Report on Systemic Racism and Discrimination
In Canadian Refugee and Immigration Policies


Canadian Council for Refugees

1 November 2000

6839 Drolet #302, Montréal, Québec, H2S 2T1, (514) 277-7223, (514) 277-1447,


I.  Introduction

II. Historical Background to Discrimination in Canada’s Immigration Policy

III. Systemic Racism and Discrimination in Canadian Refugee and Immigration Policies

        1. Policies with Differential Impact

        2. Structural Issues with Differential Impact

        3. Application of Policies Targeting Certain Groups

        4. Intersection of Gender and Race

        5. Issues Beyond CIC and Immigration and Refugee Board

IV Public Opinion Issues

V Individual Cases of Racism and Recourses

VI Promoting Anti-Racism within CIC and IRB

VII Conclusion

Appendix: Definitions


The UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to be held in 2001 in South Africa, offers the Canadian Council for Refugees an opportunity to address concerns over the course of restrictionism and discrimination in refugee and immigration policies around the world.

Intolerance of refugees and immigrants, xenophobia and racism are intricately linked. Indeed, in Canada, where open expression of racist ideas is generally not tolerated, hostility towards newcomers serves as an outlet for the expression of underlying racist sentiments. This is especially true in times of economic or political difficulty, when those with less power, including newcomers, are easy scapegoats for the shortcomings of society.

Anti-refugee and anti-immigrant prejudices foster hostility and violence against newcomers, and result in official policies that infringe on the rights of non-citizens. To break this vicious circle, it is essential that government take strong action against racism and xenophobia.

Canada has in recent years been recognized internationally for its liberal immigration and refugee policies. It is known for its refugee protection system which gives responsibility for refugee determination to an independent quasi-judicial tribunal (the Immigration and Refugee Board or IRB), its resettlement program and its active immigration program. Canada has signed numerous international human rights instruments. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides a fundamental safeguard of the human rights of all persons in Canada, whatever their status.

Nevertheless, racism and discrimination are part of the Canadian reality. They are manifested at the personal level in the way individuals are sometimes treated. They are also manifested at the systemic level, through the functioning of government bodies and through refugee and immigration policies that have a differential impact on racialized groups, or that otherwise lead to discrimination against newcomers as a group, or certain sub-groups of newcomers. Despite the extent of the problem, we rarely see the federal and provincial governments taking a leadership role in naming and combatting racism in Canada.

This report looks at two distinct but inter-related problems: 1) the discriminatory manner in which some groups of newcomers, particularly racialized groups, are affected by Canadian refugee and immigration policies; and 2) the way in which refugees and immigrants collectively are treated with intolerance and discriminated against in the enjoyment of their rights.

Section II draws attention to the profound history of discrimination in Canada’s immigration policy. Section III takes the form of a table, analyzing systemic discrimination and racism in Canadian immigration and refugee policies and practices. The table is divided into four columns: 1) identification of issues or policies; 2) differential impact; 3) examples drawn from real experiences;(1) 4) recommendations, many of which are based on former CCR resolutions.(2) In Sections IV, V and VI we briefly examine public opinion issues, individual cases of racism and recourses, and ways to promote anti-racism in Canada and the Canadian selection process abroad.


Canadian immigration history is marked by racism and discrimination. The first immigrants from Europe brought with them the seeds of the racism that would have such devastating impact on the aboriginal peoples of what is now Canada, an impact that continues to be felt to this day.

Almost from the time when the Canadian government began to control immigration to Canada until the 1960s, explicitly racist laws and practices restricted the immigration of certain groups.

The Chinese bore the brunt of racist controls. The first federal Chinese Exclusion Act in 1885 imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants of $50, increased to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1903. From 1886 to 1923, more than $22 million were collected in head tax payments. In 1923 the Chinese Immigration Act came into force, bringing about the almost total prohibition of Chinese immigration to Canada. The Act was repealed in 1947, but the entry of Chinese remained restricted under more general rules relating to persons of "Asiatic race".

In 1907 a Canadian government delegation to Japan concluded a "gentlemen’s agreement" whereby the Japanese government would voluntarily limit emigration of Japanese to Canada to 400 persons a year. During the Second World War, 22,000 Japanese Canadians were expelled from within a hundred miles of the Pacific, thousands were detained, and at the end of the war, "repatriation" to Japan was encouraged. 4,000 people left, two thirds of them Canadian citizens.

In 1908 the Canadian government adopted an Order in Council imposing a "continuous passage rule" which had the effect of excluding from immigration people who could not make a direct journey to Canada. One of the main targets of this measure was prospective immigrants from India, since there was at the time no direct voyage from India. In 1914 a group of 376 Indians challenged this restriction, arriving in Vancouver on board the Komagatu Maru. After two months in the harbour and an unsuccessful court challenge, they were forced to return.

