Some Missing Pages: The Black Community in the History of Quebec and Canada
Unit 4: Black Immigration to Canada and Black Contributions to the Building of the Canadian Nation

How they kept Canada almost lily white

The previously untold story of the Canadian immigration officials who stopped American blacks from coming to Canada

By Trevor W. Sissing

THERE WAS A TIME, only six decades ago, when Americans--of all people! --found themselves in a Position to accuse Canadians of race prejudice. In 1970, liberal Canadians are quick to apply the word "racist" to American society, and no doubt with justice. But in the early years of this century, when Canada's character was being formed, newspapers in Washington and Chicago charged that Canada was officially anti-Negro. For in those years the Canadian government consciously and carefully applied a policy of nearly total exclusion of American blacks. This is why Canada today has comparatively few blacks, why it is still possible for us to think of race problems as things that happen to other people.
     It is not a pleasant chapter in our history. It involves no boldly stated policy of the kind that goes into the school textbooks. There was nothing public about it, as with the "Keep Australia White" policy. Rather it was a back-room effort, almost entirely successful, to "discourage" the many thousands of American and West Indian blacks who might otherwise have moved to Canada.
     There was -- as government correspondence in Ottawa records now makes clear--a long, long series of letters exchanged among immigration authorities worried about how to be functionally anti-black without seeming anti-black.

THE POLICY goes back at least to 1898, the year when I W. D. Scott became superintendent in Clifford Sifton's department of immigration. He was to hold that position for twenty-two years, and to function for that period as the most important interpreter, on the daily working level, of Canada's immigration policies.
     In those years Canada, and particularly the Canadian West, looked inviting to many American blacks. Canada had a pre-Civil War reputation as the end of the Underground Railroad, where escaped slaves could find safety. many American blacks were discovering that even in the North they were discriminated against. They wanted, the evidence shows, to go to Canada, get some of that free land the Canadians were offering, and set up as farmers.
Letter from Minister of Interior       Canada didn't want them, and didn't get them. In the period 1896-1907, when 1.3 million Europeans and Americans became Canadian immigrants, less than nine hundred blacks were admitted.
     The reasons were never clear, but certainly there were plenty of reasons given. Canadian officials tended to think blacks were poor farmers, were perhaps immoral, were generally undesirable immigrants, above all, it was repeated again and again that black people couldn't stand the cold.
     During the pre-First World War years, Ottawa was under various kinds of pressure to exclude blacks. In 1910, for instance, the Edmonton Board of Trade passed a resolution:
      "Up to a few years ago there were practically no Negroes here, then a few families arrived; these found the climatic conditions congenial and sent back for their friends.
     "It is hoped that the Dominion Government might devise some means of stopping this undesirable influx."
Letter from Superintendant of Immigration
     Apparently some blacks didn't mind the cold; but Edmonton didn't like them. What is curious is that at this point there can have been no more than 100 blacks living in and around Edmonton.
     Other cities followed Edmonton's example, Winnipeg among them. On June 1, 1911, the Chicago Daily News commented:
     "A Negro was Perry's sole companion when he reached the North Pole.
     "Yet the Winnipeg Board of trade is protesting against the taking up of homesteads in Alberta and Saskatchewan by Negroes on the ground that they are not adapted to the climate... There are races which cannot stand the cold, but the Negro is not one of them."

THOSE FEW BLACKS who worried the businessmen in f Edmonton, Winnipeg and elsewhere had apparently got to Canada either by persistence or through accident. For certainly by then Ottawa had been carefully pursuing an anti-black policy for more than a decade.
     In 1899, a Canadian government agent at Kansas City, J. S. Crawford, reported that he found American blacks anxious to get literature, "which as far as possible in the past I have steered clear of." In reply to another letter, a civil servant in Ottawa wrote that same year:
     "Sir, I am to say to you in ansv1er to your letter... that it is not desired that any negro immigrants should arrive in western Canada."
     The West wasn't the only area threatened by blacks; they were coming into the Maritimes, too, and W. D. Scott was issuing strict orders to "Discourage this class of immigrant!" Sometimes, if accused of bigotry, he would write letters expressing liberal sentiments ("The 'colored line,' as you call it, is not drawn in Canada in the eye of the law, and all men have exactly the same rights in this country") but he and his agents did all they could to discourage blacks.
     In 1909, Scott's agent in St. Paul, W. J. White, wrote to him:
     "Notwithstanding our very best efforts to guard closely the class of people who go to Central Canada, we find the case of the Negro probably the most difficult. If given a free hand and the privilege to absolutely refuse to give him a certificate entitling him to the settlers (railroad) rate, we could meet it. Whether it is advisable to refuse the colored man this certificate is a question that bothers.... In some cases, though, where we thought it safe, we ABSOLUTELY refused to give railway certificates... I would not have brought this to your attention, but I find at almost every office, applications from these people."
     By 1910, with white Canadian hostility to the few black immigrants rising, at least one of Scott's agents was writing whining little letters in which, obviously hurt, he was trying to avoid the blame. Crawford wrote from Kansas City that "I have stood in the way or there would have been not only a few hundred, but thousands." On March 26, 1910, he wrote to Ottawa:
     "Replying to yours of the 22nd., with enclosure from Mr. Walker re colored people moving to Canada. I beg to say I am not in any way responsible for this. These people get their information in the usual way from literature sent. I am not able to discriminate as to letters. When I have known of colored parties applying I have declined to forward literature."

