Gender & Migration: Lesson & Big Idea

Patterns of Migration

Why is it important to study patterns of migration and migrant experiences in Canada? This short background lesson explains migration patterns and population change using data from Statistics Canada in order explain why studying migration is so important. Click here to access the report to which this lesson refers if you’d like to see the data in more detail. As a settler-colonial state, Canada has always depended upon migration to maintain its population. By definition, Canada is a nation of immigrants — anyone who is not Indigenous is in Canada as the result of migration. Strong evidence shows, however, that migration is becoming more and more important to sustaining Canada’s population growth. Thus, we cannot ignore the experiences of migrants.

In any country, population growth comes from two main sources. First, from natural increases whereby the number of births exceed the number of deaths. To measure natural increases, researchers study death rates, birth rates, and fertility rates (the average number of children born per woman). The second main source of population growth is migration. To study population increases based on migration, researchers determine whether the number of migrants entering a country exceeds the number of migrants leaving the country.

Let’s look at patterns of migration and population growth in Canada. Around the time of Confederation in 1867 until the early 20th century, Canada recruited migrants to populate the West. Indigenous peoples were a majority in the West, so migration was a means of populating the plains with settlers. During this period, immigration policies attempted to produce a white nation, discouraging those deemed ‘unsuitable’ from migrating.  For instance, in 1885 John A. Macdonald argued regarding ‘African’ and ‘Asian’ people that: “It is not desired that they come; that we should have a mongrel race; that the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed’ (quoted in Smith 2003, 112 , emphasis added). Instead, migrants were admitted to Canada to provide cheap labour to aid in nation-building. For example, Canada recruited Asian men to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. Lisa Marie Jakubowski writes: “the Chinese railway workers were tolerated by the white workers, as long as there was no other source of labour available” (12). Building the CPR was dangerous work, costing many men their lives. When the work was completed, Canada tried to prevent Asian men from staying in Canada permanently by implementing the Chinese Immigration Act (1885), which imposed upon Chinese men a hefty cost for immigrating, and prohibited Chinese women and children from entry.

Between 1901 and 1911, migration increased, with around 1.2 million migrants coming to Canada. This was a period of rapid population growth, with high levels of immigration and high fertility rates (around 5 children per woman). Canada continued to try to restrict migration based on race, however. For example, the 1910 Immigration Act sought to prohibit certain ‘races’ deemed “undesirable” from coming to Canada.

The Canadian government tried to ‘sell’ the idea of immigration to the West, focusing on attracting migrants from Britain and America. For example, here Graham Chandler describes how images like this one, from the cover of Canada West (1925), were designed to appeal to potential European and American migrants, excluding Jewish and Black migrants.

After World War II, Canada witnessed a “baby boom”, which continued into the 1960s. In the 1950s, fertility rates averaged 3.9 children per woman. At the same time, immigration levels increased. By the 1960s, patterns shifted as migration took on a more significant role in population increases in Canada. There are two reasons for this. First, fertility rates began to decrease in the late 1960s and 1970s, falling below 1.8 children per woman. Second, death rates increased as the population aged. When the number of births are roughly proportionate to the number of deaths, as is the case in Canada since the mid-1960s, migration takes on a more significant role in population growth. In the 1960s, the Government of Canada liberalized immigration policy, transitioning from its implicit “White Canada” policy focused on attracting migrants from Europe to a a points-based system. The new system opened up immigration from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Today, most migrants come to the West from the Global South.

As the “baby boom” generation ages, death rates will increase. Since the mid-1970s, fertility rates have remained relatively stable, at around 1.5 to 1.7 children per woman. If fertility rates continue to remain stable, then migration will take on an even more significant role in Canada’s population growth, according to Statistics Canada. This fact calls attention to the need to study migration patterns and migrant experiences. Indeed, Dr. Malinda S. Smith writes:

“Canada is in the midst of a demographic revolution, one that is ushering in a great social transformation in the constitution of Canadian society”

Malinda S. Smith, 2018. “Diversity in Theory and Practice: Dividends, Downsides, and Dead-Ends.” In Contemporary Inequalities and Social Justice in Canada, ed. Janine Brodie. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

While the liberalization of immigration in the 1960s opened up migration from parts of the Global South, ‘race’ and gender continue to shape immigration patterns. For example, men tend to be the primary applicants for immigration, with women and children typically listed as dependents. In the 1990s, the Government of Canada favoured independent immigrants with economic resources, who tended to be men, while women and children were viewed as a potential cost to Canada. In reality, however, because immigrants pay taxes and work in Canada, immigration is an economic benefit. As we will learn in the readings for this module, immigrants’ experiences of life in Canada are often shaped by race and gender, highlighting the need for services and supports.

LESSON: The Danger of A Single Story

Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in her lecture, “The Danger of a Single Story,” how singular narratives flatten diversity and erase nuance. Telling stories involve power. As Adichie explains, “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person”. Listen to Adichie’s lecture, and identify the problem with singular narratives about migrants and the Global South. As you learn about migration, keep in mind the need to resist adopting a single story about gender and migration.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,
The Danger of Single Story


BIG IDEA: Involuntary Migration

The terms ‘migrant’ or ‘migration’ capture different forms of movement across borders. There are two main types of migration: voluntary migration and involuntary (or forced) migration. As the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) explains, it is important not to conflate these two types of migration, even though the term ‘migrant’ is often used as a ‘catch-all’ term.

Voluntary migration refers to migration by choice, including the choice to leave one’s home country to for economic opportunities, for educational reasons, or to reunite with relatives in a new country. Involuntary migration, on the other hand, refers to the process of fleeing one’s country of origin to escape war, violence, persecution, or, increasingly, climate change. Involuntary migration is the result of displacement in which people leave their home because staying would likely result in death or devastation. Involuntary migrants or refugees often leave their homes because they have experienced significant trauma, and the process of fleeing their country in search of refuge can itself be traumatic. This video provides more context about involuntary migration.

A growing number of refugees from African countries are forced to seek asylum in Canada due to conflict and instability. As Dr. Sophie Yohani and Dr. Philomina Okeke-Ihejirika (2018) explain, gender-based violence (GBV) is a widespread problem in conflict and post-conflict zones. The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women defines gender-based violence as: “any act that results in, or is likely to result in physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation fo liberty, whether occurring in public or private life”. In the context of increasing involuntary migration from Africa to Canada, Yohani and Okeke-Ihejirika study the experiences of African women who have experienced GBV in conflict zones, and the kind of supports in Canada after migration. They emphasize the need for specific supports for women who have escaped GBV, including mental health and social supports that address their experiences in both the pre-migration and post-migration contexts. You’ll have the opportunity to read about their work in the assigned resources for this module.

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