Has Canada ever implemented or attempted to implement an immigration ban similar to US President Donald Trump’s recent executive order prohibiting the entry of individuals from seven predominantly Muslim countries? The answer, unfortunately, is “yes.” In 1911, steps were actually taken to have Canada acquire the first racial exclusion order in the Western Hemisphere.
Canadians had prided themselves on being removed from the racial troubles that had developed south of the border following the collapse of Reconstruction in the southern states. And our Immigration Branch was determined to prevent similar racial tensions from developing in Canada. At a time when immigrants were pouring onto the Prairies, not only did Ottawa not solicit American black immigration, it effectively throttled it by discouraging private schemes for black settlement.
Black immigration to the Canadian West had hitherto roused little concern on the part of white Canadians. But all this changed in 1910, when rising anti-black sentiment in the newly created state of Oklahoma threatened to unleash a large migration of blacks north to Canada. When rumours circulated that sizeable numbers of blacks were headed for the Edmonton area, the citizens of Alberta’s capital mounted a vigorous protest against black immigration. The following year, the local board of trade even organized a petition urging the federal government to act immediately to prevent any more blacks from immigrating into Western Canada.
This backlash played directly into the hands of Immigration Branch officials who wanted to see the Canadian border sealed to black immigration. Accordingly, in March 1911, the assistant superintendent of Immigration wrote to Frank Oliver, the minister of the Interior and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, suggesting that the admission of blacks be prohibited. The minister agreed to the recommendation, but it was never implemented because in September 1911 a general election threw the Liberals out of office, and, to all appearances the “crisis” of black immigration passed. All it took was the outcome of a federal election to scuttle plans to implement legislation banning black immigration. For further information about this issue, please see my book Strangers At Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540–2015.