The New Fortified World Colonialism, Capitalism and the Making of the Apartheid System of Migration in Canada | Harsha Walia
November 10, 2008, 8:41 pm
Filed under: "canada", North America


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April – June 2006

Source: New Socialist Magazine  |  Issue #56

Attention to national borders has figured prominently post-9/11, and many have argued that 9/11 has created a new, fortified world. The events of 9/11 certainly have reconfigured, but have not created, Canadian border policies, which have historically been distrustful of racialized migrants. A comprehensive history and analysis of Canadian immigration processes unearths how the quest for “security” — of borders, of the nation, and of those deemed Canadian — has been a prominent feature of immigration enforcement for the past century.

History and Shifting Discourses

Until the 1960s, the Canadian state explicitly chose its immigrants on the basis of racial categorization with preference for immigrants of Northern European (especially British) origin over the so-called “black and Asiatic races.” For example, although never proclaimed, a 1911 Order in Council prohibited the entry of “any immigrant belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” In 1923, the government abolished the Chinese Head Tax (initially $50, later raised to $500) that had been imposed on Chinese immigrants since 1885, only to replace it with a new Chinese Immigration Act virtually excluding all Chinese immigration.

The assertion of Canada’s sovereign right to be selective about whom it allows to enter and remain has always represented the bottom line in immigration law. As stated by Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1947, “I wish to make it quite clear that Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting persons whom we regard as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada, it is a privilege… The people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to make any fundamental alteration in the character of our population.” This statement is symptomatic of a goal embedded in Canadian immigration policy – maintaining Canada’s “purity.” The 1952 Immigration Act, which was conceived essentially as a gatekeeper’s act, codified racial and moral bases for excluding certain migrants. For example, the Act gave Cabinet the power to exclude people who displayed “peculiar customs, habits” and those who were unable to become “readily assimilated.”

Race officially ceased to be an overt factor in Canada’s immigration policy in the 1960s. However, as author and sociologist Anna Pratt has explained, over the past 50 years concepts of human rights and legal rights have taken on increasing importance in immigration policy discourse. With this shift, the use of explicitly racist, moralistic and ideological grounds for excluding immigrants was delegitimized. Instead, governments reconfigured exclusionary criteria on “criminality” grounds or as threats to an undefined and amorphous “national security.” Therefore, a mere reconstruction of the discourse and the three C’s of multiculturalism (costume, cuisine and craft) has not altered the racist foundations of immigration policies.


The border is a historically specific creation, and state monopolization of the legitimate means of movement and migration contributes to the construction of the identity of the nation-state and who its “citizens” are.

Despite its name, the recently enacted Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) is less about protecting refugees and more about protecting the Canadian public and nation. The protection of rights-bearing and deserving (“genuine”) immigrants and refugees has become contingent upon the identification and exclusion of others thought to be security threats, criminals or system abusers.

“Genuine refugees” are seen as helpless victims forced to leave their country due to persecution and through no personal fault of their own, while “bogus refugee claimants” are regarded with suspicion as being system-abusers and “voluntary economic refugees.” Ironically, economic migrants who immigrate through the point system as skilled workers are deeply valued. This contradictory notion of the “economic migrant” is better understood from a state perspective: the acceptable economic immigration of skilled workers benefits the national economy, while bogus economic refugees are seen as selfish and simply improving their own economic circumstances. Therefore, it is only the genuine refugee and the independent immigrant, and not the economic refugee, who deserve the benefits of Canadian citizenship. As a result, falsified legal boundaries for inclusion that control peoples’ right to self-determination are created.

Refugee Protection and Migrant Detention

It is a myth that Canada accepts a large number of refugees. For every 443 Canadians born, one refugee is admitted. And this number is declining with the implementation of the Safe Third Country Agreement, signed between the Canada and the US. This agreement, which took effect on December 29 2004, prevents (with minor exceptions) asylum-seekers from entering Canada if they first arrive in the U.S. Considering that the route of most asylum-seekers involves migrating through the US, advocates estimated that this highly exclusionary agreement would affect approximately 40 percent of claimants attempting to seek refuge in Canada, thus creating a “Fortress North America.” Indeed, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board’s own statistics, the number of pending claims at the end of 2003 was 41,575, compared to 27,290 at the end of 2004.