During the years when the Nazis were in power in Germany (and immediately afterwards), Canadian immigration policy was actively anti-Semitic, with the result that Canada’s record for accepting Jews fleeing the Holocaust is among the worst in the Western world. Canadian policy towards Jewish refugees was summed up in the words of one official: "None is too many".

Although in the 19th century Canada represented freedom for some black Americans escaping slavery through the underground railroad, in the 20th century immigration of persons of African origin was actively discouraged. A 1911 Order in Council prohibited "any immigrant belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada". This order was never proclaimed, but the same effect was achieved through measures such as penalties imposed on railway companies that distributed transportation subsidies to blacks, requirement for additional medical examinations, and the hiring of agents to actively discourage black Americans from coming to Canada.

In June 1919 the entry of Doukhobors, Mennonites and Hutterites was prohibited on the ground of their "peculiar habits, modes of life and methods of holding property". The prohibition lasted until 1922 in the case of Mennonites and Hutterites, longer for Doukhobors.

Until the 1960s, Canada chose its immigrants on the basis of their racial categorization rather than the individual merits of the applicant, with preference being given to immigrants of Northern European (especially British) origin over the so-called "black and Asiatic races", and at times over central and southern European "races".

The goal of excluding certain racialized groups was in part accomplished through the rigid enforcement of seemingly neutral immigration, health and financial requirements. For example, the "continuous journey" rule was strictly applied against Asians in the early 20th century, but not against Europeans. At the beginning of the 1920s, during a period of deep hostility towards Eastern Europeans, the rule was also enforced for a while against Europeans.

Race officially ceased to be a relevant factor with the introduction of the point system in the 1960s. However, there are some aspects of current policies that are reminiscent of earlier forms of exclusion, and the enforcement of seemingly neutral immigration requirements continues to discriminate against certain racialized groups.

The rejection of the explicit racism of immigration policies prior to the sixties was a necessary and important step in the struggle against racism. We must now come to grips with a much more subtle form of racism, less conscious and less easy to pinpoint but just as destructive.


NB Examples are based on real cases, but names and other identifying details may have been changed to protect identities.

(Policies that are neutral, but even when applied neutrally, have a different and negative impact on some racialized groups.)
Policies Differential Impact Examples Recommendations

Requirement that Convention refugees produce "satisfactory identity documents" in order to be granted permanent residence


This requirement negatively affects certain groups of refugees: 

Refugees who come from countries where identity is not traditionally established through official documents (notably African countries)

Citizens of countries where there is no government authority that can issue the documents

Groups who are less likely to possess such documents such as youth, women or people from rural areas

Thousands of refugees from Somalia and hundreds of refugees from Afghanistan have been forced to wait years for permanent residence because there is no functioning government in their countries and such documents as the refugees do have are frequently discounted.

Subha fled to Canada from Sri Lanka with her young daughter and was granted refugee status. Her husband arrived one month after her and has been granted permanent resident status. Subha and her daughter however have not, on the grounds that they do not have identity documents, having lost them when their house in Jaffna was destroyed. They cannot get new documents because there is no functioning authority in Jaffna, the Sri Lankan embassy refuses to process the request and the central records in Colombo are so arranged that it is impossible to trace a record without knowing the number of the certificate. Subha and her daughter have now been in Canada five years.

Remove the requirement for identity documents for refugees and give greater weight to personal interviews and other documentary evidence. (Res.15 - Nov.96)


The $975 Right of Landing Fee (ROLF) that all adult immigrants must pay in order to be granted permanent residence.

Given relative costs-of-living, rates of currency exchange and average annual income, ROLF amounts to a regressive flat tax which affects disproportionately immigrants from the South.

The $975 fee represents about 6 months salary for many Salvadorans. For a nurse or teacher in Sri Lanka, it might represent 10 months’ wages.
Repeal ROLF for all immigrants accepted for landing in Canada (Res.12 – May 95)
Imposition of visa requirement on nationals of some countries wanting to travel to Canada. Some nationals (generally from southern countries) need visas and others (generally from "white countries") don’t. Southern countries account for 81% of countries whose citizens require visas in order to enter Canada, while predominantly "white" countries represent only 19% of countries requiring visas. By contrast, predominantly "white countries" make up nearly 50% of countries that do not require a visa.


Policies Differential Impact Examples Recommendations
Requirement to present official documents (marriage certificates, adoption papers) in order to establish family ties. This requirement negatively affects people who come from societies where marriage, birth and adoptions are not recorded through documents.