Timeline: Labour migration agreement

In 1953-61, the governments of Portugal and Canada established a “bulk order” labour migration agreement by which the latter requested 6.875 male workers from the mainland, Azores, and Madeira. Known in the Portuguese-Canadian community as the “pioneers,” the majority (88%) of these migrant worker were recruited as “unskilled” farmhands and railway track workers. A significant minority (12%) were recruited as skilled workers in various occupations. While only 800 skilled workers were included in these bulk orders, many of the “unskilled workers” were in fact tradesmen, merchants, and public workers who passed as common labourers to qualify. A large number broke with their one-year contracts after experiencing isolation, sub-standard housing and food, discrimination, and exploitation at the hands of Canadian employers – especially farmers – and went looking for better living and working conditions in the cities.

As the number of Portuguese workers grew in Canada, it became easier and quicker for new arrivals to skip their contracts and seek better jobs elsewhere, assisted by their fellow Portuguese, who circulated information about opportunities, travelled, and bunked together. This official migration movement introduced a critical mass of Portuguese people in Canada who later developed large autonomous migration chains through family sponsorship and clandestine channels.

  • June 2, 1952
    After multiple efforts by the Canadian Consul General in Lisbon, Lester Glass, the governments of Portugal and Canada agreed a “bulk order” labour migration agreement. In 1952, Portugal sent a pilot group of thirty-five male skilled workers from the mainland, who arrived in Halifax on June 2. This experiment was considered a success given the ease with which these migrant workers found employment and adapted to Canada. This convince both nations to initiate a larger migration movement the following year.

    António Viola (third from the left), who was part of the 1952 pilot group, celebrates Christmas’ Eve with fellow Portuguese and Italian immigrants at a bar in Montreal. December 24, 1952. ASC29605, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, York University Libraries.
  • May 13, 1953
    Sixty-nine Portuguese migrant workers arrived on Pier 21 in Halifax aboard the steamship Saturnia. This was the first group of over 6,800 male workers who arrived in Canada as part of the “bulk order” labour migration agreement between the governments of Portugal and Canada.

    First group of Portuguese “bulk order” migrant workers arriving in Halifax aboard the Saturnia on May 13, 1953.
  • 1961
    Following a period of high unemployment and growing opposition among Anglo-Canadians to the importing of “unskilled” immigrant workers from Southern Europe, the Canadian government ended the labour migration agreement with Portugal.