Racialized trends in Canada’s refugee policy are further revealed through the statistics on the number of refugees that the government directly assisted in coming to Canada: in 1998, 59 percent of government-assisted refugees came from Europe versus only 12 percent from Africa.

The assertion of absolute state sovereignty over who may cross its borders is nowhere more apparent than in the detention regime. Unlike prisons, immigrant detention does not pretend to serve any purpose other than forcible confinement and control to ensure efficient deportation. The detention center in Laval, Quebec, is officially designated the “Immigration Prevention Center.”

There are two main grounds for detaining migrants in Canada: first, a likelihood that a person poses a danger to the public; or second, that the person is not likely to appear for removal. This second rationale creates a catch-22: those who express fear of deportation and a desire to remain in Canada are often considered flight risks and subject to continued detention. The new IRPA also increased the powers of detention, by allowing immigration officers to detain any “foreign national” if unsatisfied of the person’s identity. During 2002-2003, on any given day, more than 400 people were in immigration detention across Canada, and over the year, more than 11, 000 people were detained for a total of approximately 165,000 days. Only a handful of these detentions were on security grounds, making the majority of them what many have termed “detention based on convenience”.

Imperialism, Globalization, and Migration

The effects of colonialism and corporate globalization have created political and economic circumstances that compel people to move. This reality of migration reveals the asymmetrical relations between “rich” and “poor,” and between North and South. Such forces are the same forces that have perpetuated genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples within the colonial project of “North America.”

A salient example of the impact of capitalism and neo-colonialism on migration trends is the US-Mexico border. As part of its inclusion in NAFTA in 1994, Mexico was forced to adjust its constitution’s Article 27, which guaranteed rights to communal lands. Over 1.5 million Mexican farmers who subsequently lost their farms migrated North to work in low-paying sectors and maquila factories. Wages among California’s 700,000 farm workers, half of whom are undocumented, is approximately $6.75 an hour.

Furthermore, the refugee determination system is far from a simple exercise in humanitarianism. It can more accurately be labeled as a manifestation of Canada’s aggressive foreign policy. For example, Canada towed the ideological line of the US by being slow to react to the admission of Chilean refugees who were supporters of Salvador Allende after the violent US-backed coup of Allende’s socialist government in 1973. By comparison, Canada was far more “humanitarian” in accepting approximately 60,000 refugees from South-East Asians Vietnams and Laos who fled Communist regimes in the wake of Saigon’s fall in 1975.

Economics of the Immigration system and (Im)migrant labour

It is not a novel assertion that while free trade agreements open borders to capital, borders are increasingly tightening to those capital has displaced. However, it is also important to note that while repressive immigration policies are intended to exclude those deemed undesirable, they are not intended to act as fortresses against all racialized people. It is not in the best interests of the Canadian economy to deport all non-status migrants. Instead, border controls serve to create a constantly internalized fear of instability and vulnerability. The state’s practice of denying permanent legal status to most who migrate guarantees that a growing number of migrants will constitute a highly exploitable pool of labour.

In 1947, Canada established a contract-labour program under which potential employers in the mining, logging or lumbering industries would forward applications to the Department of Labour requesting that a certain number of labourers be brought in under prearranged contracts covering minimal wages and living conditions of servitude. Shortly after its introduction, the program was expanded to include other industries and specialized agricultural workers.

This form of contract agricultural labour continues today under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP). Approximately 18,000 migrant farm workers from the Caribbean and Mexico arrive in Canada to work the fields, orchards and greenhouses every year, typically for periods of three to 10 months. The low wages of migrant workers has contributed to the multi-million dollar agricultural industry, while the structure of the SAWP – particularly the lack of secure work and status – silences the struggles of the workers.

