Canada changed immigration rules 50 years ago and in doing so changed the country

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Mary Thomas arrived at Edmonton International Airport on Nov. 11, 1967 — a Remembrance Day she’ll never forget.

She was a 28-year-old nurse from Kerala, India. She’d made the long trip to take a job as an orthopedic nurse at the University of Alberta Hospital. She had no family in Canada, just a few friends from Kerala already working here as nurses.

“When they came to pick us up, I looked out the window and I asked, ‘What happened to all the leaves? All the trees have no leaves!’ ”

It was the first moment of culture shock for a bold young woman who’d left everything she knew for a new life.

Thomas was one of the first in a new wave of immigrants to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to dramatic changes in Canadian immigration policy.

Fifty years ago, in 1967, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a points system for immigrants. Previous immigration policy had given preference to immigrants from majority-white countries.

But new regulations assigned points to people, based on things such as language fluency, education and job skills. It also made it easier for people here to sponsor relatives from abroad.

The new rules changed the face of Canada — metaphorically and literally. Thousands of skilled immigrants, primarily, though not exclusively, from Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana and Nigeria, stepped through the door. In so doing, they forever changed the definition of what it meant to be Canadian, setting the stage for a country that embraced multiculturalism.

Before 1970, according to Statistics Canada data compiled by University of Toronto sociologist Monica Boyd, only nine per cent of immigrants to Canada were members of visible minorities, while 23 per cent came from the United Kingdom, 59 per cent from other parts of Europe and six per cent from Asia.

The period between 1970 and 1979 witnessed a remarkable shift.

Immigration from Asia skyrocketed, with 27 per cent of new arrivals originating from South Asia and only 13 per cent from the U.K. And 48 per cent were members of visible minorities.

The new rules were geared to recruit professionals: nurses, teachers, doctors, professors, engineers.

“You had to be highly educated to meet the points system,” says Boyd.

The seismic shift in Canada’s demographic makeup didn’t happen until the early 1980s, she says. But the policy changes of 1967 were the beginning.

Frank Trovato, a professor of sociology and demography at the University of Alberta, notes the 1967 changes came at a time when immigration from European countries was already starting to decline.

The changes in immigration policy, he says, anticipated the Multiculturalism Act in 1971, which formally redefined Canada as a multicultural country.

While Thomas worked in Edmonton, many of her nursing friends fanned out across Alberta for jobs in small towns. In many cases, says Thomas, a delegation from the small town would drive to Edmonton to pick up their new community nurse at the airport.

“They were very nice, very hospitable,” she recalls. “They treated us like their own children coming home.”

That help came in handy, since many of the new arrivals arrived with no footwear apart from sandals and no winter coats.

Other cultural differences took longer to bridge. There was no place in Edmonton to buy the kinds of spices and ingredients the nurses were used to. Eventually, they convinced the Woodward’s food floor to bring in things like curry and basmati rice, and found a health food store that stocked such “exotic” ingredients as fresh ginger and chilies.

Two years after she arrived in Edmonton, Thomas sponsored her fiance, Chacko, to join her here. It was a marriage arranged not by their families, but by mutual friends. For the ambitious young civil servant to leave his life in India to come to Alberta to marry a woman he didn’t know was a risk.

“I was scared,” he says with a grin. “Even now, it is a scary thought.”

At first, the only job he could find was as a night security guard at Woodward’s. Eventually, he got a job in the corrections systems, and rose to become warden at the Edmonton Remand Centre.

“We were lucky in many ways,” he says. “Alberta was looking for people with talent. They rewarded talent.”

“Was there racism?” his wife muses. “Maybe. In a subtle way.”

Not every business, she says, wanted a person of colour working with the public. Many employers preferred to hire new immigrants to work nights or behind the scenes.

But for the most part, she says, people seemed charmed by the novelty of the newcomers, and went out of their way to help them adapt.

“Today, there are agencies to help. There is government assistance,” she says. “In those days, it was not like that. You needed friends to help you.”

Canada still has a points system for immigration — though there also are entry systems for people coming on humanitarian grounds, through family unification or mechanisms like the live-in caregiver program.

The points-based model, pioneered here, has been widely emulated — Australia in 1989; New Zealand in 1991; the Czech Republic, Singapore, Hong Kong and Denmark between 2003 and 2007; the U.K. in 2008.

As she celebrates both Canada’s sesquicentennial and her own 50th anniversary in Edmonton, Mary Thomas can hardly believe how different the country she adopted is now from the place where she first arrived.

“It’s all changed now,” she says. “Now, all ethnic people are everywhere. You see people of all colours everywhere.”

Immigration policy, 1867-1967

1869: Canada passes its first Immigration Act. Eager to encourage settlement in the West, the government imposes very few limitations.

1885: With construction of a coast-to-coast railway complete, Ottawa imposes a “head tax” to discourage Chinese immigration. It’s the first of many laws meant to restrict immigration by certain races and ethnic groups.

1906: A new Immigration Act enacts widespread restrictions on “undesirable” immigrants.

1930: In response to the Great Depression, the federal government dramatically curtails all immigration to Canada.

1947: The Canadian Citizenship Act redefines Canadians as Canadians, not British subjects. The Chinese Exclusion Act is lifted.

1951: The Canadian government introduces modest quotas to allow limited immigration from India, Pakistan and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).

1962: The Diefenbaker government amends immigration policy, to assess applicants based on skill, irrespective of ethnicity, race or country of origin. However, only immigrants from specific “desirable” countries can sponsor adult relatives.

1967: New immigration regulations establish an objective points system, with applicants awarded points based on things such as education, language fluency and job skills. 

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