19 July 2015

British Immigrants Undercover

Dr Murray Watson, co-author of the recently released book Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, has written the following guest blog post:


In many parts of the world border security and immigration controls have been visibly and unobtrusively tightened as a result of fears of increased terrorist threats. Politicians of many political persuasions want to appear to be tough - the large and unwelcoming “UK Border” signs at air and sea ports are a distinctly twenty-first century phenomenon. But, is this something new?

In earlier years, the Cold War and the threat of Armageddon arguably created more fear for governments and citizens than modern-day terrorism. How did these fears affect immigrants? Nowhere was the communist threat felt more deeply than in North America. The position of the USA and McCarthyism has been well documented but a new study, Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, revealed that Canadian immigration officials and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, (RCMP), were also active in screening emigrants from the UK.

In 1955 Gordon Jones, a teacher from London, and his wife Sue applied to emigrate to Canada. Sue was informed by her neighbour that they had been visited by the RCMP who asked if the Joneses read the Socialist Worker. The answer was “yes” but in this case landed immigrant status was granted

John King was another immigrant who attracted the attention of the Canadian security services. When King was an undergraduate at Cambridge University he became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. With his background in the development of radar during the war, he was offered a position by the Patent Commissioner in Ottawa. King recalled being interrogated by a colonel in the Defence Research Board. King admitted being a member of the Communist Party but only when he was a student. The outcome was that King received a letter saying he “was ineligible for the job.”

Screening of immigrants was common practice. The first stage was by officials at one of the Canadian immigration offices in the UK. These officials were oftentimes supported by UK-based RCMP officers, who conducted their own investigations, sometimes with the assistance of the police and intelligence services. The second screening occurred at the port of entry and a third when landed immigrants applied for Canadian citizenship.

Once settled in Canada, a few immigrants also came to the attention of the RCMP but for completely different reasons. Margaret Baldwin, who left England in 1966, recalled a day when “two huge” RCMP officers knocked on her door in the 1970s. It transpired that the RCMP had been following Margaret and her husband ever since they had met a Soviet diplomat, Vladimir Oshkaderov, and his wife, Olga, at a social function in Montreal. The Baldwins were invited to “spy” on the Oshkaderovs and when they refused the RCMP threatened to make life difficult for their children when they applied for jobs. The Oshkaderovs were later expelled as spies. According to another English-born immigrant, Noel Taylor who became editor of the Ottawa Citizen, it was not uncommon, though rare, for similar approaches to be made to immigrants.

Scrutinizing immigrants is not a new phenomena. It is always there especially when there are perceived threats to a host country’s security.

Immigrant families quoted in this blog have been given pseudonyms.


Dr Murray Watson is an honorary research fellow in the History Department at the University of Dundee and co-author of Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945, (University of Manitoba Press, 2015), and author of Being English in Scotland, (Edinburgh University Press, 2003). His most recent interest is the Migration Museum Project at http://migrationmuseum.org/

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