Migrant women of colour on temporary work visas most directly experience the hypocrisy of liberal democracies that promise opportunity while creating categories of exploited workers. Under the Live-in Caregiver Program migrant women – predominantly Filipinas – enter Canada as temporary workers. Although the program calls for a 49-hour maximum work week, the live-in aspect allows employers to call on the caregivers at any time and renders the women subject to labour rights violations and gross abuse. Women are required to work for two years within a window of 36 months in order to qualify for permanent residency.

Yet even immigrants with permanent residency rights face conditions of underemployment and inequities in income. For example, under provincial employment standards in BC, it is possible for workers who are new to the labour force to be paid a $6 per hour “training wage,” instead of the regular $8 per hour minimum wage, for the first 500 hours of work. Another issue is that immigrants who are trained within non-western educational or scientific traditions experience great difficulties in gaining recognition for their training and skills. Research by the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada conducted over 10 years reveals that the poverty rate among the Canadian-born in the year 2000 was 14.3 percent, compared to a poverty rate of 20.2 percent among all immigrants, and 35.8 percent among recent immigrants. Therefore, the oppression of migrants is inextricably linked to the systemic oppression of all racialized people.

White Nationalism and Racialization of the Enemy

Canadian nationalism emphasizes the nation as a contained entity threatened by outside forces wishing to destroy it and its members. Borders have been presented as a site through which criminality and terrorism is able to seep into the state. The illusion of the nation as a place of safety and security is reified through state bureaucratic organizations, such as the military, federal intelligence organizations and immigration departments, which produce the sense that “the enemy” is outside the realm of “us.” For example within days of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese in North America were seen as enemy aliens. Upon the enactment of the War Measures Act in 1942, about 22,000 Japanese were relocated, 75 percent of whom were naturalized Canadians.

With the “War on Terrorism,” the identities of North Americans versus the terrorists are being re-imagined. Although “the enemy” was Osama bin Laden, his image personified all Arabs in the Western imagination and the nation was reconfigured to exclude all Arabs. By comparison, the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was considered to be the act of one lone man, therefore resulting in no mass profiling and there was no exclusion of the entire White race from social-political spaces.

Borders and nation-states are historically specific social systems that shape distinctive cultures and identities. Within Western cultural consciousness, terrorism is perceived as a Third World import. In contrast, there is no recognition of Western state-sponsored terrorism whose victims predominantly reside in the Third World and indigenous territories of the First World. Such imagery reinforces the normalization of whiteness in the Western imagination and renders racialized communities as hyphenated citizens — a colonial construction of identity and entitlement. Thus, phrases like “immigrants” do not actually reflect one’s legal status; rather, the seemingly innocuous term is actually a categorization for racialized migrants from the Third World.

Finally, it is worth noting that Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act, which amends the Criminal Code, is not being used to combat “terrorism.” Instead, it’s a provision of the IRPA-security certificate, which gives the state the power to charge, detain and deport non-citizens. While the Anti-Terrorism Act gives the police extraordinary investigative powers, it still requires that those accused are charged with some defined act. Under the security certificates regime, however, detainees can be held without charge. Much has been written about how security certificates violate principles of due process; however, more significantly, security certificates are a form of legislated racism in only applying to non-citizens. Law professor Audrey Macklin points out, “immigration law has long done to non-citizens what the Anti-terrorism Act proposes to do to citizens – without public outcry and with judicial blessing.”

Although each historical era has been dominated by different perceptions of what poses the greatest threat, each era has portrayed threats as being external to the nation-state and thus justifying exclusionary immigration policies. Immigration law plays a key role in creating a nation, which is one reason why the concept of “national interest” is so vital to immigration law. It is not enough to simply defend the “civil liberties and human rights” of immigrants and refugees – a demand that has come to dominate the leftist landscape. Human rights standards have not altered the reality of the immigration and refugee system. For example, the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which came into force in 1954, sets standards of treatment for refugees yet does not alter the fundamental fact that states are not obligated to admit those who are not their nationals. Instead we must also confront and challenge the nationalistic processes and racialized notions of belonging and entitlement.

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