History of Labour Migration to Canada

Canada’s economic development has relied upon the labour and economic contributions of thousands of immigrant and migrant workers. (See also Economic Immigration to Canada; Immigration to Canada.) These workers came from a multitude of countries and worked a variety of jobs. Many of these workers would also ultimately settle in Canada. This labour and settlement pattern, however, is changing due to Canada’s temporary labour migrant programs. (See also Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.)

Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.

Canada’s economic development has relied upon the labour and economic contributions of thousands of immigrant and migrant workers. (See also Economic Immigration to Canada; Immigration to Canada.) These workers came from a multitude of countries and worked a variety of jobs. Many of these workers would also ultimately settle in Canada. This labour and settlement pattern, however, is changing due to Canada’s temporary labour migrant programs. (See also Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs.) Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.


Pre-19th Century Labour Migration

Early European settlement was driven by the need for natural resources and economic trade. Seasonal industries such as fisheries attracted some of the first European settlers to the Canadian East Coast in the 16th century. The fur trade, and the popularity of beaver pelts, led to the establishment of more permanent trading posts. European migration, however, was largely limited to explorers, missionaries, soldiers and fur traders (see also Coureurs des bois; Population Settlement of New France).

An ink drawing of a Coureur de Bois, Officer and Men of the Carignan-Salières Regiment, and a Canadian Going to War

(Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/Acc. No. 1972-26-301)

Efforts to settle New France increased as France and England competed for access to resources, trade networks and land. In the mid-17th century, the Compagnie des Cent-Associés was established in France. This group of French commercial companies were tasked with settling and developing New France’s population and economy, which proved challenging. (See also Mercantilism; Seigneurial System.)

Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, migrants contributed to the agricultural economy of British North America (see Agriculture in Canada). Agricultural land was granted to United Empire Loyalists, who emigrated from the United States in response to the American Revolution (see Loyalists in Canada; American Revolution – Invasion of Canada). Similarly, Europeans fleeing the economic depression that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars sought opportunities to settle agricultural land. Many of these migrants would end up permanently settling in Canada.

19th Century Labour Migration

With the rise of industry, economic activities in British North America began to shift and new labourers were needed (see Industrialization in Canada). During the 1840s and 1850s, numerous Irish came to North America in a desperate search for a new life. (See also Irish Canadians; Irish Potato Famine Refugees.) Many worked in lumber camps and on the docks. (See also Timber Trade History; Shanty). Others toiled within a sprawling network of canal and railway camps which stretched from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean (see Canals and Inland Waterways; Railway History in Canada). Irish women, however, like the women that came before them, entered domestic service — one of the few paid professions available to women at the time (see Women in the Labour Force).

Labour immigration became particularly prevalent after 1870, when Canada began actively participating in the transatlantic labour market. The rapid expansion of ocean and rail transportation made it easier for workers to hunt for jobs in North America on a large scale.

As there was a shortage of workers in the late 19th century, many immigrant labourers arrived in Canada to work on the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Upward of 15,000 Chinese labourers came to Canada to work on the railroad. Many performed the particularly dangerous task of building the railroad eastward through the mountain ranges of British Columbia. A large number would die because of unsafe work conditions.

Image of Chinese labourers working on the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Colombia, c. 1884

Image of Chinese labourers working on the Canadian Pacific Railway in British Colombia, c. 1884

(Image Boorne and May / Library and Archives Canada / Ernest Brown fonds / e011303100-017_s2)

The completed railway created more job opportunities. Porters were needed for train sleeper cars and many Black Canadians signed up. A good number of Black migrant workers also came over to work from the United States and the Caribbean.

20th Century Labour Migration

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was an intense effort to populate and develop the agricultural economy of the Western Prairies. (See also History of Settlement in the Canadian Prairies.) Sir Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior from 1896 to 1905, promoted immigration. Immigration policies still favoured immigration from the United Kingdom and white European Protestant countries. Sifton, however, also encouraged the immigration of different nationalities, and religious groups. These included Ukrainians and Hungarians as well as Mennonites. (See also Ukrainian Settlement in the Canadian Prairies.)

Card in Ukrainian advertising 160 acres of free land in Western Canada, c. 1900-1905.

(Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/ e008748901-v8)

Opportunities in the Canadian Prairies attracted many individuals of diverse origins, including Chinese, Black, Doukhobor and Mormon immigrants. Not everyone did farm work, however. Some individuals sought opportunities in urban areas and fulfilled labour demands in other sectors of the Canadian economy. For example, the burgeoning Jewish business class of Winnipeg established successful business enterprises. The settlement of the Prairies resulted in an unprecedented record of immigrants coming to Canada in the early 1900s. Between 1900 and 1914, approximately 2.9 million people arrived in Canada. Canadian immigration numbers, however, began to decline with the onset of the First World War and the Great Depression. In addition, Canada would enact discriminatory immigration policies, which would bar individuals from entering Canada on the basis or race, ethnicity, religion and nationality. (See Chinese Immigration Act; Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324.)

From 1945 onward, with the advent of postwar prosperity and an improved understanding for human rights, the status of non-British immigrant workers gradually changed. (See also Second World War.) This resulted in new cohorts of immigrant workers entering Canada. European displaced persons, many of whom were highly educated, left lower-paid jobs for high-paying ones in Canada. Immigrant workers from southern Europe, Southeast Asia and, increasingly, the West Indies came to Canada; they filled shortages in low-paying, hazardous, itinerant or seasonal work (see Southeast Asian Canadians; Caribbean Canadians; West Indian Domestic Scheme). Many of these jobs were located in urban factories, construction sites or low-paying service industries. These were often in Toronto and Montreal where many new immigrant workers tended to gravitate.

The introduction of the point system in 1967 provided a standardized and non-racially based system to evaluate and select immigrants. The system favoured migrants with higher education and with job skills in demand in Canada. (See also Economic Immigration to Canada.)

Labour Migration in the 21st Century

In the 21st century, there is renewed debate about labour immigration in response to Canadian workforce shortages. Two immigration programs for temporary workers exist in Canada: the International Mobility Program (IMP) and the Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) (See Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs). Some employers argue that there is a need for temporary labourers in lower-wage economic sectors. They argue that this is best obtained through the TFWP which was created in 1973. In contrast, organized labour and humanitarian groups contend that this type of guest worker arrangement is both exploitative and discriminatory, since many of the migrant workers are non-white. Investigations have also revealed evidence of verbal, physical and sexual abuse perpetrated against these migrant workers. Another issue is whether Canada should place more emphasis on attracting immigrant professionals who will be more suited to address the technological demands and challenges of the current job market.

The foundations of Canada and its economy have depended upon the migration and the varied skill sets of diverse groups and individuals. Canada’s targeted labour and migration strategies have positively and negatively impacted the lives and economic livelihood of thousands of immigrant and migrant workers. Canada remains reliant on the economic contributions and talents of these workers.

Key Terms

Immigrant A person who settles in a new country (see Immigration to Canada).

Migrant A person who is residing outside of their country of origin or who moves from one place to another. Increasingly, migrant and immigrant are being used interchangeably to reflect the complexity of human migration.

Temporary Resident A person who has permission to temporarily enter a country. In Canada, this term is applied to foreign nationals, including students, visitors and participants of the International Mobility Program and Temporary Foreign Worker Program (see Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Programs).