     Crawford was encountering a problem that was to bother the civil servants for years. Since much of its recruitment of immigrants was done by mail, how could they avoid sending literature to blacks? Ottawa found a way: after receiving a request for help from a small town where there was no government agent, a civil servant would write to the local (presumably white) American postmaster and ask whether the applicant was black. Some of the postmasters' replies are still in the archives, a tribute to international co-operation. "Black as hell," says one. "Nigger!" says another. The files disclose only one postmaster who refused to help. He wrote back from Kansas City: "Postmasters are not allowed to furnish information concerning patrons of their offices."
ALL OF THIS remained unofficial, even if officials carried it out. But in 1911 there was a movement to make black exclusion into law; just why it didn't happen is not clear, but the evidence makes it obvious that Canada came very close to having the first racial exclusion law in the Western Hamisphere on its books.
     On March 23, 1 9 11 , Edward B. Robinson, Assistant Superintendent in the immigration department, wrote to Frank Oliver, Minister of the Interior:
     "I would suggest presenting to Council a memorandum recommending that, in virtue of the provisions of Section 38, Sub-section 'C' of the Act, an Order in Council be passed prohibiting the admission of Negroes."
     Astonishingly, Frank Oliver agreed. He drafted a note dated May31, 1911:
"His Excellency,
     "The Governor General in Council.
     "The undersigned has the honour to recommend that, pursuant to Sub-Section (c) of Section 38 of the Immigration Act, Your Excellency in Council be pleased to order and do order as follows, namely, that for a period of one year from and after the date of said Order, the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada."
      The memorandum was sent to council by special messenger two days later; but it never became law. What happened to it isn't clear. That summer the Laurier government had other problems: the September election threw the Liberals out of office and the "crisis" of black immigration (for that was the word used in Ottawa then) apparently passed. Canada never got its race law.

THE IMMIGRATION authorities had to use other methods. One was to send a civil servant, C. W. Spears, to stump the black areas of Oklahoma, warning black leaders that Canada would be dangerous for blacks. For a time Ottawa even hired an itinerant black clergyman, G. W. Miller, to tell the same story, also in Oklahoma. And the immigration agents made the same case. W. H. Rogers, in Kansas City, wrote to W. D. Scott in 1911 to report good progress:
     "We think a good beginning has been made toward checking the colored movement Canadaward. Scores of families from Alabama and Oklahoma who have come to Kansas City on their way to the Northwest expecting to get rates from this point were persuaded that Western Canada was not the place for them and went elsewhere..."
     The letterhead for Rogers' office in those years carried some advertising. "FARMS IN WESTERN CANADA FREE," said one line. Another said "Get Settler's Certificate for Lowest Passenger Rates to the Wheat and Grazing Lands of Western Canada." It did not say "except for blacks."
     And it never would. Canada's policy, through all the years that followed, remained resolutely sneaky. The proposal to make it public kept coming up, even after the 1911 order-in-council was abandoned, and various government officials sometimes let their real motives creep into official documents. This was to be discouraged. On July 29, 1914, W. D. Scott, still superintendent of immigration, wrote to his agent at Halifax, W. L. Barnstead:
     "Sir: I notice in a number of Board cases the cause of rejection includes the statement that the person rejected is a Negro and that instructions have been received to prevent the entry of Negroes in every possible way. While it is true that we are not seeking the immigration of coloured people... I do not think it is advisable to insert any notice of the instructions or policy of the Department in a Board decision or other correspondence beyond stating in the proper place that the person is a Negro. I am sure you will appreciate the view I have expressed and will understand the reason therefor."
     In other words, do it; but keep quiet about it.

LAST JULY a columnist in the Vancouver Sun Allan Fotheringham, expressed a common feeling among Canadians who think about racial issues:
     "I have no doubt whatsoever that smug Canadians, presented with the racial problems of the U.S., would react in the same way as do many Americans... However, we have not yet been tested... I am willing to be grateful for the fact that we have not yet been tested."
     A good many Canadians no doubt share Fotheringham's gratitude. Perhaps it is important for them to know where the gratitude should be directed, and why.*
Reprinted with permission of Saturday Night Magazine

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