A Place to Belong Podcast Episode 1: How We Got Here

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.

Canada as we know it today has been shaped by policies that encourage immigration and welcome people from all corners of the globe. But the journey to a multicultural Canada hasn’t been a straight path.

In this episode, Guy Freedman, Métis from Flin Flon and president of the First Peoples Group, and historian Dr. Jan Raska from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 help us understand how we got to where we are today.

Listen to A Place to Belong, a six-part podcast from Historica Canada.Canada as we know it today has been shaped by policies that encourage immigration and welcome people from all corners of the globe. But the journey to a multicultural Canada hasn’t been a straight path. In this episode, Guy Freedman, Métis from Flin Flon and president of the First Peoples Group, and historian Dr. Jan Raska from the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 help us understand how we got to where we are today.


Guy Freedman: “I have a question for everybody that I'd like to ask. Where were you born? What's your ancestry on your mom and dad's side? And what's your favourite place on earth?”

Narrator: That’s Guy Freedman. He’s the president of First Peoples Group, an Indigenous consulting firm that offers training, facilitation, and relationship-building services. He was also a senior advisor on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

GF: “I'll introduce myself in an Ojibwe language as well: Kwingogwaági Pizhew. I introduced myself in Ojibwe because through ceremony I received those names when I was diagnosed with stage four cancer about eight years ago.”

N: His favourite place on earth?

GF:“I’m not Ojibwe. I am fifth generation Métis. I was born and raised in Flin Flon, Manitoba, a long time ago, and it’s still my favourite place on Earth.”   

N: Now it’s your turn. Take a minute to answer Guy’s questions: where were you born, what’s your ancestry, and what’s your favourite place on earth? For many Canadians, the answers to the first two questions probably involve a country outside of what is now Canada. The country we know today has been shaped by policies that encourage immigration and welcome a wide array of people from all corners of the globe. In fact, almost a quarter of Canada’s current population is foreign born. But the journey to a multicultural Canada hasn’t been a straight path. As you’ll learn over the course of this five-part series, government policies in the 19th and 20th centuries restricted or banned mainly non-European communities from entering the country. Even if they were able to settle here, many faced hardships in a society that historically viewed many immigrants, particularly non-white people, as quote unquote “undesirable.” Learning about that part of Canada’s history helps us understand how we got to where we are today. You’re listening to A Place to Belong: A History of Multiculturalism in Canada.

N: So how did we get here?

Jan Raska: “The Canadian border, if you will, actually manifested itself overseas.”    

N: That’s Jan Raska.

JR:I'm a historian at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 in Halifax.”

N: Pier 21 is situated in Mi’kma’ki, the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq people. From 1928 to 1971, it was the official port of entry for many immigrants coming to Canada.

JR: “Being on the east coast of Canada and the popularity of coming to Canada by ship, that a lot of the immigration was, of course, from European centres. So, immigrants would oftentimes leave from the ports of Liverpool, South Hampton, Le Havre in France, Hamburg in Germany, for example. And so that, of course, leads you to believe that overwhelmingly the immigration to Canada through Pier 21 is, of course, white and European.”

N: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Imagine the smells and sounds of the port as you wait in line to board a massive ship, one so large it would take hours to walk all its passageways: the salty sea air, the indecipherable chatter of crowds, a ship’s horn in the distance. Eventually, you board and set sail. After a few days mostly spent below deck, you leave your small bunk and make your way along a narrow hallway — past screaming children, tired mothers, and men playing cards — all, like you, biding their time until they reach the land, they will soon call home. When you emerge outside, the air is cool and as salty as when you boarded. The sharp, distant cry of gulls cuts through the chatter of fellow passengers. Craning your neck over the railing, you see the first glimpse of your new country: Canada.

N: If you were coming into Canada through Pier 21 by ship, an average day would look a bit like this: You would disembark from your ship and be led toward Pier 21’s immigration shed.

JR: “And while they were sort of making their way into the assembly hall, they would be sort of passing by Canadian immigration health officials. And they were sort of looking for any visible signs of disease or sickness to figure out if individuals had to immediately be put in detention and quarantined.”

N: Usually that happened if you had anything contagious, like influenza or measles.

