Daniel Ross

This collection originated in fall 2015, as the question of what the Canadian government could or should do to help the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria became a federal election issue.1 As the major parties defined their positions, differing interpretations of Canada’s migration history emerged. The Liberal and New Democratic Parties used examples of past refugee movements—whether the arrival of Irish famine boats in the 1840s or the settlement of Indochinese refugees in 1979-80—to forefront compassion and humanitarianism as core Canadian values. The Conservative Party under Stephen Harper rejected those parallels, arguing that opening Canada’s borders had never solved international crises, and that the first priority of the government was to protect the existing Canadian population, in this case from the danger of Islamist terrorism among the majority-Muslim Syrians. Starting with a refugee theme week in early September 2015, reached out to Canadian migration history scholars in an effort to bring an engaged historical perspective to these ongoing debates.

In 2019 that perspective seems more vital than ever. The election of Donald Trump to the American presidency in 2016 is part of larger political shift that has legitimized racism and nativism in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Conflicts, persecution, and environmental disasters have created 70 million displaced people, including 25 million refugees, worldwide.2 Lies, mythologies, and stereotypes about migrants circulating on social media and in political discourse obscure the social realities of present and past migration movements and misdirect public policy debates. It is important now, as it was in 2015, to confront Canadian migration history in the public sphere. By that I mean two things. First, to engage with the history of population movements into, through, and from this territory, and their importance for our history as a multiethnic settler society. This has been one of the central projects of migration historians in Canada in recent decades.3 Second, to make and maintain a place for that historical knowledge in contemporary discussions of migration, and in doing so confront the present with the past. That latter goal is at the heart of this collection, which assembles in one volume fifteen texts published on over the last four years.

The essays published here are organized in three thematic sections, on refugees, migration experiences and representations, and nativism. These topics, and particularly the related questions of increased refugee migrations and of the new nativism, are among the most pressing in today’s migration debates. However, the essays in this volume also speak to one another in a range of other ways. Four were part of the original 2015 blog series addressing political responses to the Syrian refugee crisis. While not rejecting the narrative of Canada as refuge deployed by centre-left politicians, Stephanie Bangarth seeks to historicize it, emphasizing that past public debates and policy discussions over refugee movements in Canada were shaped as much by geopolitical context, racial bias, and economic self-interest as by humanitarian ideals. Similarly, Benjamin Hoy uses the case of a group of Cree who moved to the United States following the 1885 Rebellion to explore what it might mean to think of displaced Indigenous peoples as refugees, and Canada as a producer of refugee movements. Meanwhile, posts by Sarah Carter and Franca Iacovetta with Karen Dubinsky target the federal Conservative party’s efforts to stoke fear and win votes by depicting Syrians as unassimilable, dangerous Others. Carter’s piece plays on Stephen Harper’s much-debated distinction between newcomers and “old-stock Canadians,” arguing that a century of Syrian presence in Canada qualifies them for the latter category.4 For Iacovetta and Dubinsky, Conservative calls to ban the niqab are not just cynical electioneering, but the latest in “a long line of immigrant women whom this country has feared or pitied, but always stereotyped”.

Three of the pieces in this collection were written to address questions of commemoration and collective remembering. Jan Raska’s piece on the fiftieth anniversary of the Prague Spring asks what the acceptance of thousands of highly-qualified Czech refugees might tell us about evolving bureaucratic notions of desirable and undesirable immigrants. In the context of a series of white supremacist rallies in major North American cities, Laura Ishiguro and Laura Madokoro discuss Vancouver’s 1907 anti-Asian riots as an example of the long, at times violent history of the idea of “white Canada.” Finally, after the federal government’s apology for refusing entry to the hundreds of Jewish refugees aboard the MS St. Louis on the eve of the Second World War, Andrea Eidinger and Laura Madokoro reflect on the gulf between that symbolic act and real action to combat historical injustices in Canada today.

Group identities of all kinds rely on history to support their assertions of separateness, and to justify the work of inclusion and exclusion that defines their limits. We can watch this process unfold today in the resurgence of nativism and exclusionary nationalism in North America and Europe. In this collection’s final section, devoted to that subject, both David Atkinson and Aitana Guia explore how distortions of the past are mobilized to support contemporary nativist discourses, whether the setting is a British Columbia purportedly threatened by “white erasure,” or European countries where the populist Right is making the consumption of pork a condition of belonging. In their contributions, Ryan McKenney and Ben Bryce, writing about the long history of the mosaic as a metaphor for Canadian society, and Michael Akladios, discussing the Levantine origins of Arab-Canadian foodscapes, highlight other ways in which past migrations are present in our everyday cultural practices and our sense of ourselves.

One of the great strengths of the texts in this book is that they are rooted in rigorous historical research. They are all examples of scholars speaking as experts in their particular areas of inquiry, and that, I would argue, makes their contributions particularly unique and useful. While all of our authors speak from this position, four of the essays make sources or the research process a key area of focus. Sonya de Laat in her piece on refugee photography in post-WWI Europe provides us with a fascinating discussion of how historical and contemporary images shape our understanding of migration movements. Edward Dunsworth uses his research on the history of migrant farmwork to argue that its human costs—in this case the loss of life in automobile collisions—are built into the organization of the industry. In her essay, Laura Madokoro gives us a report from the archive on how the use of x-rays fit into the “discriminatory science of immigration” deployed by the federal government in the Cold War era. Finally, in his second contribution, Michael Akladios gives us a picture of a migration historian who cannot help but interweave past and present in his research. His informal interviews with Egyptian Uber drivers give us a rich portrait of the hows and whys of migration in our globalized world.

This volume, like all of Active History’s activities over the past decade, would not have been possible without the support of a network of contributors and allies across the country. The essays in this collection speak to the broad range of research being done in Canadian migration history; they also highlight the commitment of their authors to an engaged, public-facing scholarly practice. Read together, we believe they offer a much-needed historical perspective on contemporary Canadian debates around immigration and refuge, questions that cut to the heart of who we are as a society.


1. Studies of the Syrian refugee question before, during, and after the 2015 election have begun to appear. See for example Rebecca Wallace, “Contextualizing the Crisis: The Framing of Syrian Refugees in Canadian Print Media,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 51:2 (2018), 207–31.
2. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHRC) figures as of June 2018. See UNHRC, Statistical Yearbooks—Facts at a Glance 2018 published June 2018 at
3. For an overview of this varied historiography, see the collaborative Canadian Immigration History Syllabus, published in January 2019 at
4. Mark Gollom, “Stephen Harper’s ‘old-stock Canadians’: Politics of division or simple slip?” CBC News, Sep. 19, 2015.


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Confronting Canadian Migration History Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Ross is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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