The truth about Pierre Trudeau and immigration

A new book argues Trudeau’s record on immigration is a myth worth puncturing
Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gives the thumbs up that he likes the Thai peasant hat he is wearing while visiting the summer palace at Bang Pa-In, Thailand June 1, 1983. (CP Photo/Andy Clark)
Nothing to write home about
Andy Clark/CP

In his new book The Truth About Trudeau, Bob Plamondon, a policy consultant and historian in Ottawa, takes an unvarnished look at Pierre Trudeau’s time in office, from his cozy ties to Communists and gutting of the military to his dubious environmental record and the damage done to national unity. In this excerpt, Plamondon tackles the myths surrounding Trudeau’s immigration policies, and argues the former prime minister politicized immigration and multiculturalism and raised ethnic vote targeting to an art form.

Exclusive Excerpt

Pierre Trudeau embraced multiculturalism as the antidote to nationalism and the dominance of Canada’s two dominant solitudes: English and French. He adopted policies, devised programs and financed groups to enable minorities to maintain their own identity and resist social assimilation. And while immigration necessarily begat multiculturalism, it is a myth that Trudeau opened up the country to scores of new Canadians.

On October 8, 1971, Trudeau announced that Canada would adopt policies embracing the country’s multicultural dimension, a first on the world stage. Since the policy implied an end to systemic racial and cultural discrimination, Trudeau faced no opposition. It was the sort of stance that former Tory prime minister John Diefenbaker could embrace, as he did when his government passed the Bill of Rights in 1960. Trudeau’s multiculturalism policy thus received the unanimous support of Parliament in 1972. To implement his vision, he created a multiculturalism branch within the office of the Secretary of State and appointed a minister of multiculturalism.

While Canada had become officially bilingual, Trudeau did not want Canada’s multicultural communities to feel left out. The state helped groups large and small retain their cherished language and values with taxpayer dollars–or more accurately, with public debt. Contrary to Trudeau’s lofty pronouncements about fairness, his government did not spend this money ending discrimination and inequality, but funding folk dances, festivals, language training and songfests. And Liberal party strategists quickly clued in that the recipients of all that cash might well return the favour at election time.

Trudeau claimed that there was no official Canadian culture and that no ethnic group should take precedence. But by 1984 taxpayers were doling out $23 million annually in the name of multiculturalism, $19 million of which went to 2,000 agencies and organizations across the country, with $2 million going to advertising in the ethnic and majority press.

While some Canadians grumble about our approach to multicultural groups and the funding of foreign-language training and ethnic festivals, all politicians since Trudeau have, to varying degrees, embraced the concept. That may be because it’s almost impossible to divorce multiculturalism from politics. Trudeau biographer Richard Gwyn wrote that after losing his majority in 1972, Trudeau was prepared to use every tool in his arsenal, including the public purse, to restore his base of support and so, “up sprang a trebled multiculturalism program that functioned as a slush fund to buy votes.” The reality in Trudeau’s day, as it is 30 years after he left office, is that ethnic politics is alive and well.

Ask many older Canadians, particularly those not born in this country, why they think highly of Trudeau, and one answer stands out: he opened Canada’s doors to immigrants. This perception is perhaps one of the greatest myths about the Trudeau record.

In 1968, the year Trudeau became prime minister, Canada welcomed 183,974 immigrants, equivalent to about one per cent of its population. By 1984, the immigration rate was 0.3 per cent of the population, a decline from 1968 of about two-thirds. These reductions did not reflect an anti-immigrant policy per se, but flowed out of a choice made by the Trudeau government in response to a weaker economic climate and higher unemployment. Yet holding the line on immigration is exactly the opposite of what Trudeau is known for.

In the mid-1970s, the government began setting immigration quotas. The target for 1979 stood at 100,000, well below the 218,465 who arrived in 1974. While the number of immigrants had begun to fall, their demographic composition changed dramatically. In the mid-1960s, 87 per cent of immigrants were of European origin. By the time Trudeau left office that number was 30 per cent, with immigration quotas increasingly filled up with citizens of Asian countries.

