Learning new lessons from old lessons learned: why Canadian immigration policy should heed caution to Australia’s precedents

by Laura Madokoro

Recently, the Canadian Immigration Minister travelled around the world to consult with foreign governments on global migration issues. Jason Kenney’s meetings with his Australian counterparts drew special media interest given Australia’s well-known “tough stance” on would-be asylum seekers. Kenney made it clear that Canada and Australia would be working together on human smuggling issues in particular. He declared, “Canada intends to work domestically and internationally to combat the crime and fraud associated with the treacherous journey some immigrants make to Canada. At the same time, we need to ensure that those in need of protection have access to it, and we look forward to working with partners such as Australia.”

It is not surprising that Canada and Australia would partner on such an issue. The two countries have much in common. Both are nations built on immigration. Both have complicated histories with the first nations and the ethnic groups within their borders. Both also share the legacy of membership in the British Empire and, of course, imperial ties meant more than formal political ties. The bonds of empire enabled the circulation of ideas from afar.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the British-born Australian Charles Pearson wrote an influential book called National Life and Character: A Forecast. Pearson intended his work as a caution to those in power in the United States, England, and in the white settler Dominions that their positions were far from secure. He wrote that there would come a time “when the European observer will look round to see the globe girdled with continuous zone of the black and yellow races, no longer too weak for aggression or under tutelage . . . . We shall wake to find ourselves elbowed and hustled, and perhaps even thrust aside by peoples whom we looked down upon as servile and thought of as bound always to minister to our needs.”  As the historians Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds demonstrate in their book Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (2008), Pearson’s work created a global “sensation”. The Prime Minister of Australia, Edmund Barton, held a copy of Pearson’s work in his hand when he rose to speak in defence of the White Australia during the debates on the Australian Federation’s first piece of legislation, the 1901 Immigration Restriction Bill.  Ironically, Pearson’s work also inspired activists, such as the African-American, W.E. Dubois, to fight for racial equality by building ties with supporters around the world.

Recalling the power of Pearson’s National Life and Character in reinforcing arguments of racial inferiority to prevent the entry or integration of certain migrant groups helps contextualize Minister Kenney’s recent meetings in Australia. Canada shares Australia’s history of exclusion based on ideas of racial superiority and the kinds of national communities that should be built. Both countries restricted entry to Chinese migrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries based on economic arguments and the perceived threat that Chinese migrants posed to the development of colonial societies crafted in the image of the British motherland. Current discussions about Canada’s immigration and refugee policies echo many of the debates from a century ago. Although the current debate was sparked by the arrival of a boatload of Sri Lankan migrants in Canada and asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Iraq in Australia earlier this year, the focus has since broadened so that economic arguments are being applied to restrict immigration more broadly in both Canada and Australia.

The newly launched Canadian Centre for Immigration Policy Reform claims that “recent immigrants receive billions of dollars a year more in benefits than they pay in taxes.”  During the last Australian election in August 2010, the Labor Party (which eventually formed the minority government) introduced the need for controlled immigration numbers because of Australia’ size and its ability to absorb new people. Prime Minister Julia Gillard declared that she did not support a “Big Australia” and that immigration needed to be sustainable. It sounds reasonable, except that she was pitching her policy at voters in Western Sydney, who were opposed to her predecessor’s policy on asylum-seekers. What lessons will Canada draw from such approaches? What partnerships, political and intellectual, will result?

One of the insights that we can reflect on from Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ book is that ideas about racial superiority circulated vigorously at a time when those in power felt threatened by rising pan-African activism. Could the same be true of 2010? If Canada does indeed feel the need to look to Australia and others because it fears an increase in the number of migrants to Canada, and refugee claimants in particular, then Canada needs to pay close attention to the historic sense of vulnerability that has characterized the development of much of Australia’s contemporary immigration policies. During the Second World War, Australia resettled 15,000 European refugees from Nazi Germany. In his book, Refuge Australia: Australia’s Humanitarian Record (2004), historian Klaus Neumann argues that it was a fear of Japanese invasion and lack of population that encouraged Australia to think about European refugees to populate the country. After the war, the loss of British support left Australia feeling lost and isolated in the face of a tumultuous Asia, in turmoil as a result of decolonization. Most terrifying was the prospect of massive influxes of migrants and refugees from Asia. As a result, Australia reinforced its White Australia Policy until 1973 and vigorously deported Chinese migrants and others who over-stayed their visas or entered the country illegally. Deportation acted as a deterrent to anyone thinking of jumping ship or seeking shelter in Australia.

Like Australia, Canada has its share of historic immigration restrictions based on fear. 376 Indian migrants on the Komagata Maru, for example, were turned away in 1914 in large part because of the fear their numbers invoked amongst residents of British Columbia. But in seeking to learn from Australia’s lessons, one can only hope that Canada’s leaders are thinking about the historical context in which Australia’s immigration and refugee policies were developed, as much as the policies themselves.

Laura Madokoro is a PhD candidate in history at the University of British Columbia.  She studies twentieth century global migration with a special focus on political refugees in Asia and the Commonwealth in the post-1945 period.

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