In the 19th century, most immigrants to Montreal were from the United Kingdom: the Irish, and before them the Scottish, mostly English speakers, who came here to the British Empire—as Montreal was, in fact, a city of the British Empire—where they settled in small numbers. There weren’t very many of them, at most, 50,000 per year in Canada at the end of the 19th century.
In the early 20th century, a large-scale event took place, which we call the great migration. This time, the numbers were much greater, going from 50,000 per year to 200,000, 300,000, and even 400,000 one year, in 1913.
So, at this point, Canada saw the arrival of significant numbers of immigrants, made up in large part of people who were neither anglophone nor francophone, who came from Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe, and who made up a very diverse group.
So, the city’s population exploded. It was no longer an English-French city. It became, in the early 20th century, a multicultural and multiethnic city, with several different languages, of course.
The Laurier government, elected in 1896, implemented a mass migration policy. It was the only time in Canada during which immigrants could enter with practically no control, no fixed cost, no immigration processing of any consistent nature.
Between 1896–1900 and the start of the First World War, some 2,000,000 immigrants came into the country. It was an enormous mass of people.
In Canada, 22% of the population was born outside of the country. These are numbers we have never seen since. It was the greatest wave of immigration in Canadian history.
It was put into place by a government that was seeking to populate Canada. The population of Canada at the time was around 3 million people. It was growing too slowly to create a significant domestic market, to occupy the Western territories. So, the government took it upon itself to open the doors to immigration.
This is what produced the phenomenon in Montreal, because immigrants arrived in Montreal by boat… that is, immigrants came through the Port of Montreal.
Some also came through Halifax, making their way to Montreal, from where these immigrants would spread westward, to Toronto, to the new provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan.
A great number of them also stayed in Montreal. Because these immigrants arrived at the port, they made their way up Saint-Laurent Boulevard, which was the immigration space, the immigration corridor. It was the gateway for all linguistic and cultural diversity in Montreal. The surrounding neighbourhood became populated by people of Chinese, Eastern European Jewish, Italian, Slavic, and—later on—Portuguese, Greek, and West Indian origin.
Canada had a need for labour. Canada wanted to create a domestic market. Canada had industries such as, for example, the clothing, cigarette, and brewery industries, which needed immigrants to function—as there weren’t enough Canadians. And so, there was a real estate boom, an industrial boom, a demographic boom. This happened over a period of about fifteen years.
A global event took place that put an end to this great migration: the First World War. All energy went towards the war. The movement of populations stopped. Canada also automatically went to war. And at that point, the immigrant population stopped coming to Montreal.
Then, there was the great economic depression of the years 1929–39. This too was a major factor that put an end to immigration, as there were no more jobs. Without any jobs, there was no interest in getting immigrants to come here. So, you could say that from 1914 to 1948, a long time—a period of almost thirty years—all immigration stopped or went down to almost nothing. Montreal no longer received boatloads of immigrants every day as it had before.
After the Second World War, Montreal once again became a destination for immigrants. The climate had changed significantly. The city was a lot more important on an industrial, economic, and demographic level. And this time, immigrants were more widely distributed throughout the Montreal environment.
They also had a better standard of living. Working conditions, conditions in the factories, economic standards were greatly improved.
This was immigration that was much more individual, that was mostly made up of people originally from the Mediterranean. One need only think of, among others, the Italian community, which was predominant after the war. And these were immigrants who very quickly dispersed to the suburbs, who lived, for example, in the neighbourhood of Saint-Léonard in the east end of Montreal. Eastern European Jews also made their way here in more limited numbers.
Very rapidly, beginning in the 1960s, immigrants came by plane. This changed everything. They arrived in better economic conditions. They had better protected fundamental rights and their status in the city greatly improved. In fact, during the post-war period, Montreal became a major city of immigrants.
The entire municipality was marked by this movement. And it became not just a city with two main languages, it became a multilingual city.
Once again, the issue of migration has undergone another very profound transformation over the last twenty years or so. Today, most immigrants no longer come from Europe. They essentially come from Asia and Africa.
It’s the first time in the history of Montreal that we are seeing a migratory wave as large as this from Asia and Africa.
We also have a lot of people of non-Christian origin arriving in Montreal and this too is new—essentially people of Muslim background.
Two languages are currently dominant among immigrants: Arabic and Spanish. Spanish, essentially among South Americans, and Arabic among people from North Africa or the Middle East.
This immigration is now made up of people who are selected, who therefore are generally of a higher socio-economic level, more highly educated, who enter into higher levels of Montreal society, who often find work in technical or professional fields. This was absolutely not the case at the beginning of the last century, when most immigrants were manual labourers and people who were exploited in factories.
The context is very different today. This makes for a society in which labour shortages lead us to increasingly recruit people from outside the country.
We are living in a much more global world. Immigrating today has become a relatively commonplace phenomenon. A lot of international labour is mobile, moving from one country to another, facing very different conditions depending on the country, but essentially working in cutting-edge fields.
So, Montréal, which is a city that is seeking to position itself on the global stage, will certainly continue to depend on immigration, immigrants who will be increasingly educated, increasingly knowledgeable, and who will play a big role in the city’s social and political evolution.
Skip social share links