By the time the 30th boat arrived on the shores of Grosse Isle, an island smaller than eight square kilometres, George Mellis Douglas knew the deaths were inevitable. Tragedy did not faze the doctor—you don’t spend a decade as the medical superintendent of a Victorian colony’s quarantine island without digging a few graves—but the tiny speck in the middle of Quebec’s St. Lawrence River was equipped with just 200 hospital beds. When the boats started landing, Douglas upped it to 250. But by May 20, 1847, the transatlantic fleet had off-loaded 12,519 Irish emigrants, all of them sick, poor, starved and hopeless. This was how the United Kingdom decided to combat the Great Famine of Ireland: cast off the poorest to British North America.
Grosse Isle was set up as a quarantine island, but the sheer volume of people rendered that purpose absurd. “I never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever,” Douglas conﬁded in a letter to London. Boats couldn’t unload for days at a time, effectively jailing thousands without food, water or medical attention. As months trudged along, 100,000 Irish immigrants arrived in British North America. More than 17,300 of them died, including 5,000 who remain buried in mass unmarked graves on Grosse Isle. Douglas himself survived a season of disease, only to lose his second wife years later and ﬁnd himself racked by a massive mortgage on his Quebec home. He stabbed himself to death on the property in 1864.
The surviving Irish spread inland across the provinces, introducing British Canadians to the ﬁrst mass influx of unwanted immigrants since they themselves arrived to the detriment of First Nations tribes before them. “The typhus fever and dysentery have reached even this remote place,” wrote Eleanor Dunlop, a Peterborough resident, in her book Our Forest Home. “Wherever those wretched immigrants came they brought with them sickness and death.”
READ: ‘Where I come from’
The spectre of “dirty Irish” spreading disease would echo throughout decades of immigration law. After Confederation bore the mostly autonomous Dominion of Canada, one of the earliest laws drafted was the Immigration Act of 1869, which contained a section on “Pauper Immigrants,” legalizing measures against allowing undesirables into the country. The Immigration Act warned of penalties against any “lunatic, idiotic, deaf and dumb, blind or inﬁrm person, or any person above the age of sixty years, or any widow with a child or children, or any woman with a child or children without her husband.”
Three years later, the government amended the Immigration Act. Legal recourse against unwelcome newcomers was beefed up with something more actionable than just ﬁnes: they could now set foot on Canadian soil, but only temporarily, until the Canadian government could send them back “from whence they came.”
The government had ofﬁcially legalized deportation. Not suitable for Canada? We don’t want you—go back to where you came from. It’s the law.
Fast-forward more than a century. U.S. President Donald Trump echoed those 19th-century nativist sentiments on July 14, critically tweeting at four Democratic congresswomen, “who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world,” to “go back and help ﬁx the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” Never mind that three of the four attacked congresswomen were born in the United States—Trump defended the remarks the next day, boasting in a press conference that “many people agree with me.”
Whether or not the president realizes it, his words can only be described as bluntly, historically and categorically racist. Any variation on the phrase “go back home” carries centuries of xenophobic fears and hatred, and it is more than likely that the “many people” who agreed with him share such shameless views. Most prominent among them are “white nationalists,” more aptly called white supremacists, who believe North America ought to be a white-skinned ethnostate, ignorantly waving off centuries of Indigenous legacy and immigrant contributions.
“I think Canadians and indeed people around the world know what I think of those particular comments. That’s not how we do things in Canada.” Prime Minister Trudeau’s reaction afﬁrmed the comfortable attitude held by many Canadians that this country is above such overt racism, that it has no place here.
But they’re wrong. Excluding unwanted immigrants is literally foundational to Canadian identity, while blatant xenophobia, through the decades, has been codiﬁed in law and policy at the expense of the Irish in 1847, the Chinese in 1885, the Sikhs in 1914, the Jews in 1939, the Japanese in the 1940s and the Haitians in 1973. Today, Canadians of colour continue the struggle. Maxime Bernier—who, after losing the federal Conservative party leadership nomination, kick-started his own People’s Party of Canada, a grassroots amalgam of populist nativism and economic libertarianism—rails against what he has dubbed “extreme multiculturalism.” In late July, he vowed that, as prime minister, he would slash immigration levels by half, to as few as 100,000 per year, falsely claiming that Canadians subsidize 74 per cent of current immigrants.
Bernier will almost certainly not be prime minister, but to ignore his comments would be a mistake. According to a new Pollara study provided exclusively to Maclean’s, a full third of Canadians hold negative views toward at least one speciﬁc ethnic group in our country. This distaste is especially pronounced when it comes to newer immigrants: only four per cent of Canadians hold negative views against immigrants who landed 40 years ago, as opposed to 10 per cent who feel the same way toward anyone who arrived in the last 15 years. The same percentage of Canadians hold negative views toward refugees who arrived within the last three years.