JR:For those that seemed visibly healthy, they were brought into the assembly hall... If you had all your documents and for example, you understood English or French, generally your immigration interview would have taken a matter of minutes--they would have just looked through your... Your documentation, asked you a few questions, for example: where were you headed? Where was your final destination? Did you already have employment lined up? Do you have family already living in Canada?”

N: If everything was in order, you’d receive a stamp on your immigration card giving you landed immigrant status. The next stop was the pedway, a long tunnel-like hallway connecting the immigration facility to the Annex building across the street. 

JR:In the pedway, we had Canadian customs officials who would then check your personal belongings, your pockets, your bags to see if you had any dutiable items, for example: any cigarettes or alcohol that you hadn't already paid a duty on or a tax on. And of course, any contraband materials or items that might be harmful to Canada's economy or to Canadian agriculture. So, in this particular case, that would have been foreign meats, plants, seeds, soils, those sorts of items.”

N: At this point you’ve uprooted your entire life, and maybe not by choice. It’s not so easy for you to part ways with a little piece from home — even if it’s a small thing, like your favourite salami, or a homemade liqueur.

JR:We have stories of sort of older ladies pushing customs officers when they find out that some of these items that are near and dear to their hearts are unfortunately going to be left behind on their journey because they're not permissible in Canada.”

N: Past the customs officials, you enter the Annex building. There, you’re greeted by a large group of people, many speaking to you in different languages. You recognize snippets of Italian, German, Dutch. You’re told these are volunteers from organizations like the Red Cross, the Sisters of Service, the YMCA or YWCA or the Jewish Immigration Aid Society.

JR: “They would try to answer questions in your native language. And they tried to make the experience of coming to Canada through this important ocean port of entry a smooth one.”

N: They might watch your children while you take a nap or show you where you could purchase a meal.

JR: “And so they're really there to kind of look after the well-being and the spiritual needs of arriving immigrants.”

N: Once you pick up your luggage from the baggage haul...

JR: You then had to wait for the train to Montreal. So a lot of, or in most cases, immigrants oftentimes took the train from Halifax to Montreal and then to points further, further west like Toronto, Winnipeg or Vancouver. There was a minority, of course, that stayed in town in Halifax or decided that they were permanently moving to Cape Breton or Annapolis Valley or other points in Atlantic Canada.

N: After a few hours, the train finally comes. You get on, ready to start your new life in Canada.

JR:There's a perception that Canada is a land of milk and honey… where individuals could come and make something of themselves and make something for themselves and their families.”

N: But before 1967, immigrants were basically coming from a certain part of the world.

JR: “... And so our idea of multiculturalism back then, I think, certainly was a little bit different than the sort of multiculturalism that we find in Canada today.”

N: That’s because for over a century the Canadian government discouraged or even banned some immigrants from settling here. That list includes people from Asia, Black people, Romani people, and Jewish people, among others. We’ll cover a few of these communities over the course of this series. But government policies weren’t just aimed at keeping certain immigrants out, several affected Indigenous peoples, who had been here for millennia. One of the worst examples was the residential school system…

GF: “… That ran from the 1800s and the last school closed in 1996, the year that our youngest daughter was born.

N: There were also forced community relocations and the Sixties Scoop -- all implemented with the intention of resolving the so-called “Indian Problem” in Canada. Today, these efforts are known as cultural genocide.

GF: “I'm not trying to blame or shame anybody who didn't understand their history, but it's been laid bare for everybody and everything is online. You can find out anything you want about this country from that perspective. So associated with forgiveness is guilt. There's a great quote by Mi'kmaq author Daniel Paul, who says that until Canada comes to grips with the sins of its past, it will never find peace in its soul.”

N: Stay tuned after a short break.

Riley Burns: “I didn’t want to be an Indian. I didn’t know who in the Hell I wanted to be. I wasn’t accepted by the white man and I wasn’t accepted by my own people in my reserve…”

Larry Langille: “I don’t know what I would have been like if I had not gone through that system. I know I would have had some kind of an education…”

LL: “I got no education at all. I can’t read or write. In the places I was, they didn’t care…”

Piita Irniq: “The year 1958, whether I knew anything about it at the time or not, was the beginning of the end of my own culture and my own language and of my own Inuit spirtuality…”

Louis Bellrose: “They called us savages

Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais: For more than a century Indigenous children across Canada were forced to attend residential schools. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were institutionalized. Thousands died, either at school or because of their experiences in the system.

