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

The Documentary TrailTraces of the PastFind an Immigrant
Free From Local Prejudice
A National Open-Door Policy
Filling the Promised Land
A Preferred Policy
A Depressing Period

A Temporary Line

by Geoffrey Ewen, Glendon College, York University

As with other immigrants, views on itinerant workers depended largely on their national origin. Those from the British Isles, the United States and much of Europe were for the most part considered desirable as settlers and permanent residents, although a few critics did express concern about immigrant workers from these countries. There were trade unionists who opposed assisted immigration of the poor from Great Britain on the grounds that it added to an already overcrowded labour market. Municipal authorities and inland immigration agents complained that such impoverished immigrants required too much assistance once in Canada. A small number of Canadian nationalists worried that Americans, drawn to work on the Canadian Pacific Railway, for example, might come to dominate the Canadian West.

The recruitment of Chinese workers was controversial from the start. Within British Columbia, groups as diverse as municipal officials, law enforcers, journalists and Protestant clergy voiced opinions that revealed more about their racial ideologies than they did about Chinese Canadians: critics claimed that Chinese workers could not be assimilated, lived in unsanitary conditions, gambled and smoked opium.

While opposition was expressed by people of every social class, some industrialists and contractors -- in railway construction, mining and salmon canning -- praised Chinese workers as reliable and hard-working. These employers undoubtedly benefited from the availability of Chinese labour, since they paid Chinese workers wages 30 to 50 percent lower than they paid other workers. As well, some employers counted on cultural and linguistic differences to keep their workers from organizing trade unions.

Organized labour, particularly in British Columbia, objected to the low wages paid to Chinese workers, and asserted that they displaced white workers. Trade unionists also complained that Chinese workers were used by employers as strikebreakers. But since unions barred them from membership, Chinese workers had no reason to sympathize with these organizations or to show solidarity when they went on strike. It was only in the early 20th century that some unions, like the Industrial Workers of the World, advocated the organization of all workers regardless of race or national origin.

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