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Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control, 1867-1967

By Christopher G. Anderson

Review By Reg Whitaker

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 181 Spring 2014  | p. 143-44

Always among the more contentious of Canadian public policies, the control of immigration, legal and illegal, is once again on the front burner. Political scientist Christopher Anderson sets himself the task of explaining the broad dynamic of immigration debate over the first century of Confederation. He points out that the existing literature on the subject, while filling in a rich factual foundation for analysis, has tended to be stronger on description than theory.

Anderson focuses on the “control/rights nexus” in Canadian discourse on immigration. Some have seen the emergence in the postwar era of a rights-based liberal attitude to immigration as a kind of virgin birth following generations of restrictive, not to speak of racist, control-centred approaches. Anderson instead posits an enduring dialectic between “Liberal Internationalism” and “Liberal Nationalism.” The latter was dominant from the 1860s through the 1930s, reflected in the widespread framing of immigration as a privilege not a right, with Canadians setting the terms of entry according to the strict dictates of national sovereignty. He insists however that Liberal Internationalism, drawing on nineteenth century British liberalism for inspiration, was never absent from policy planning, and indeed was intimately associated with the foundations of Canadian immigration law and practices. Thus the (temporary) triumph of Liberal Internationalism in the postwar era was not born de novo but reflected another stage in a long struggle which continues today.

Anderson is at his best in depicting the interactive dynamics of this contest, and how the apparent ascendancy of one discourse spawns contradictions that reconfigure the policy field. For instance, Liberal Nationalist controls breed more controls until Liberal Internationalism inevitably reasserts itself through judicial intervention or aroused public opinion. Conversely, heavier emphasis on the rights of non-citizens breeds Liberal Nationalist counterattacks to reassert national sovereignty. Anderson offers a guide that stands outside the day-to-day ideological fray, which is a very useful contribution.

One might enter a caution on his methodology: his extensive utilization of public discourse in the form of parliamentary debate may have skewed his findings to a degree. He gives short shrift to Marxist or other economic interpretations, but parliamentarians are inclined to dress up crass economic self-interest in fancy rhetoric. Sometimes what passed for liberalism was really no more than capital’s demand for importing cheap labour.

I have some doubts about his characterization of nineteenth and early twentieth century “Liberal Internationalism.” British liberalism of the era was strongly infused with laissez faire but also with notions of racial superiority alien to the contemporary mind. The nineteenth century “internationalist” strain he sees reasserting itself in the twentieth century postwar era was actually a very different beast from the human rights-based internationalism with which we are now familiar. Today’s pervasive de-legitimization of racist discourse means that even resurgent Nationalist arguments for restriction and control must now eschew openly racist sentiments — unlike earlier eras where both “nationalists” and “internationalists” were comfortable with conceptualizing immigration in racially differential terms.

Despite these qualifications, by reaching for and largely achieving “big picture” analytical clarity, the author has made a major contribution to Canadian immigration studies.

Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control, 1867-1967
By Christopher G. Anderson 
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 266 pages, $32.95 paper.