X-Rays and the Discriminatory Science of Migration

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By Laura Madokoro

The postwar era is often celebrated as a great time of liberalization in Canada, as far as immigration rules are concerned. What is often ignored is how hard people, including Chinese Canadians, fought to obtain equality of treatment, and how the federal government was incredibly reluctant to proceed with large-scale change until the 1960s. Indeed, under the guise of reforms, the government began to rely on science and technology to limit migration from China, even as it brought an end to the exclusion era.

When the Chinese Immigration Act (which had excluded almost all migrants from China after 1923) was repealed in 1947, optimism soared among Chinese communities that they might be able to sponsor their families to Canada. This optimism was misplaced. Progress in reforming discriminatory legislation was slow. Equality in family sponsorship legislation was achieved only in 1967. Even worse, as immigration legislation gradually became more race-neutral authorities looked to other mechanisms, including science and technology, to restrict the movement of people. In the 1950s, the federal government transformed regulations relating to medical admissibility from their initial purpose of excluding and quarantining particular contagions to regulations that could be used to verify and identify the claimed authenticity of family class migrants.

Regulations passed after 1947 limited the sponsorship of children for Chinese Canadians to those under the age of twenty-one (it was twenty-five for other groups). Immigration officials defended this limitation on operational grounds, pointing to the difficulty of verifying claimed relationships given the ongoing civil war in China. The Chinese community waged fierce campaigns for reform and in 1951 the government agreed to raise the sponsorship limit to twenty-five “on humanitarian grounds” given the unsettled conditions in the newly established People’s Republic of China.[1] The decision to make a limited concession in terms of the age-limits followed the introduction of x-ray requirements in 1950 for all migrants to Canada. In theory, the requirements for x-rays applied universally but Chinese migrants were especially affected by this new screening procedure.

The x-ray requirements introduced in China went above and beyond the tests required to secure medical admissibility to Canada. At first, x-rays were used to screen certain diseases considered endemic to China. These included infestations of “different types of intestinal parasites, chiefly, hookworms, whipworms and roundworms.”[2] Canadian officials noted, these “conditions are quite common in China and are often considered as insignificant.” They believed that as long as the conditions were treated prior to arrival in Canada, there would be no major medical risk. As such, testing for and treating diseases was rather straightforward. However, with the debate over the appropriate age of admissions, immigration officials realized that x-rays could be used to verify the claims for admissibility. Medical experts from the Canadian Immigration Office in Hong Kong informed the government that x-rays were of “real help in establishing age between 8 and 21 years” because bone structures varied with age in six regions: the shoulder (including the whole cavicle), the elbow, wrist, the pelvis and hip joint, the knee joint and the ankle joint.[3] Armed with this knowledge, the government hoped that x-rays could help verify the age of individuals for advanced sponsorship. X-rays subsequently took on a whole new purpose in the context of migration from China.

In practice, x-ray readings were hardly scientific, despite claims to that effect. Dr. H.D. Reid, chief of the Division of Quarantine, Immigration Medical and Sick Mariners’ Services explained that his staff were “fully aware of the limitations (on radiology) and, in order that no injustice be done, have always erred on the safe side in expressing an opinion.”[4] Dr. Reid’s caution did not reassure officials who were already suspicious of the Chinese character. Decades of exclusion had caused Chinese migrants to assume false identities, using fake papers to establish themselves in Canada. The so-called “paper son” phenomenon cast a long shadow. Allegations of potential corruption triggered immediate concern. As a result, a development in the summer of 1952 contributed to the demise of the x-ray examination for the purposes of determining the age of potential migrants. In mid-June, the District Superintendent in Hong Kong reported that the visa office was experiencing an “increase in the number of x-ray plates received from individuals of Chinese race in Canada with requests that previous applications rejected for alleged dependents be reconsidered.”[5] He reported that one doctor in particular, a graduate from the University of Manitoba, seemed to “be developing quite a little business” in providing “alternative x-rays.”[6]

This event intersected with growing suspicions of the process in Hong Kong, prompting officials in Ottawa to return many cases for reassessment. At one point, 50% of cases reviewed were being returned to Hong Kong. Officers there reported to be “in a state approaching frustration.”[7] The science of x-rays proved to be an imperfect one. In the end, officials in Ottawa gave weight to the visa officer in Hong Kong who, as one official noted, “is in a much better position to deal intelligently with the case, than we in Ottawa.”[8] It was a vote for human interpretation over scientific assessment and one that revealed the limitations of science as an accurate tool for exclusion though one that rhetorically, and administratively, may have served its purpose. Ultimately, the fallibility of x-rays meant that they were replaced with still other technologies, including blood testing. These too perpetuated the exclusionary nature of modern immigration regimes and profoundly shaped the aspirations of Chinese migrants and their families.

Laura Madokoro is an Assistant Professor of History at McGill University who specializes in global migration.

[1]“Memo from Laval Fortier to the Minister, July 27, 1955,” RG 26, Volume 125, File 3-33-7, Part 2, Chinese Immigration, 1936-1949, LAC.

[2] H.D. Reid to Director, Immigration Branch, 13 December 1951, RG 76, Volume 796, File 546-1-526, Part 1, LAC.

[3] Drs. Anderson & Partners to The Superintendent, Canadian Immigration Office, 4 September 1950, RG 76, Volume 796, File 546-1-526, Part 1, LAC.

[4] H.D. Reid, Chief, Division of Quarantine, Immigration Medical and Sick Mariners’ Services to P.T. Baldwin, Chief, Admission Division, Immigration Branch, 1 June 1951, RG 76, Volume 796, File 546-1-526, Part 1, LAC.

[5] District Superintendent to Director, Ottawa, 13 May 1952, RG 76, Volume 796, File 546-1-526, Part 1, LAC.

[6] Director to District Superintendent, 16 June 1952, RG 76, Volume 796, File 546-1-526, Part 1, LAC.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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