When approached by concerned American authorities in Ottawa over the treatment of black immigrants, Frank Oliver, the interior minister responsible for Western Canadian immigration, insisted Canadian law did not permit discrimination and no law “allows the rejection of immigrants on account of colour, if otherwise eligible.”
The 1910 Canadian Immigration Act made entry into the country “restricted, exclusive, and selective,” but did not officially bar anyone from immigrating as long as each individual was in good health and had $50 on their person — Chinese immigrants had to have $500.
The act gave the government enormous discretionary power to regulate immigration through orders-in-council. Section 38 allowed the government to prohibit landing of immigrants under the “continuous journey” rule (to put a roadblock on immigration from India where direct transportation to Canada didn’t exist), and of immigrants “belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character.”
The act also extended the grounds on which immigrants could be deported to include immorality and political offenses. The act introduced the concept of “domicile” which was acquired after three years of residence in Canada (later five years).
In 1911, Alberta Premier Arthur Sifton — brother of former Brandon MP and Canadian Interior Minister Clifford Sifton, and the son of John Sifton, a former speaker of the Manitoba Legislature, former Brandon MP and president of the Manitoba Free Press Publishing Company — when faced with local objections to black immigration also said no law existed to keep them out of the province.
Judging from its reporting, the Sifton family-owned Free Press was less critical of black immigrants than many Canadian newspapers.
What Canadian border officials couldn’t ignore was the wealth the nearly 200 blacks from Weleetka and Okemah, Oklahoma — the largest contingent of blacks up to that date to immigrate to Western Canada — were bringing with them. The Free Press said “on each request (the settlers) handed out a wad which in thickness and denomination far exceeded the amount required on behalf of an aspiring Canadian citizen.”
The Free Press said many of the party each had from $1,000 to $2,000 on-hand when they arrived at the border crossing.
Stricter examinations were often only a regulation enforced by agents in the case of so-called “undesirable” immigrants, which included Italians, southern Slavs, Greeks, Syrians, Jews, Asians, Gypsies and blacks.
The most desirable immigrants sought were English, French and white American farmers. “Acceptable,” although not always eagerly welcomed, were Belgians, Dutch, Scandinavians, Swiss, Finns, Russians, Germans, Austro-Hungarians, Ukrainians and Poles.
Over the years, many “desirables” from Britain arrived destitute and became an immediate financial burden on their adopted country, unlike the black immigrants in 1911. Some 100,000 destitute British orphans were dumped in Canada — it is estimated only a third were actual orphans and many were simply taken away from pauper families — to be exploited as farm labourers and domestics. Immigrants from Iceland arriving in 1875 relied upon Canadian government funds to get through their first years as settlers in Manitoba.
Despite the assurances from Ottawa to U.S. authorities, Canadian officials continued to dream up discriminatory measures solely aimed at black settlers.
An attorney for the Chicago-Great Western Railroad Co. forwarded information to the State Department in Washington indicating that Canadian immigration officials were intending to initiate new regulations applying only to black American immigrants. The railroad then appealed to Washington and to Winnipeg-based American Consul-General John E. Jones to ensure black immigrants to Canada received the same treatment as other Americans.
After an investigation, Jones reported to Washington that the top immigration official in Western Canada offered the medical examiner at the Emerson crossing a monetary reward for each black barred from entering Canada. Jones also warned that an order would be issued in Ottawa that barred blacks on the basis of Canada’s climate being too severe for them. The consul-general warned Canadian authorities that such measures would be seen by the U.S. as unfriendly acts.
Jones’ motivation for supporting black immigrants wanting to settle in Canada is not fully explained in the reports from the era. But, his actions on their behalf —as well as other groups while serving overseas as a foreign diplomat — seem to indicate he readily showed compassion when confronted with the plight of others.
American Secretary of State Philander C. Knox, concerned about precarious Canadian-American relations, summoned Jones to Washington at the end of April 1911. He advised Jones not to warn black immigrants about the Canadian government’s intentions until it acted, while recognizing the Americans had little power to intervene (The Blacks in Canada by Robin W. Winks).
In June, Knox wrote a letter to the Oklahoma governor containing excerpts from Jones’s report, telling the governor to warn potential black settlers of the new measures being used by Canada to dissuade them from immigrating.
