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Banner: Moving Here, Staying Here. The Canadian Immigrant Experience

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Travel Documents

by Glenn Wright, Library and Archives Canada

Until the 1850s, the vast majority of immigrants who arrived in British North America were British subjects and, for this reason, they did not require any documentation. Likewise, immigrants from Germany and Scandinavia, who entered Canada in significant numbers in the 1850s and 1860s, arrived with no personal documentation. While some immigrants carried letters of introduction to colonial officials, most newcomers disembarked with nothing more than a small amount of money and their belongings.

In 1828, the British government appointed Alexander C. Buchanan as its first resident immigration agent at Québec and both he and his successor (his nephew, also Alexander C. Buchanan) welcomed immigrants and provided information on settlement, employment possibilities and travel to Montréal and beyond. In 1832, cholera appeared, thus prompting the government to inspect the health of immigrants and to provide facilities for the care of the sick. By the 1840s, the agent at Québec also had funds at his disposal to help those who arrived in Canada with no means of support.

By Confederation, the Canadian government inspected or interviewed all immigrants upon arrival to assess their health and adaptability to the country. Agents in larger centres such as Montréal, Ottawa and Toronto assisted newcomers with finding employment and accommodation. Soon, benevolent societies, churches and other service organizations were present at ports of entry (especially Québec) to offer assistance and advice to immigrants and to provide for their welfare.

Following Confederation, the federal government was employing agents in various European countries to recruit prospective emigrants, although their actual movement was the responsibility of the various steamship companies that operated on the North Atlantic. With the coming of the railway in the 1860s, and especially after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, many emigrants were provided with a ticket (the number appears on the passenger list) that provided them with ocean and rail transportation from the port of arrival to their final destination. Agricultural settlers, domestic servants and general labourers were in great demand and various kinds of assistance or inducements, such as reduced fares and free land, were offered to attract immigrants. However, travel to Canada required little in the way of documentation until the 1850s.

From about the 1860s, information about individuals arriving, including their name, age, sex, occupation and nationality was compiled on the passenger manifest, or list, as required by law. About 1919, the government introduced a more extensive personal history form, known as Form 30A that, in addition to the information traditionally found on a passenger list, included questions about health, religion, next-of-kin and passage information. Shipping agents were responsible for ensuring that all prospective immigrants completed the form prior to arrival in Canada.

From 1919 to 1925, Form 30A replaced the passenger list as the primary record of incoming immigrants, but it too was replaced by a revised and enlarged passenger list in 1925. Essential information on each and every immigrant to Canada is found in the passenger lists and government forms that were created to identify newcomers to Canada since the first decades of the 19th century.

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