RB: “I used to listen to little girls crying next to the wall, hear those little girls crying for their moms. For a whole month when they first get there, that’s all you hear is crying.”

SRD: I’m Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, host of Residential Schools, a new three-part podcast series from Historica Canada. Join us as we delve into the history of residential schools, their effects on Survivors, and their continued impact.

Niigaan Sinclair: “...it’s time for Canadians to stand up. This is their challenge as well..”

SRD: Subscribe to Residential Schools on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. 

N: Between 1900 and 1914, before the First World War, Canada accepted about 200,000 immigrants a year. The immigration restrictions beginning in 1931 brought that number down to 16,000.

JR:During the Great Depression when Canada's doors essentially closed, around the time of 1931, the only people that can come in, according to the immigration regulations, are essentially British subjects coming from the Irish free state, from Newfoundland, from South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. What it doesn't say is that they have to have to be predominantly white, right. So white British subjects, for example, Indians would have been British subjects, but they weren't necessarily welcomed to Canada either.”

N: Immigration didn’t pick up again until after the Second World War, when tens of thousands of War Brides — foreign women who had married Canadian service members stationed abroad — and their children came through Pier 21.

N: Jan says they were seen as desirable immigrants because many of them were coming from northwestern Europe and...

JR:A lot of them also came with a previous understanding or knowledge of English or French.”

N: But Canada’s expanding economy still needed labourers. It so happened that Britain was trying to resettle a few thousand Polish veterans who didn’t want to be repatriated back to their homeland after the war.

JR: “Canada initially actually wasn't planning on resettling the Polish veterans…”

N: But the British government was persuasive.

JR: “And a lot of these individuals were actually working class, middle class, who had democratic values and ideals and didn't want to return to a homeland that had fallen under communism.”

N: They were given labour contracts and allowed into the country.

JR:And so it was sort of an experiment to see could we bring European ex-servicemen and maybe later European displaced persons to Canada who maybe might not be seen as desirable by the greater Canadian population. Could we experiment with the Polish veteran movement and sort of see if this would work out? And of course, it did. It worked out quite well.”

N: It showed the Canadian government there was a benefit to admitting refugees and immigrants that it usually considered “undesirable.” The success of the resettlement of Polish veterans, Jan says, became the impetus for the Displaced Persons movement to Canada after the war. A “displaced person” is someone who was forced to leave their home, especially because of conflict. They became the largest group of refugees to come to Canada in the 20th century – over 157,000 arrived between 1945 and 1951.

JR: “You really see in the 1960s this sort of national debate about proponents of bi-culturalism who want to keep it English Canada and French Canada, and see Canada as culturally and linguistically British and French origin, versus the promoters of multiculturalism, many of whom, of course...represented non-British, non-French ethnocultural communities in Canada. And they suggested that Canadian identity was not simply binational, but it was culturally pluralistic or multicultural, if you will.”

N: By 1963, the Canadian government was becoming increasingly concerned by the growing unrest among French Canadians in Quebec, who wanted to have their language and culture protected. They also wanted opportunities to participate fully in political and economic decision making.That unrest was the main reason the federal government established the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, otherwise known as the Bi and Bi Commission.

JR:And from 1963 to 1969, the Bi and Bi Commission examined the extent of bilingualism in the federal government, how governmental and non-governmental organizations promoted cultural relations, the level of opportunities between Canadians to become bilingual in English and French, and the hopes of establishing greater equality between English and French Canada. So again, sort of stuck in this mould of a bicultural bilingual Canada.”

N: Members of the Bi and Bi Commission went on a cross-country tour to hear testimony from various groups. One of the people who addressed them was Ethel Brandt Monteur of the National Indian Council — then the representative body of both status and non-status First Nations and Métis. She told the commission: “We respectfully submit that Canada is a tri-cultural country… Our imprint is indelible on this land. We should not need to ask for representation. We have no intention of being a forgotten people in our homeland.”

JR:The Indigenous presence in Canada, of course, predates the arrival of settlers from around the world. Yet early Canadian conceptions of the cultural mosaic or multiculturalism, if you will, in Canada largely excluded Indigenous peoples and their contributions.”

