Why History and Language Matter in Migrant Inclusion: Policies Shaping Gendered Transnational Migration and Access to Linguistically Accessible Services for First Generation Korean-Canadian Immigrant Women

“There’s a tremendous gap between public opinion and public policy.” — Noam Chomsky

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The analysis on structural factors hindering inclusive access to effective mental health services for first generation Korean-Canadian immigrant mothers reveals a) the role of transnational family structure in increasing gendered burden and b) the issue of institutionalized inaccessibility of language-specific services. This article will be taking an interpretive approach to policy analysis, problematizing the aforementioned points and assessing how historical policies have constructed this identified problem. The purpose of this analysis is to formulate recommendations on how gender equity and language justice can be advanced to serve the mental well-being of Korean-Canadian immigrant mothers.

How Transnational Family Structures Have Been Normalized Through Canada’s Immigration Policies

The Korean kirogi gajok (“wild geese”) split family structure is reflective not only of family agency in leveraging transnational capital, but also of its continued production by Canada’s immigration policies. The foundations of the White settler colonial state have been built by creating transnational split families, permitting entry for only the labourer but not his family (Boyko, 2008).

Chinese Immigration Act, 1885

Chinese immigration certificates © Government of Canada/Library and Archives Canada/R1206–178-X-E.

Though Prime Minister John A. Macdonald signaled support for Chinese immigration in the early stages of the railway development, he yielded for discriminatory policies as the railway neared completion (Chan, 2016). The Royal Commission on Chinese Immigration was appointed in 1884 and reported that Chinese labour had significantly benefited the Canadian economy; thus, the commission called for a “restriction”, rather than an exclusionary ban, on Chinese immigration to Canada (Chan, 2016).

The Chinese Head Tax was then passed under the Chinese Immigration Act in 1885. Its selective additional tax on Chinese wives and children made evident the gender divide in “desirable” (source of labour or capital) and “undesirable” (cause for state expenditure) immigrants as deemed by the Canadian government. The result of this policy was an increase in split transnational families and its normalization as an economic strategy by the nation state (Boyko, 2008).

Gendered Structures of Education Migration

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The Chinese Head Tax is a representative example of how racial capitalism has been engendered throughout Canadian history. Since the Immigration Act, 1976, Canada’s immigration policies have reduced its explicit discrimination based on race or ethnicity but continue to perpetuate gendered migratory structures (Dirks, 2006). Fast forward to modern day, Canada’s immigration system grants education migrants with a student visa and requires that minors are accompanied by a parent (Government of Canada, 2021). Though these migrants often move forward with their application for permanent residence, they are initially ineligible for employment as a temporary visitor.

Therefore, in conforming to cultural gender roles and the normalized transnational family structure, the Korean mother accompanies her children in their immigration to Canada while the father remains employed in Korea. In this process, Canada accumulates capital through the migrant mother’s consumption in the education market and saves state expenditures on welfare programs that she is ineligible for under temporary visitor status. Through a capitalist lens, the Korean mother within a transnational split family is thus deemed as a “desirable” immigrant.

This split family structure has been sociopolitically normalized by Canada throughout history, as evidenced by its intentional construction of immigration policies. Such policies are often interpreted as macroeconomic strategies but rarely as pathways of marginalization and gender inequity that trickle down to impact immigrant families. These policies form family dynamics that harm not only the children and left-behind father, but especially the immigrant mother who faces intensified gendered burden as a single parent. When combined with ideological structures, the result is worsened mental health outcomes with an absence of help-seeking behaviours.

Creating Social Margins: The “Othering” of Racialized Immigrants Through Canada’s Language Policies

Prior to World War II, the Canadian government dismissed the value of cultural heterogeneity and considered ethnic diversity a threat to national cohesion. It was only after the influx of European immigrants post-World War II, however, that Canada began considering the status of “other” ethnic groups within the nation (Meyerhoff, 1994). As globalization accelerated and immigration to Canada increased in flow, discrimination based on race and ethnicity became less explicit. Rather, it became more implicitly articulated — now, through language.

Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, 1963

Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (courtesy Duncan Cameron / Library and Archives Canada / PA-037463)

As pressures increased from Quebecois nationalism, the role of language in politics became evident. The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism was appointed by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson with a mandate to explore issues related to the languages and cultures of the “two founding races” of Canada, the English and French (Laing & Cooper, 2019). This exclusionary mandate sparked objections from Canada’s largest ethno-cultural groups who disagreed with the commission’s premise of an officially bilingual and bicultural country (Laing & Cooper, 2019). With the expansion of the mandate to report on the cultural contributions of other ethnic groups, a report was published by the commission calling for an end to biculturalism as well as the integration, not assimilation, of ethnic groups into Canadian society.

However, the commission upheld the importance of official bilingualism and asserted that English and French must be recognized as Canada’s official languages to relieve linguistic tensions within the nation (Laing & Cooper, 2019). As such, the Official Languages Act, 1969 was passed to legally establish the requirement of all federal institutions to serve Canadians in either English or French (Laurendeau, 2006). This marked the institutionalization of bilingualism throughout Canadian government structures, later shaping (in)access to important resources for non-English and non-French ethnic groups.