Some might argue that 10 per cent isn’t a large number. But it’s growing. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes against Muslims grew 253 per cent from 2012 to 2015, while police-reported hate crimes—only a fraction of the total, unreported number—reached a record-high 2,073 in 2017. That year included not just the deaths of six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque, but also a 50 per cent increase in hate crimes across Quebec the following month.
All this, of course, is more serious than simply yelling at people to go back where they came from. Such racism is far more commonplace. “Every couple weeks, there’ll be some example in Canada of someone telling someone to ‘Go back where you came from,’” says Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network. “It’s the go-to catchphrase that doesn’t involve the N-word or the K-word to yell at somebody. But for all intents and purposes, it’s the same thing.” Balgord’s group tracks hate crimes in Canada, but this noxious phrase is untraceable. “It’s so pervasive that if there was an increase, I wouldn’t notice. It’s so pervasive that it’s background noise.”
Bashir Mohamed, a Somali-Canadian writer and citizen historian living in Edmonton, has heard the phrase hurled at him dozens of times in person. Whenever a white Canadian yells it, Mohamed draws a direct link to our national history of immigration: “There’s always been this idea that there’s a ‘right type’ of immigrant, and Canada is full for everybody else,” he says. “Canada was clearly built on that idea.”
The 19th-century Immigration Act became a clear benchmark for Canadian attitudes toward foreigners. In his book Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians Are Not Enough, journalist Doug Saunders notes that throughout the latter half of the 1800s, 734,900 British immigrants arrived in Canada—and 1.2 million left, mostly to the United States. It reflected “a net migratory loss of Canadian population of at least 433,000 people,” Saunders writes, “at a time when other former colonies (including those with identical weather) saw growth in the tens of millions.”
At issue was the economy. The government had a decidedly homogeneous, agrarian approach: they wanted white farmers and no one else. This approach was most evident in a massive drive to lure 650,000 farmers from Scandinavia, as well as eastern and central Europe, but exclude non-white immigrants of any kind. “Like the province of British Columbia being called ‘Yellow British Columbia,’ our own province might be called ‘Black Alberta,’ and therefore I think the time has come when immigration should be made a subject of personal control,” C.E. Simmonds, an MP from Lethbridge, told a reporter with the Edmonton Evening Journal in 1911. “If we had personal rights, in this respect I do not think the province would stand for an invasion of coloured people.”
Exclusion applied to almost every non-Caucasian ethnicity, ossifying strict border control that repeatedly pushed vulnerable immigrants back to where they came from. In 1914, the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 Indians, reached the harbour of Vancouver, where it lingered for two full months, its inhabitants frequently starved and dehydrated. A Canadian lawyer with Irish roots, J. Edward Bird, perhaps reminded of his own ancestors, argued for the Indians in court, but the ﬁght was hopeless. The Komagata Maru was sent back to India, where British ofﬁcials suspected political subversion; in a swift altercation, 16 passengers died and more than 200 were imprisoned. The Canadian government had no regrets. “To admit Orientals in large numbers would mean in the end the extinction of the white peoples,” said B.C.’s premier, Richard McBride, “and we have always in mind the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country.”
Not all white men, of course. If you were a German Jew aboard the MS St. Louis in May 1939, you would not have found North America much more welcoming than Nazi Germany. After being denied entry to Cuba and the United States, Captain Gustav Schröder, a German who sympathized with the 937 refugees aboard his ship, famously refused to return them to the Third Reich. Their last hope was Canada, whose director of immigration, unfortunately, was Frederick Blair, a man arguably best remembered for being proudly anti-Semitic. “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe,” Blair said at the time. “The line must be drawn somewhere.” That line was drawn quite close to home: Canada forced those Jews back to Europe, where 254 were eventually murdered in the Holocaust.
Such anti-Semitism owed partly to the rise of communism. As socialism swept Eastern Europe and Asia, the language of xenophobia evolved: “dirty foreigners” gave way to “job stealers” and “political subversives,” each new stereotype echoing the last. If you were Jewish, Slavic or East European in the mid-20th century, your political views could get you deported. “At no point in Canadian history has the number of deportations versus arrivals been higher than it was in the 1930s,” writes professor Dennis Molinaro in Deportation from Canada. “It continued to function as a repressive means of nation-building, as the government sought to send away the poor or ill and immigrants whose politics challenged the status quo of the era.”
