Monday, June 14, 2010

Lillian Emigrates

In our opera Lillian Alling, the title character is a poor Russian immigrant who lands in New York City in the early 1920's. Like today, an immigrant in the 1920's faced many challenges, not the least of which was getting in the country in the first place.

What kind of Canada would an immigrant like Lillian Alling have encountered? In the 1920’s the official policy was to accept those most like the English, with less acceptance the further one was from the WASP profile. At the bottom of the list were Jews and those who came to Canada “from the Orient.” Source

The US had a similar racial preference for those of Nordic or English heritage, as well as restricting emigration to 2% of the population of the originating country which currently resided in the US, This significant drop in allowable emigration was the result of changing law in the 1920’s in response to growing concerns about foreign-born workers undercutting wages and raising unemployment amongst native-born workers. By 1925 the US showed a net loss of foreign-born workers. As in Canada, those of Chinese and Japanese heritage were at the bottom of the list of desired immigrants. Source

As a Russian speaker, Lillian would have been far down on the list. While our opera is not specific as to her religion, some have inferred that she is also Jewish, which would have put her even further down the list of desirable immigrants. Between 1900 and 1920, less than 3% of immigrants to Canada were Russian, and only 2%were Jewish.

A blog such as this cannot begin to address the complexity of immigration activities and legislation during this period, nor can it begin to address the varied levels of acceptance that immigrants would find in the US or Canada at the time. Then, as now, immigration was a “hot button” political topic, and even the slightest review of the arguments for/against immigration reform reveals a striking similarity to the opinions expressed today.

A very interesting timeline related to events surrounding Canadian immigration can be found at the Canadian Council for Refugees website.

Another great resource to show what Lillian might have faced getting into the US in the 1920's can be found here: Source

On a final note, it is interesting that Lillian Alling would have been one of the “first wave” Russian immigrants to land on the shores of North America, a wave that brought one George Ignatieff to Canada.

images by G W Peters, source