Mounties at Montreal Grand Prix © Jdazuelos/Dreamstime

Canadian Multiculturalism Act, 1988

The shift in political discourse from assimilation of immigrants to integration led to the Canadian Multiculturalism Act (CMA) enacted by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This Act was the first one of its kind on a global scale in recognizing multiculturalism as a fundamental characteristic of national identity (Berry, 2020). Though it promoted “full and equitable participation of individuals and communities of all origins… [and] the elimination of any barrier to that participation”, the Act simultaneously called for the “strengthening [of] the status and use of the official languages of Canada” (Government of Canada, 1985).

Since its institution, the Act has been used as a blanket representation of Canada’s inclusiveness of cultural diversity. This policy has been leveraged by the Canadian government as a means to derail critiques on the inextricable roots in White supremacy of the racist settler colonial state. Canadian multiculturalism offers racialized immigrants with inclusion and access to capital only once they have assimilated and successfully molded themselves into its bilingual framework. Though the CMA superficially promotes integration and unity in diversity, its real function is to uphold White settler hegemony at the expense of immigrant exclusion and suffering.

Canada’s multiculturalism within a bilingual framework has shaped language as a proxy for race and established a cultural hierarchy, rather than a mosaic, that systemically marginalizes non-English and non-French immigrant settlers (Yeoman, 2015). By instituting an ostensibly progressive policy that vaguely promotes the preservation of ethnic cultures and languages, the Canadian government successfully removed this responsibility from federal institutions and relegated it to the private sphere (Vessey, 2013). The government’s repeated reinforcement of official bilingualism and its neoliberal agenda render many Korean-Canadian immigrant mothers both linguistically lost in navigating Canadian systems as well as the figure of blame for their unsuccessful assimilation.

The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism and the CMA both served to stabilize the coherent status of the entitled English- and French-speaking European settler populations and to solidify the “fragmented” status of the non-entitled ethnic groups (Vessey, 2013). The CMA is not simply a hollow policy — it is one that actively excludes racialized immigrant groups through its emptiness and superficiality.

Policy Recommendations to Advance Gender and Language Justice for Korean-Canadian Immigrant Mothers

Through political processes of normalizing transnational family structures and removing responsibility for cultural inclusion from the state, Canada has created an oppressive societal system in which Korean-Canadian immigrant mothers are stranded with multiple burdens. Upon immigration to Canada via a systemically imposed “splitting” of the family, Korean mothers are unable to seek efficient support in mental health care due to the linguistic inaccessibility of government resources and services. This linguistic injustice is thoroughly ingrained throughout the system via a century’s worth of policies, making it impossible for newly immigrated Korean mothers to receive adequate mental health services.

The following are a series of policy recommendations that are necessary in order to advance gender and language justice and in turn enhance equitable access to mental health services for first generation Korean immigrant mothers:

#1: Integrate gender mainstreaming in a cooperative partnership between federal, provincial, and municipal institutions specifically dedicated to mental health support for Asian immigrant mothers. The federal and provincial governments must recognize the gendered burden carried by this demographic and launch collaborations with municipal agencies on double-pronged approaches that address both 1) cultural, ideological, and religious obstacles to accessing mental health care, and 2) the provision of language- and culture-specific mental health services.

#2: Appoint a federal commission on language justice and the experiences of Asian-Canadian immigrants. This commission must be qualitatively driven, administered by culturally competent researchers, with interviews conducted and interpreted by native language speakers.

#3: Recognize and actively redress the emptiness of the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. The CMA is a tool for the silent perpetuation of systemic discrimination against first generation Asian-Canadian immigrants. The federal government must take accountability and redress the harm done by this policy. The Act must be amended to include a more robust commitment to genuine multiculturalism in accordance to the findings of the aforementioned commission.

#4: Launch federal and provincial funding for the translation of government resources on mental health services. The lack of accurately translated government resources on mental well-being is an act of withholding information that is critical to immigrant health. The federal government must provide funding for manual translation of all relevant websites and print material and ensure the distribution of these resources throughout settlement agencies.


Berry, D. (2020, March 25). Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Retrieved from April 9, 2021, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/canadian-multiculturalism-act

Boyko, J. (1998). Last steps to freedom: The evolution of Canadian racism. Victoria: J. Gordon Shillingford.

Canadian Multiculturalism Act, R.S.C., 1985, c. 24 (4th Supp). Retrieved from the Justice Laws website: https://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/C-18.7/

Chan, A. (2016, September 8). Chinese head tax in Canada. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/chinese-head-tax-in-canada

Dirks, G. E. (2006, February 7). Immigration Policy in Canada. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/immigration-policy

Government of Canada. (2021, March 16). I am an international student in Canada. How can I apply to become a permanent resident? Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://www.cic.gc.ca/english/helpcentre/answer.asp?qnum=514&top=15

Laing, G. & Cooper, C. (2019, July 24). Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. Retrieved April 9, 2021, from https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/royal-commission-on-bilingualism-and-biculturalism

Laurendeau, P. (2006, February 7). Official Languages Act (1969). Retrieved from April 9, 2021, from https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/official-languages-act-1969

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Meyerhoff, T. (1994). Multiculturalism and Language Rights in Canada: Problems and Prospects for Equality and Unity. American University International Law Review, 9(3).

Vessey, R. (2014). Eve Haque: Multiculturalism Within a Bilingual Framework: Language, Race, and Belonging in Canada. Language Policy, 13, 79–81. doi:10.1007/s10993–013–9279–6

Yeoman, E. (2015). Bilingual Battles and Belonging. Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, 32. doi:10.3138/topia.32.308