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Discrimination based on ethnicity, religion, nationality and colour was systemic in Canada from the beginnings of nationhood. The Government of Canada's immigration policy was restrictive and racist. Southern Europeans and others were considered lazy and unsuitable for the settlement of the West, which is what the Government of Canada wished to do, beginning in the late 19th century with the signing of Treaties 7 and 8 with the Aboriginal People of the area. Robert F. Harney, who pioneered studies in Italian immigration history, quotes Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior, speaking to a Deputy Minister, "No steps are to be taken to assist or encourage Italian immigration to Canada. . . . You will of course understand that this is to be done without saying anything that will be offensive."
Viewed through a contemporary lens, Sifton is a racist; however, it is important to remember that he was simply expressing a common belief of his time. As Howard Palmer points out in
Alberta: A New History, Sifton was a Manitoba lawyer and Cabinet Minister who dedicated his career to peopling the West. Palmer writes: "Laurier and Sifton were guided by the economic and nationalistic motives that had fueled Macdonald's national policy. Sifton altered the land-grant system, through which speculators and colonization companies had tied up much of the best land. He simplified the process of securing homesteads and placed new emphasis on the campaign to attract immigrants."
Sifton's racial views reflected a world-view based on social Darwinism that saw various ethnocultural groups in a hierarchical structure with people of British origin at the apex.
Stanislao Carbone in The Streets Were Not Paved with Gold: A Social History of Italians in Winnipeg provides insights into this "mind set" when he discusses the work of J.S. Woodsworth, a Methodist Minister. Woodsworth was superintendent of the Methodist All People's Mission in Winnipeg and did much to improve the lot of immigrants. But even he had the prejudices of his class and ancestry. Carbone quotes academic Allen Mills as follows:
Canadians, as a British people, he [Woodsworth] claimed, had inherited the wherewithal of civilization: parliamentary democracy, religious freedom, intellectual dissent, scientific inventiveness, and the independent spirit of a freeholder-yeoman class of farmers. Not just English-speaking Canadians but northern peoples in general showed similar qualities. Germans, Scandinavians, and the descendants of an earlier wave of British emigration, the Americans, were the most desirable class of immigrants to Canada. Unacceptable were the eastern and southern Europeans, largely because they had been praised to be politically deferential, religiously superstitious, and economically backward.
But the need for farmers and labourers forced the government to look to less desirable potential immigrants. Carbone quotes George Burns, Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) agent, speaking in 1904: "Italians are the only class of labour we can employ who can live for a year on the wages they earn in six months. . . if we have the Italians. . . there is no danger of their jumping their jobs and leaving us in the lurch." 4