Because of the public outcry, Molinaro continues, Canadian ofﬁcials used increasingly secretive methods to disguise deportations, fostering a climate of fear and crafting a racist narrative that continues to this day: the idea that Canadians of colour are more loyal to their home countries or religions than to Canada itself.
These sentiments crystallized against the Japanese during the Second World War. In 1942, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King ordered the relocation of B.C.’s entire Japanese populace—more than 20,000 in all—to towns and internment camps in the province’s interior or in Alberta. The government then crafted a subtly worded “loyalty” survey, hoping to weed out dissidents by asking whether Japanese-Canadians would rather return to Japan or move eastward across Canada. The Japanese themselves did not grasp the severe implications when they ticked the box. By 1946, nearly 4,000 of them—mostly naturalized Canadian citizens, many of whom were vulnerable, sick or single parents—wilfully signed off on their own deportation and were shipped to war-torn Japan.
By the 1960s, nativist suspicions had eased somewhat, while Canada developed into a more progressive society. In addition to enacting universal health care and creating the modern flag, Lester B. Pearson’s government introduced the world’s ﬁrst racially blind, points-based immigration system in 1967. Though this dramatically overhauled Canada’s legal approach to immigrants, it could not stamp out the systemic racism already inherent in Canadian culture. Nor did it make life easier for refugees.
Just a few years into Canada’s new world order, 1,500 Haitians arrived in Quebec, fleeing the dictatorial regime of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Canadian ofﬁcials dismissed their fears, catching and harassing activists and refugees and deporting many of the original 1,500 back to lethal conditions in their home country. By December 1974, the government relented somewhat, allowing at least a few hundred of the remaining migrants to stay, mostly owing to a Haitian media blitz that swayed public opinion: as hard-working, French-speaking post-colonial Catholics, they were ideal francophone immigrants.
Other refugees lacked that advantage. When Tamils and Sikhs began arriving from Sri Lanka and India in the 1980s, many Canadians eyed them with suspicion—not because of hidden loyalties, but because of their refugee claims. Around this time, Molinaro writes, “The political right initially led the campaign to view immigration as increasingly tied to crime and fraudulent activity such as ‘bogus’ or fake refugee claims or ‘system abuse’ and ‘welfare fraud.’”
Stringent admittance rules followed, boosted by a rapid technological rise: ﬁngerprint scans, detailed photographs and background checks snowballed throughout the 1990s, culminating in one of the world’s most robust international refugee-veriﬁcation systems. Deportations continue every year, but the burden of proof has risen exponentially. Less evolved is the simple-minded psychology that leads to the myth of conflicting dual loyalties: Can a Jew be trusted to favour Canada over Israel? A devout Muslim to follow anything but sharia? A Somali woman to pledge allegiance to the United States? Best not to wrestle with it, some will conclude. Better these foreigners just went back to where they came from.
Xenophobia has led to numerous fears throughout Canada’s history: foreigners bring disease; they work for unfairly low wages; they inﬁltrate our society; they’re secretly terrorists. In hindsight, we know this is rarely the case. As of this spring, Canada has welcomed 58,650 Syrian refugees. Many remain unemployed, which is concerning for everyone, but Statistics Canada data from 1980 to 2009 conﬁrms that refugee employment and earnings always increase over time. Certainly few jobs appear to have been stolen: in June 2019, Canadian unemployment hit a four-decade low of 5.4 per cent.
Anecdotal evidence proves this point as well. The contributions to Canadian society by refugees and lower-class immigrants are myriad. A single cohort of 1,000 post-war Jewish orphans brought Canada several multimillionaires and philanthropists, including pharmaceutical giant Leslie Dan and toy makers Sam and Gitta Ganz. Michaëlle Jean fled Haiti with her family shortly before the crisis of the 1,500 and later became Canada’s governor general, succeeding Adrienne Clarkson, who nearly didn’t make it into Canada because of the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act.
The thousands of destitute Irish who washed up in 1847—those who survived typhus, cholera and bigotry—ended up ﬁlling a major labour shortage that same year. In The Canadian Response to the Irish Famine Emigration of 1847, historian Leslie Anne Harvey recounts how most Irish immigrants found stable employment, thanks to charitable groups and government agencies. “The immigrants who, a short time ago, had been judged ‘as drains upon society’ were soon producing members of Canadian society,” she writes. The economy proved stronger than Canadians realized. Fears of infection disappeared, along with infections themselves. Locals realized the blame lay not with the Irish newcomers, but with the British government abroad. Perhaps the best chance the Irish had for a better life lay not back where they came from, but here in Canada—which was, after all, their new home.
This article appears in print in the September 2019 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “‘Send them back’ nation.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.