Curiously, the government did not actively seek to attract people with job skills. The minister of immigration told Parliament that, in respect to the domestic labour market, “it is preferable, where possible, to employ or train Canadian citizens and permanent residents for Canadian jobs, rather than to admit workers from abroad.” To those who feared immigrants would take jobs from Canadians, the government pointed out that, after factoring in expected emigration levels, the nation’s population would not be significantly altered.

In the pre-Trudeau era, immigrants to Canada were recruited based on labour shortages and the skill sets required to develop the economy. But under Trudeau, the portion of “family class” or sponsored relatives allowed into Canada expanded significantly. The system became increasingly skewed toward large extended families and against individuals. Changes to the Immigration Act proclaimed in 1978 allowed new Canadians to sponsor their parents of any age, which proved particularly enticing to those from less-developed nations, and less so to those from Europe.

The political benefits of shifting immigration policies was made by Liberal MP Peter Stollery in a 1976 memo to minister of immigration Bud Cullen. Stollery argued that immigration was a contributing factor to the winning of many constituencies and that Trudeau’s government would be stupid not to admit Portuguese-Angolans and their nominated relatives because they were all Liberal. “We allowed the Italian community to expand and guaranteed them as Liberal communities for many years.”

To make political hay, during the short-lived government of Joe Clark, Trudeau castigated the Tories as anti-immigrant. “The policies that the Conservative government seems to have been following in terms of cutting back support for the ethnic press, in terms of changing their immigration policies as we did so as to favour the reunification of families, their downgrading of multiculturalism by giving it to a minister who’s apparently not very on top of the subject . . . in all of these things we disassociate ourselves from Conservative government policies.” Trudeau reminded voters that his government had given special attention to Canada’s multicultural groups, including using money from Lotto Canada to support multiculturalism.

Trudeau opposed any special deals with Quebec, particularly in areas within federal jurisdiction. But in 1978 he signed the Cullen-Couture Agreement, which gave Quebec the ability to influence the composition and size of its immigrant influx. Quebec was able to develop its own points system that took into account the likelihood of an immigrant integrating and prospering in the province. The agreement addressed Quebecers’ fear that immigrants would not embrace the French language. Trudeau said he was open to a similar deal with other provinces, but only Alberta expressed an initial interest.

In Trudeau’s final years in office, the government slashed quotas by restricting newcomers who were not sponsored by families or were refugees. Skilled workers could only enter Canada if employers proved they could not find a suitable Canadian worker. Because of a weak economy, Trudeau also felt pressure from many quarters to reduce the numbers of refugees, which he did in 1983.

It is therefore curious that there remains an impression that Trudeau opened up the immigrant floodgates, when immigration levels went dramatically in the other direction during his time as prime minister. One explanation for this perception, beyond clever political communication, is that, despite a decline in immigration, Trudeau held office when large numbers of immigrants qualified to become Canadian citizens.

Ironically, immigration levels ramped up after Trudeau left office, almost tripling under the allegedly “anti-immigrant” Progressive Conservatives of the Mulroney era, from about 90,000 in 1984 to over 250,000 by 1993.

Trudeau took office when immigration levels were high. He made his mark by reducing the number of immigrants and dramatically changing the composition of the immigrant pool, moving it away from developed to less-developed nations. Tilting the system toward family reunification and away from skilled workers diminished the economic benefits that had traditionally come with immigration. But it maximized the political benefits to Trudeau. This endeared many existing immigrant communities to the Liberals and encouraged wide swaths of new Canadians to vote for Trudeau when the time came. But when it comes to immigration, the myth about Trudeau and the reality are miles apart.

From The Truth about Trudeau by Bob Plamondon. Copyright © Bob Plamondon, 2013. Reprinted with permission of Great River Media.