“Sick!” disgustedly exclaimed H. “Daddy” Sneed when examined at the Emerson border crossing. He challenged the immigration doctor to find one sick person among the first party of “The Black 1000.” Only a medical excuse could prevent Sneed, the leader of the 1910 group sent to scout out available land, from entering Canada as he had $10,000 on his person and was reported to be worth $40,000.
“From a casual survey also,” a Free Press reporter wrote from Emerson, “they seemed as likely a lot of people as ever applied to settle in the northwest. At noon there seemed to be every indication that they would pass the examination required, and would be allowed to proceed on their way as duly accepted citizens of the Dominion. But in the afternoon came news that three of the members in charge of the horse and household effects, sent via Gretna, had been rejected.”
Those arriving at Emerson had come via the Great Northern Railway, while their personal goods and livestock, which included mules, horses, plows, tents and buggies, were sent overland to Gretna.
Oklahoma black leader W.W. Whittaker’s son was a member of the party trying to cross the border at Gretna. He walked the 30 kilometres from Gretna to the immigration facility at Emerson where he announced “the fact that all the effects of the party had been held up, owing to the fact that three of those in charge, namely Bell, Bowden (and himself), had been rejected for no good reason.”
The Free Press reporter couldn’t foresee any legitimate excuse to bar the black settlers from Canada: “They are a healthy, clean looking lot, well dressed and intelligent, and appear to be the best class of negro farmer of the south.”
The reporter added, “The Canadian government inspectors, while desirous of seeing the regulations complied with, do not intend to use any harsh measures in detaining any number of the party ...”
Even Emerson immigration official F.S. Bell admitted to the Free Press reporter: “He considered that they were a clean, likely looking lot ...” for admission into Canada.
Manitoba newspapers confirmed the blacks from Oklahoma were allowed to cross into Canada. On March 24, the Free Press reported their arrival at the Great Northern station in Winnipeg where they were to board a Grand Trunk Pacific Railway train bound for Athabaska Landing.
“The party consists of 93 adults, 25 partially grown up, and 56 babies, and has been held up for the past two days at Emerson waiting the result of a rigorous inspection. Last evening the result of the inspection was announced and it was found that only one man had been rejected, and he was not a member of the party having boarded the train at St. Paul.
“General rejoicing was the result when it was found that the party could proceed ... without any division among the families ... The medical inspection also revealed the fact that it was a remarkably healthy aggregation, and from personal observation it would seem that they will make good settlers.
“The new comers (sic) are imbued with a determination to make homes for themselves, have left a country where their people have resided for generations with that expectation, and not a man in the aggregation has ever done anything but farm in his life ...
“H. Sneed, the organizer, stated that he was very much relieved with the result of the inspection, and was not at all discouraged with the delay to which the party had been subjected to in Emerson.”
One of the party told the reporter, the U.S. government had tried to discourage the blacks from coming to Canada. (The reason then unknown to the black immigrants was the delicate trade negotiations between the two countries.) “It is willing that we should go to Mexico, or Montana, or Washington territory, but doesn’t want us to come to Canada. Why just before we left an attempt was made to induce us to change our minds.”
The man said stories had been circulated that the inspection at the border would be strict. “But we are here, and there are more of us coming if you will let us through.”
The fact that legal grounds could not be found to prevent black immigration caused Canadian officials to initiate other means.
An August 12, 1911, federal government order-in-council attempted to prohibit anyone “belonging to the negro race” from immigrating to Canada for “a period of one year,” as the “race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada” — two silly excuses that were time and time again proven to be myths.
The order was never formally implemented on the pretext that Oliver had not attended the cabinet meeting when it was passed.
In reality, one reason for its repeal was that the order was protested by black voters in Ontario and Nova Scotia who were necessary to shore up the Liberals’ political fortunes.
In addition, Prime Minister Laurier did not want to create diplomatic difficulties with the U.S. while negotiating a free-trade agreement (reciprocity as it was then termed).
“It is declared (by Canadian officials) that negro exclusion be accomplished without raising international difficulty in the United States,” reported the April 27, 1911, Free Press.
But the officials were wrong and U.S. President William Taft was sensitive to any perceived hindrance to the on-going reciprocity negotiations linked to his political future.
