She had no family in Canada, just a few friends from Kerala already working here as nurses. “When they came to pick us up, I looked out the window and I asked, ‘What happened to all the leaves? All the trees have no leaves!’ ” It was the first moment of culture shock for a bold young woman who’d left everything she knew behind for a new life in Edmonton. Thomas was a pioneer, one of the first in a new wave of immigrants who arrived in Alberta in the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to dramatic changes in Canadian immigration policy. Fifty years ago, in 1967, Canada became the first country in the world to adopt a “points” system for immigrants. Previous immigration policy had given preference to immigrants from the United Kingdom, western Europe and other majority-white countries such as the United States, Australia and New Zealand. But under new regulations brought in by the Pearson government during Canada’s centennial year, Canadian immigration offices were no longer supposed to discriminate on the basis of race. The new policy assigned “points” to people, based on things like language fluency, education and job skills. It also made it easier for people already here to sponsor relatives from abroad. The new 1967 immigration rules changed the face of Canada — metaphorically and literally. Thousands of new skilled immigrants, primarily, though not exclusively, from Commonwealth countries such as India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Jamaica, Trinidad, Ghana and Nigeria, stepped through the door as it opened. In so doing, they forever changed the definition of what it meant to be Canadian, setting the stage for a country that embraced multiculturalism — the country we celebrate this July 1 as we mark our sesquicentennial. Before 1970, according to Statistics Canada data compiled by University of Toronto sociologist Monica Boyd, only nine per cent of immigrants to Canada were members of visible minorities. At that point, 23 per cent of immigrants came from the United Kingdom, 59 per cent came from other parts of Europe and only six per cent came from Asia.
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