Immigration, Legislation and Disability


A CCD Précis of  None is Still Too Many: An Historical Exploration of Canadian Immigration Legislation As It Pertains to People with Disabilities

While trumpeting the values of diversity, Canada’s current immigration practices exclude immigrants with disabilities who are deemed likely to place an “excessive demand” on health and social services. The ethics of these practices are challenged by Dr. Roy Hanes, Associate Professor of Social Work at Carleton University and a member of the Council of Canadians with Disabilities (CCD) Social Policy Committee, in a paper titled “None is Still Too Many: An Historical Exploration of Canadian Immigration Legislation As It Pertains to People with Disabilities.”

The paper outlines the discriminatory trajectory of Canada’s policy on immigrants with disabilities from 1869 up until the 2001 passage of the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act. Dr. Hanes’ article is a welcome contribution to disability studies scholarship on Canadian immigration practices, because it has as its starting point a human rights and disability studies analysis and provides a critique of public policy that people with disabilities can use in their political work. Since the early 1980s, CCD has been pressing for reforms to eliminate policies that discriminate against people with disabilities seeking to immigrate to Canada. None is Still Too Many presents a useful line of argument for Canadians who want their country to treat immigrants with disabilities fairly. The paper encourages readers to turn their minds to what is ethical decision-making and policy development. All of us may want to ask our Member of Parliament: Is it ethical to exclude immigrants just because they have a disability and may, in the future, use health and social services at a rate higher than people without disabilities?
“None is Still Too Many”
Former Deputy Minister of Immigration Frederick Blair allegedly said, “None is too many” when asked how many Jews, who were seeking to flee the rise of Nazism in Europe, would be allowed into Canada. It is this comment that inspired the title for the article under discussion; however, Dr. Hanes has had to add the small but very important word “Still” to his title, because, as he demonstrates in his article, while Canada has addressed racist and other biases in its immigration law (for example, the 1947 Act Respecting Citizenship, Nationality, Naturalization and the Status of Aliens repealed the Chinese Immigration Act of 1928, which discriminated against Chinese immigrants), it has not eliminated ableist bias.
Barriers Are Increasing, Not Lessening 
As is explained in “None is Still Too Many,” it was easier for immigrants with disabilities to move to Canada under the country’s first immigration act, the Act Respecting Immigrants and Immigration (1869), than it is under the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Canada’s first immigration laws sought to prevent the immigration of people with disabilities when it was assumed there would be a need for support from the community. This concern with social burden has persisted in Canadian immigration law for the past 140 years; however, with the early laws, if an individual with a disability had family support or they could earn their own living, then they would likely be admitted to Canada.
 It was with the 1910 Act Respecting Immigration, which included the concept of “Prohibited Classes,” that Canada clearly articulated that there were groups not wanted in Canada—and people with disabilities were captured in that net. Nevertheless, Canada continued to allow the immigration of people with disabilities who could either support themselves or would be supported by their families. By the 1976 Immigration Act, Canada had developed the concept of excessive demand, which served to exclude potential immigrants perceived to be robust consumers of health and social services.
Canada’s current law, the 2001 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, left intact biases against immigrants with disabilities. As Dr. Hanes observes, the 2001 Act intensified restrictions against people with disabilities by removing discretionary powers from immigration officials that heretofore had allowed them to admit applicants with disabilities. In effect, the reforms of 2001 made people with disabilities worse off. While Canada’s immigration system was becoming more lenient to other groups, it became more restrictive toward immigrants with disabilities. Dr. Hanes explains that “…there is evidence to suggest that, as far as immigration legislation is concerned, ‘ableism’ does not have the same credibility as other forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, or homophobia.”
As Dr. Hanes points out, under the current system there are families refused by Citizenship and Immigration Canada even though they are prepared to provide for all the needs of their children with disabilities. A case in point is what happened to the Chapmans, a British family who wanted to immigrate to Canada and start a business in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Their plans were thwarted when Immigration Canada would not accept them because their daughter has a disability.
The Assumptions Behind Canada’s Immigration Practices 
By reviewing the historical record, Dr. Hanes has determined that Canada’s immigration policies have consistently sought to prevent the immigration of people with disabilities, who are perceived to be over-users of social resources. This bias is rooted in “the age-old concerns pertaining to social dependence as well as age-old stigmatization of people with disabilities as non-contributing citizens.” The paper explains that Canada’s immigration system has been dominated by a negative approach to disability: “The long-held concern of social dependence remained as a major obstacle for people with disabilities and it appears that people with disabilities were continuously evaluated for what they might not be able to do and not what they could do. In this regard, immigration legislation was based on economic ‘utilitarianism’ and people with disabilities ranked very low when considering their abilities in terms of economic productivity.”
What About Fairness, Human Rights and Equality? 
As Dr. Hanes points out, lawmakers have recognized that discriminatory immigration practices are unjust and unethical when applied to racialized people, women, and gays and lesbians. Since the ’80s, CCD and other disability groups have been seeking to help legislators connect the dots and come to the same conclusion about the immigration of people with disabilities. In his article, Dr. Hanes provides a series of ethical questions that will help Canadians gain a clearer perspective on what type of immigration system we want to support.
Some Ethical Questions 
Dr. Hanes poses the following questions about Canada’s immigration policy:
  • Is it ethical to deny citizenship to people with disabilities on policies that were created over 140 years ago?
  • Is it ethical to institute human rights reforms to immigration legislation yet leave people with disabilities uncovered?
  • Is it ethical for policy-makers to create legislation that puts undue hardship on families and loved ones?
  • Is it ethical to make decisions about the value of individuals based solely on their level of impairment?
  • Is it ethical to maintain legislation that perpetuates stereotypes and fails to recognize the value of all people?
If you, like CCD, answer “no” to these questions, then you may want to share your concerns about the unfairness of Canada’s immigration system with your Member of Parliament and encourage him/her to work for a system that does not deny immigrants with disabilities the opportunity to come to Canada.
Dr. Hanes’ paper None is Still Too Many is an important contribution to knowledge about immigration and disability policy. To read the full paper, go to


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