Another reason for an easing of the order-in-council was that the Bahaman Assembly had been persuaded to pass a resolution to investigate a possible union with Canada. As the Bahamas had a significant black population, it would not look good for Canada to be seen as placing onerous restrictions on black immigration while negotiating annexation of the British colony. Business and shipping interests in the Maritimes also heavily favoured the union, as well as its possible expansion to include all the British West Indies colonies, and they had to be assured nothing would arise to derail the talks.
The international tension Canadian immigration officials sought to avoid gained renewed vigour when American blacks took up the cause of the settlers attempting to leave Oklahoma for Canada.
“From all over the United States,” reported the Free Press on April 27, “... prominent members of the negro race and negro organizations are taking up the matter. Protests have come into the (U.S.) state department in great number.”
In the U.S., William E. DuBois, the influential editor of Crisis, the official publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, actively protested the actions of the Canadian government.
As a result of the outcry, the “race” issue began to complicate the trade negotiations between Ottawa and Washington.
The problem for the American authorities was that any barring of black immigration to Canada emphasized the race issue within the U.S. itself. “Delicate considerations were involved in view of the fact the United States government does not protect the negro from disenfranchisement in the Southern States,” reported the Free Press.
Within Canada, free trade polarized voters. The Conservatives amp-lified anti-American sentiment by claiming the Reciprocity Bill, already passed by the U.S. Senate, was a Liberal plot to make Canada part of the U.S.
Conservative Portage la Prairie MP Arthur Meighen, who would later become Manitoba’s first and only prime minister, said, “ ... if we accept reciprocity with the States we sacrifice all our national aspirations and deal the death (blow) to Canadian nationality.”
In the September 22, 1911, federal election, Robert Borden’s Conservatives soundly defeated Laurier’s Liberals — reciprocity was dead and Canada-U.S. relations took a turn for the worse. After the election, the relationship deteriorated to the point that American businessmen were calling upon President Taft to institute retaliatory measures against Canada. Some were even calling for U.S. armed forces to invade Canada.
The damage done to Taft’s political career by the failure of reciprocity emboldened his political opponents. A year later, Republican Taft lost the presidential election to Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, which was a result of former Republican U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt running as a Progressive Party candidate and dividing the traditional Republican vote, as well as the backlash from the failure of reciprocity.
Protests arising south of the border over the treatment of blacks wanting to enter Canada were ignored after 1911 by Ottawa. Officials in Canada’s capital knew they could implement their exclusion policy without further compromising international relations with the Americans. They realized the harm had already been done and the former friendly relationship between the two countries could only be mended with the passage of time.
By 1912, the difficulties imposed by government officials at the border had its desired effect — Oklahoma blacks stopped immigrating en masse to Western Canada. In March 1912, the Canadian Superintendent of Immigration, W.D. Scott, actually publically told blacks not to come to Canada since opportunities for them were better in warmer climates, according to The Blacks in Canada author Winks.
In 1912, a further deterrent was that Great Northern Railway agents in St. Paul were told by company officials to do everything in their power to discourage blacks from buying tickets to Canada.
“My mom and dad heard that there were more opportunities for blacks in Canada and less prejudice,” said black settler descendent Gwen Hooks. “This proved partially true. We encountered no legalized segregation or patterns of violence in Alberta, but neither did we find a haven of tolerance, and it wasn’t long before it became abundantly clear that Canada did not want black settlers.”
Disillusioned with Canada, other Oklahoma blacks who had thought about settling north of the border instead pursued opportunities in northern U.S. cities.
As a result of the discrimination at the border, only about 1,000 blacks out of an estimated one-million American immigrants came to Canada between 1896 and 1911. Although the majority of settlers were Oklahoma blacks, others came from Kansas, Texas and Mississippi.
Those who did come in the years preceding 1912 became proud and valued Canadian citizens. Despite the discrimination they encountered as pioneer settlers, they remained faithful to their adopted country.
“We are now in our fifth and sixth generations as Canadians. The black families who descended from those first early pioneers are still here today. We will continue to proudly carry on the legacy our great-grandparents started — striving for higher ground, never forgetting,” wrote Alison Crawford, a descendant of the first black settlers from Oklahoma, in an article appearing on the Black Pioneer Descendant’s Society website.