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Historicist: Citizenship and Character

Every Saturday at noon, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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Dutch immigrants at Union Station, September 18, 1948. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1257, Series 1057, Item 7581.


After the Second World War, there was a huge influx of immigrants from the Netherlands to Canada. Faced with the problem of overpopulation and rebuilding a war-ravaged country and economy, the Netherlands was eager to encourage emigration. Canada grudgingly looked to reopen immigration in the late 1940s after the hiatus of the Great Depression and the war, and the immigration policy remained highly selective until the late 1960s. But the country favoured and actively courted Northern Europeans, such as the Dutch, along with the British and Americans. When economic factors slowed Dutch emigration, the Canadian federal government stepped in to assist financially to maintain the flow of immigrants.
From 2,365 in 1947, the number of Dutch newcomers arriving annually was 20,617 by 1954 according to figures in William Petersen’s Planned Migration: The Social Determinants of the Dutch-Canadian Movement (University of California Press, 1955). The numbers continued to progressively increase until 1961. With the majority settling in Ontario, tens of thousands of Dutch newcomers followed the familiar immigrant path of landing in Halifax and Quebec, then arriving by train to Toronto’s Union Station.
Among those arriving in the mid-1950s was the family of Ernest and Cornelia Bergsma, from a suburb of Rotterdam. When, nearly a decade later, the Bergsmas applied for citizenship, they unwittingly became the centre of a nationwide debate that challenged who could or couldn’t become a Canadian.


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Globe and Mail, March 19, 1965.

When Ernest and Cornelia Bergsma arrived at the Haldimand County Court in Cayuga for their April 3, 1963, citizenship hearing, they anticipated no problems with their application for citizenship. As a steelworker in his native Rotterdam, Ernest’s immigration addressed a labour shortage in Canada and the 43-year-old was now employed at Stelco in Hamilton. The couple had settled in Caledonia with their three children and had a fourth born in Canada. The Toronto Star later characterized Ernest as “a gentle, obviously decent and warm-hearted human being.”
Judge Wilfred W. Leach presided over the hearing. “He asked us where we came from and how long we had been here and all that kind of stuff,” Ernest later recalled. “He asked why we came to Canada and what kind of paper I read and who was the Premier of Ontario.”
Then Leach asked what church they attended.
“None,” Ernest replied.
Didn’t the Bergsmas believe in God, the dumbfounded judge asked.
Ernest paused to consider his answer and then replied, “No.”
“Do you know that this is a Christian country?” Leach replied, according to a court transcript quoted in the press. “You must believe in something. The oath (of allegiance) doesn’t mean anything if you don’t believe in God…The things we believe in, in this country, stand for Christian values and the teachings of Jesus Christ.”
He added: “Not everybody follows this, but that is what we try to attain in this country, the Christian way of life. I feel you must have some kind of faith, but you don’t seem to believe in anything from what I can gather… As I understand from your evidence, you have no religion at all.”
The judge denied the Bergsmas’ application because, in Leach’s opinion, under Section 10 of the Canadian Citizenship Act, the Bergsmas were not of good character—a judgment he based on their professed atheism. Furthermore, the judge felt they could not comply with the oath of allegiance, which read: “I — swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, her Heirs and Successors, according to the law, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen so help me God.” In Leach’s understanding, the governing legislation did not provide an alternate affirmation omitting the reference to God.
Disappointed by the decision, Bergsma wrote a letter to the Citizenship and Immigration Department, seeking an appeal. But for some reason, the appeal was referred to Leach who, in September 1964, upheld his previous decision. For a second time the Bergsmas were rejected for citizenship and, in accordance with existing regulations, department administrators informed them that they could reapply for citizenship in two years.

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Toronto Star, April 3, 1965.

Dr. William Howe, the Member of Parliament for Hamilton South, took an interest in the case and asked about it during question period on September 17, 1964. With regards to Section 10, Justice Minister Guy Favreau responded: “The fact that a person professes not to be a follower of one given religion or another, or any religion, ought not to be taken as an indication that the person is not a person of good character.” Favreau added that he thought applicants for citizenship should be allowed to make an affirmation without reference to God, but that there could be a problem with the legislation as written.
Indeed, several citizenship judges had already been permitting that. Hans Tolle, a 19-year-old from Kitchener who was worried that his atheism would affect his April 1965 citizenship hearing, was formally advised by a court clerk to simply omit the relevant words when reciting his oath. John Robert Nicholson, appointed Citizenship and Immigration Minister in February 1965, admitted that the Bergsmas had unfortunately encountered a very technically minded judge.
In the wake of the decision, the grade 13 classmates of Peter Bergsma planned to write a letter to the government to vouch for the family’s good character. Neighbours stood by the Caledonia family as well. In the Globe and Mail of October 8, 1964, the registrar of citizenship, K.C. Foster, reported that the department had received large volumes of mail on the matter, with three-quarters expressing support for the Bergsmas. The Canadian Civil Liberties Association threw its support behind the cause. The Bergsmas retained Toronto lawyer Ian G. Scott to file an appeal.
The appeal was heard at Osgoode Hall on March 17, 1965, by Justice Stanley Nelson Schatz, a seven-year veteran of the Supreme Court of Ontario. Schatz was sympathetic to the Bergsmas but noted that his review of the lower court decision was limited to consideration of whether that court had acted within its jurisdiction and had applied the law as it was written. In a 41-page judgment, Schatz upheld Leach’s ruling.

