Conservative leadership contender Kellie Leitch has certainly ignited a controversy with her suggestion that prospective immigrants to Canada should be vetted for “anti-Canadian values.” In making this pitch, she’s probably trying to enlist the support of hard-core Conservatives in her leadership bid. But she’s also recalling a debate that raged over a hundred years ago in Canada.

These were the years 1896  to 1914, when 3 million newcomers settled in this country. In one period alone, 1901 to 1911, the Canadian population rocketed by 43 percent and the percentage of foreign-born in Canada as a whole exceeded 22 percent. Immigrants from Great Britain, the United States, and northern Europe has been assiduously courted by the federal government, which wanted to attract suitable agriculturalists to Western Canada. Significant numbers, however, came from central and eastern Europe, then deemed less desirable sources of immigrants.

The surging flow of newcomers from these latter parts of Europe happened because Canadian manufacturers, railway companies, and resource extraction industries needed, and clamoured for, a large pool of labour to supply the goods and services required by the new settlers. Responding to the demands of the ever vociferous and powerful business lobby, the government of the day opened the floodgates wider, admitting in the process increasing numbers of unskilled and semi-skilled labour in the period 1911 to 1913.

Not surprisingly, the rapid transformation of this country, particularly Western Canada, into a polyglot society produced tensions. In fact, public debate raged over the assimilability of those immigrants whose language was incomprehensible, whose religion was strange, and whose education lacked a grounding in even the fundamentals of parliamentary democracy.

James Woodsworth, the well-known, Ontario-born Methodist minister, social reformer, and pacifist , was one of many Canadians who expressed these concerns. In his case they were sharpened by his experience with newly arrived immigrants whom he served as superintendent of All People’s Mission in Winnipeg’s north end in the early years of the twentieth century.

This prominent social reformer believed that if newcomers were to become good Canadians they had to embrace Anglo-Canadian Protestant values and become part of a Christian society. To achieve “Canadianization” he looked to the public school. As Woodsworth expressed it, “The public school is the most important factor in transforming foreigners into Canadians.”

Do many Canadians still share Woodsworth’s belief about the role of the public school?