Canada Immigration Policy, Post WWII (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records  by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Post WWII Policy

There was no immediate change in immigration policy after the end of WWII for several reasons. There was a real fear of a post war recession as had occurred after WWI; there was a lack of suitable ships to bring people from Europe to Canada; and there was a lack of immigration officers to process new arrivals. However, the tide of opinion was shifting and a growing number of Canadians were now in favour of a lowering of the immigration barriers. As well, there were now over one million displaced persons and refugees in European shelters maintained and supported by United Nations agencies. Many of those who had been uprooted or displaced by the war had no interest in returning home to countries now controlled by communist regimes.

“Refugees by strict definition, were all those people who had fled totalitarian regimes before the outbreak of the war and those who, starting in the second half of 1945, had left East European countries that had come under Communist control. No matter what their designation though, all these individuals were virtually refugees without a country, home, material possessions, or future.” (Knowles 1992, 120)


A Bill passed in May of 1946 allowed residents of Canada to sponsor first-degree relatives in Europe plus orphaned nieces and nephews under the age of 16. The one caveat was that the sponsors had to be able to care for those they sponsored. A major problem for officials was that many of these displaced immigrants had no passports so provisions were made to accept other forms of identification such as travel documents.

An order-in-council passed in 1946 allowed for the admission of 3000 Polish soldiers. These soldiers had been placed under British army command after Poland’s surrender in 1940. None of them wanted to return to a homeland now under communist rule.

By 1947 it was evident that Canada had made the shift from wartime to peacetime economy, that economic expansion lay ahead and that more workers would be needed. Changes to the immigration act in 1947 allowed for the entry of numbers of immigrants to meet the country’s labour requirements but stipulated that this be accomplished without altering the fundamental character of the Canadian population. Thus a new term arose in immigration lingo: “absorptive capacity”. Attributed to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, this concept allowed the government to make decisions from year to year (or event to event) regarding which groups and what numbers would be allowed to immigrate to Canada. British subjects as well as people from the U.S. and France could come freely but all other cases would be determined on a discretionary basis. Also recognized was that the government had two responsibilities pertaining to immigration:

  •  to provide the workers needed by the country
  •  to protect the standard of living of Canadians

Between January 1946 and December 31, 1953 over 750,000 immigrants came to Canada. In deference to the United Nations charter, the Chinese Immigration Act was repealed and Chinese residents of Canada were now allowed to apply for naturalization. Canada also now accepted that she had a moral obligation to assist in easing the refugee problem.

An order-in-council in June 1947 authorized the entry of 5,000 non-sponsored displaced persons. By October 1949 the numbers had risen to 45,000. The government established five mobile immigration teams composed of immigration, security, medical and labour officials. These teams were sent to Germany and Austria in the summer of 1947 to select refugees from the camps deemed acceptable candidates to emigrate to Canada. It’s interesting to note that between 1947 and 1962 about 250,000 displaced persons were admitted and of the 165,000 refugees who came to Canada between 1947 and 1953, the largest group was from Poland (23%).

Another group of displaced persons ranked high on the list of Canadian immigrant teams—people from the Baltic countries. They were in United Nations run camps in Austria and Germany after their home countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were caught in the middle of the Soviet and German battles. They were occupied by the Soviets in 1940, then invaded by Germany and in 1944 had to deal with the advances by the Russian army.

Between 1947 and 1949 about 16,000 Dutch farmers and their families came to Canada. Many of these farmers had lost their land to flooding when the retreating German forces destroyed the dykes. They settled in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

In 1950 a new order-in-council replaced all former ones pertaining to immigration. While the preference for British, Irish, French and American immigrants was maintained, the admissible classes of European immigrants were widened “to include any healthy applicant of good character who had skills needed in Canada and who could easily integrate into Canadian society” (Knowles 2000, 72). In that same year regulations were loosened on the entry of Asians, and German immigrants were removed from the enemy-alien list.

In 1950 the government also established the Department of Citizenship and Immigration thereby giving the responsibility for immigration to a new department with two separate branches—one for citizenship and one for immigration. This development ensured that immigration received the visibility and attention required during Canada’s post-war period of growth.

A new Immigration Act in 1952 simplified the administration and defined the powers of the minister and the department’s officials. The Act gave cabinet a large degree of discretionary power to:

“... limit the admission of persons by reason of such factors as nationality, ethnic group, occupation, lifestyle, unsuitability with regard to Canada’s climate, and perceived inability to become readily assimilated into Canadian society.” (Knowles 2000, 73)


This new act also allowed the minister to act quickly in times of urgency, by bestowing on the office the authority to make on the spot decisions and to cut through administrative red tape.

A study was done by the School of Social Work at the University of Toronto “to get an accurate picture of what kind of people our newcomers are and what is happening to them.” (Rose 1953, 3). A questionnaire was sent to 320 students in Citizenship and English as a Second Language classes. The following chart gives a good indication of the origins of the immigrants to Canada post-war. Some of the themes we have seen in the past remain true for this wave of immigrants, specifically the difference between the expectations fuelled by immigration agents and officials and the reality once the immigrants have arrived in terms of difficulty finding employment, the shortage of housing, the high cost of living and language requirements.

Where Have They Come From?

Hendry, Charles E. “Summing Up” in Food for Thought. Toronto: Canadian Association for Adult Education, Vol. 13, No. 4, January, 1953, p 7.

Where Have They Come From, Toronto, Canada.jpg

Where Are They Going?

Hendry, Charles E. “Summing Up” in Food for Thought. Toronto: Canadian Association for Adult Education, Vol. 13, No. 4, January, 1953, p 17.

Where Are They Going. Toronto, Canada .jpg
Many of these new immigrants had come from totalitarian states and had fought against or were discontented with the intensity of government in their lives. However, in reality, they were ill equipped to deal with the lack of government social programmes.

“Adults arriving are thrown upon their own resources, many of them having become accustomed to government supervision in a totalitarian state, nearly all of them being known for more government regulation of their private lives than they find in Canada. Totalitarian governments may have deprived them of intellectual and religious freedom, and may have used them cruelly, but they did requisition living space and regiment jobs for them and provide them with medical care. Even those from D.P. camps, though their lives were wretched, were certain of their next meal, however tasteless; sure of a bed, however bad.” (Jordan 1953, 10)


Many of the immigrants who came during this time were highly skilled workers, with professional training and experience. In contrast to earlier immigrants, peasants and unskilled workers, who came primarily to better themselves and their families economically, this period brought immigrants in search of political, psychological and economic freedom. The reality they faced, at least in the beginning was often a lower standard of living and culture than what they had been used to.


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Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at wiki@genealogicalstudies.com

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.