A short history of Canadian citizenship

Prepared by Gabe De Roche for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship and reprinted courtesy ICC.

Citizenship has a long and varied history in Canada. Long because the sense of being “Canadian” goes back to the earliest European settlers in the wilderness of Quebec; and varied because as often as Canada has been welcoming and diverse, it has also been closed and exclusionary.

Legally, it was not until 1947 that Canadians could truly call themselves Canadian. Prior to that, Canadians had the status of “British subject'” attached to their own Canadian nationality. While some fought hard to keep this status, it was clear that the status of “subject” did not reflect the character of our nation. Certainly it was important to immigrants from the British Isles and their descendants; but what of French-Canadians, or Chinese-Canadians, or the descendants of any of the diverse populations who came to Canada before, during and after Confederation? Ultimately it was determined— and underscored by the valiant contribution by Canadian soldiers in the two World Wars—that the unique character of the Canadian nation needed to be recognised.

But it would be foolish to argue that Canadian citizenship began in 1947, or even with Confederation eighty years earlier. In all of Canada’s six centuries we find evidence that its inhabitants felt a connection to the land and to the society which they called home. Among the early inhabitants of Quebec—the canadiens—we find already a sense of community and common identity that had Canada as its focus, not the French countryside of their fathers. The defeat of the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, and the subsequent Treaty of Paris of 1763 resulted in the surrender of French control over much of what is now Canada to the British.

As a result of this shift, Canadians were asked to reconsider what exactly they meant by “Canadian”. Some responded with reactionary exclusion. Others rose to meet this challenge and in doing so, helped to shape the future of Canada for centuries to come.

One such example is the friendship—both personal and political—between Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, of Lower and Upper Canada respectively. “Canada,” spoke LaFontaine in his famous 1840 Address to the Electors of Terrebonne, “is the land of our ancestors; it is our country as it must be the adopted country of the diverse populations that come from all over the globe. . . Above all, their children must be, like us, Canadians.” This enlightened partnership, in famously seeking responsible government, sought also the unity of diverse peoples. Originally this unity was perceived to be between Upper and Lower Canada—the English- and French-speaking peoples—but it soon evolved, ultimately becoming the template for a more expansive vision of citizenship.

With Confederation came an even stronger call for national unity. The proponents of Confederation—including John A. MacDonald, George Etienne Cartier, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee—spoke eloquently about the need for inclusion, and about the character of the Canadian nation. “There is room enough in this country for one great free people;” spoke McGee in 1862, “but there is not room enough, under the same flag and the same laws, for two or three angry, suspicious, obstructive nationalities.” To these great leaders citizenship meant inclusion and unity. It meant a united people moving together toward a common goal.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, immigration to Canada accelerated as new people poured into the country’s cities and countryside. Though touted as a land of opportunity, it was not in fact open to all. The provincial governments lost no time in creating barriers designed to prevent “less desirable” populations from settling within their borders. Immigrant quotas based on race and nationality were passed. Buckling to provincial pressure, Ottawa passed the Immigration Act in 1910 which made it legal for immigration authorities to discriminate based on race.

At the same time, under the leadership of Sir Wilfred Laurier, Canada steadily became more self-aware and patriotic. “Let me tell you, my fellow countrymen” Laurier beseeched in 1904, “that all the signs point this way, that the twentieth century shall be the century of Canada and of Canadian development. For the next seventy-five years, nay for the next one hundred years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.” Laurier added: “Let your motto be Canada first, Canada last, and Canada always.”

The arrival of the World Wars served to both challenge (through conscription) and to affirm Canada’s national unity. In World War One, Canadians fought alongside its Allies with valour, paying the ultimate sacrifice at places like Ypres, the Somme, and most importantly at Vimy Ridge where, for the first time, Canadians fought and died as a national unit. Vimy Ridge constituted as sea-change for Canadian patriotism. In the interwar years that followed, the creation of “Canadian clubs” across the country confirmed this new and vigorous sense of identity.

With the advent of the Second World War came yet more calls for national unity. When Prime Minister Mackenzie King determined that it was necessary to institute conscription, nowhere was opposition more vocal than in Quebec. Outside of Quebec, however, WWII united Canadians. Canadian soldiers, sailors, and pilots distinguished themselves at Dieppe, in the Battle of Britain, in the invasion of Normandy, and in the liberation of the Netherlands. Nevertheless, at home Canada would inact two policies that would later become the source of national shame: restricting immigration to Jewish Europeans fleeing the Nazi death camps; and the internment of approximately 22,000 Japanese-Canadians during the war.

In his memoirs, Paul Martin Sr. describes a scene in 1945 when, as Secretary of State, he was touring a military cemetery at Dieppe. He saw the tombstones inscribed with a diversity of names representing Canadians from all origins and all walks of life. This inspired him to draft the Canadian Citizenship Act of 1946 which, when it passed in 1947, for the first time in their history, gave Canadians their own unique national status. They were now official, legal citizens. Martin described it in this way: “Symbols…[are] important to a nation, and the government’s decision to clarify and regularise the status of Canadian citizenship constituted a major feat. Our membership in the family of nations had been recognised; we had won our certificate of nationhood; it now remained to designate ourselves citizens of our country, not only in fact but in legal enactment.”

In order to truly understand the history of citizenship in Canada, it is important to distinguish between its formal and informal institutions. While the formal, legal institution of citizenship is relatively new, the institution of citizenship in the hearts and minds of Canadians has a long and rich history.

Gabe de Roche is a student at the University of Toronto, and president of the university’s Internatonal Relaions Society. The Institute for Canadian Citizenship may be accessed at http://www.icc-icc.ca/en/.

2 Responses to “A short history of Canadian citizenship”


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  2. Ace Alvarez Says:

    With Canadian diversity, somehow each of us stand by with a “dash”, such as Filipino-Canadians, South Asian-Canadians, Italian-Canadians, and so on.

    But when we’re out there in the stream of the “United Nations” Canadian society, we are simply Canadians.

    This item is good reading for all immigrants to provide a quick lesson on the history of Canadian citizenship — the very citizenship that each of us look forward to after coming to this country; the very citizenship that we value after acquiring it.