canada's largely Anglo-Saxon cultural elite—its leaders, teachers and intellectuals—the fact that many of these migrants were non-British was an unwelcome surprise. Conversely, French Canadians felt threatened by the influx of British settlers and their elitist attitudes.

The British cultural elite was highly motivated to ensure that the "right kind" of immigrants helped populate the country. In fact, throughout the first half of the 20th century, "improving the race" and fears of "race suicide" were common themes in discourse, and immigrants became scapegoats for all the social ills faced by the young nation. Poverty, crime, alcoholism, drug abuse, prostitution, mental and sexual disease, labour unrest—all these and a host of other social ills were blamed upon "inferior" or "immoral" immigrants. The elite felt that for the good of the nation, steps had to be taken to control immigration.

Canada's future greatness was dependent upon maintaining its Anglo-Saxon heritage and culture, in the eyes of those who took for granted the evolutionary superiority of the British race and culture—derived from the theory of Social Darwinism. Thus, immigrants who were easiest to assimilate into the dominant culture were most welcome. As a result, British and American immigrants were the most welcome, followed by Northern and Western Europeans, Central and Eastern Europeans, followed by Jews and Southern Europeans. The extent to which the dominant culture had been assimilated was of particular importance with the outbreak of the First World War, when cultural and linguistic assimilation were assumed to be synonymous with loyalty.

Pacifist religious sects such as the German Hutterites and Mennonites and Russian Doukhobors were less welcome than the average countryman. These groups formed their own tightly-knit communities rather than assimilating, competed economically, and when war broke out, were viewed with suspicion because of their pacifism.

King George and Queen ElizabethBlacks and Asians were also considered "less desirable." Their visibly different appearance prevented them from being fully assimilated, and they were categorized via Social Darwinism, as being the least evolved members of the human species. This pseudo-scientific application of Darwin's evolutionary theory received support from the introduction of intelligence tests—which, as a product of the dominant Anglo-bourgeois culture, reflected the values, education, and experiences of the cultural elite.

Rather than being an accurate reflection of intelligence, IQ tests confused familiarity with the norms of the dominant culture with mental ability. Consequently, IQ tests merely reinforced Canada's hierarchy of desirable immigrant groups, and bolstered imperialist and racist sentiments.

The threat felt by the Canadian establishment as a result of the influx of immigrants can be seen in the ethnic stereotypes common in Canada at the turn of the century:

  • Central, Eastern and Southern Europeans and Asians, were stereotyped as poor, illiterate, diseased, prone to "mental deficiency," alcoholism, violence, and crime
  • Chinese were stereotyped for using and selling drugs, gambling and seducing white women—stereotypes that Emily Murphy addressed, and, to some extent debunked
  • Anti-Semitism was also widespread, because the Jews did not fit the Canadian elite's concept of what a Canadian should be. Canada's cultural elite desired farmers and homesteaders to settle the land and they viewed Jews as city people. As a result, Canada closed its borders to Jewish people just prior to the Second World War, when many of them sought refuge in other countries as they tried to flee Nazi Germany.
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