N: While Indigenous rights are now protected under the Constitution Act and not through multicultural policies, Guy says it's important to know that they aren’t a singular group. For example, there’s a great diversity in First Nations cultures…   

GF: “…from the Mi'kmaq on the East Coast to a coastal B.C. First Nation whose languages are so diverse that not one word would make sense to each of them. And there are 630 plus First Nations. And then there's the Inuit population from all across the circumpolar region.”

N: And Jan says Indigenous people weren’t alone in pushing back against the Bi and Bi Commission:

JR: “…you then have descendants of a lot of ethnocultural communities who are saying, well, hold on a sec. This idea, this narrative of two founding peoples is inaccurate. Where is our place in Canada?”

N: Canadian immigration policies had begun to loosen by the 1960s. In 1962, the regulations that determined who was admissible into Canada changed. Instead of prioritizing race or country of origin, potential immigrants would now be judged on their skills.

N: In 1967, this was taken a step further with the introduction of the points system. Potential immigrants were assigned points in specific categories, like their level of education, occupational skills, and proficiency in English and French, among others. A person who got 50 points or more out of a possible 100 was allowed into Canada, regardless of their race, ethnicity, or national origin. And as immigration into Canada grew, diverse communities began to push for national recognition, too.  

JR: “...Led by, for example, Ukrainian Canadians, sort of expressed concern, maybe even outrage that, you know, if you're looking at Canada as a binational and bicultural, bilinguistic country, you're essentially omitting or ignoring or overlooking their cultural contributions.”

N: When the Commission submitted its final report in 1969 it outlined that...

JR:...you know, Canada, while it could essentially become bilingual, it was culturally pluralistic or multicultural in terms of its society.”

N: “Based on recommendations from the Commission, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau passed the Official Languages Act in 1969. This gave French and English equal status in the federal government. And in 1971, Canada became the first country in the world to introduce a multiculturalism policy.

N: When Trudeau announced the policy, he said: “For although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian, and all should be treated fairly…”

N: But Guy points out that there while there is no quote “official culture” there has always been a culture in what is now Canada -- in fact many cultures: 

GF: “Well, you know, there was there was a lot of Indigenous languages in Canada, including one spoken by the Métis called Michif. And I dispute that there is no culture. It would be good if Canadians understood that there exists the broad diversity or multiculturalism within the Indigenous culture.”

N: Guy also explains that the roots of multiculturalism in Canada today trace back long before colonization:

GF: “And while people who come from another place may keep their culture and identity and in fact, they not only keep it, they put it first. They have adopted a Canadian presence that is not different than the personality of most First Nations, Métis, and Inuit when you get to know us.”

N: Though it was official policy for many years, critics of multiculturalism argued that the government was more concerned with promoting identity than ensuring non-white Canadians were treated equitably. After further study, a new set of laws were introduced under Canada’s Multiculturalism Act of 1988.

JR:What the 1988 act did was that it sought to protect the cultural heritage of Canadians in legislation as opposed to just being a policy or a plan or scheme of government.”

N: The Act sought to reduce discrimination and encourage the implementation of various multicultural programs and activities within governmental and non-governmental institutions.

GF: “Whether it's an official act or whether it's official policy for immigration, our teachings tell us that we're all two legged and all paths lead to some form of a spiritual connection to either an ancestral story or a creation story. And we're, by and large, we're all the same.”

N: Over the next four episodes, you’ll learn about four different communities, all fighting for the same thing: a place to belong.

N: On the next episode of A Place to Belong, we explore the centuries-long fight for Francophone rights in Ontario – and a historic battle that marked it. 

Soukaina Boutiyeb: "The police came to try to enforce this regulation issued by the government. And so, a battle took place. The Desloges sisters were in the front row to fight, to resist, to continue teaching in French."

N: Subscribe to A Place to Belong on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode of A Place to Belong was written and produced by Historica Canada. Production support from Michael Fiore and Edit Audio. Post-production by Edit Audio.

Thank you to Jan Raska and Guy Freedman, who were also consultants on this episode.

Fact-checking by Nicole Schmidt.

This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. 

Thank you for listening.