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Globe and Mail, March 18, 1965.

Although Schatz acknowledged that the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights protected freedom of religion, his interpretation—which was common for its time—was that the Bill of Rights could not override the Citizenship Act and its regulations. Until the Citizenship Act was amended through legislation, Schatz said, prospective citizens would have to state the oath as written in the Act.
Shocked by the decision, Ernest Bergsma told reporters: “I thought the only concern for a good citizen was to obey the laws of the country. I would not think such personal beliefs make any difference to citizenship. I didn’t expect such a thing, I really didn’t.” He speculated that the family might have to relocate to the U.S.
Nicholson was a keen observer of the case, and obtained a copy of Schatz’s ruling so his department determine if there were legal grounds for appeal. The Citizen and Immigration minister had already promised Cornelia Bergsma that the government would cover the costs to appeal it as far as the Supreme Court of Canada.
Although NDP MP Harold Winch and others were adamant that Parliament should pass special legislation to address the case, the Lester B. Pearson administration was hesitant to pass laws to address individual cases. Making the government’s strategy plain, the white-haired Nicholson questioned the soundness of the judgments and their judicial interpretation of the Act. He felt that subsequent appeals would settle the legal question. Only if the court of last resort confirmed the decisions were correct and the law was faulty would the legislation be altered.
The press was supportive of Nicholson’s strategy. “This is also a welcome decision,” the Toronto Star wrote in a March 31, 1965, editorial. “Canada has long been committed to the principle of religious freedom. But freedom of religion must include the freedom to have no religion. Any statute which imposes a legal penalty or disability on anyone because of his religious beliefs or lack of them is contrary to the fundamental principles of a free state and must be repealed.”
And, thus, the Bergsmas were unwillingly cast into the lead role in a contentious debate about religion’s place in a modern Canada. This debate was fuelled by the publication of The Comfortable Pew (McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1965), the controversial book written by Pierre Berton at the invitation of the Anglican Church. In the book—which, with 175,000 copies sold in Canada, was the best-selling work of Berton’s career—the crusading journalist was critical of “[t]he power of the religious establishment in Canada and the necessity of paying lip service to conventional beliefs.” Among a broad assortment of other topics, he wrote of respectable citizens who don’t “dare not go to church because it is socially unacceptable to be a public agnostic” and how the participation of religious organizations in overseas immigrant recruitment forced many immigrants to hypocritically “pretend to a religious faith in order to gain a practical end.”
So, in 1965, Canadians were primed for a religious debate. The Bergsmas were deluged with letters from across the country. The vast majority pledged support, financial or moral, for their appeal. Some, from religious correspondents, earnestly tried to convert them with verses from the gospel. Of the few that spouted religiously tinted abuse or conflated the Dutch couple with godless communists, Ernest soberly noted to one reporter: “I can’t understand why religious people are afraid to sign their names.”

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Toronto Star, December 10, 1964.

The Bergsmas enjoyed the public support of the majority of the country’s religious community—lay people, ministers, and institutions alike. A high-level member of the United Church of Canada, Reverend J.R. Hord, called on the government to change the law. Freedom of religion, Hord told the Star on April 3, 1965, includes freedom from religion.
At the Baptist Convention of Ontario and Quebec, being held in London in June 1965, delegates commended the Bergsmas for sticking to their convictions, and “passed a resolution opposing religious tests as a prerequisite to civil liberties,” according to a Globe and Mail report.
Among the established churches, only the Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada publicly opposed granting citizenship to the Bergsmas and other atheists. “I think that native-born Canadians—regardless of religion—should have full equality in civil rights,” a representative, Reverend Earl Kulbeck, argued. “But in the case of immigrants I feel that the nation has a right to lay down the rules by which they can receive citizenship.” He added: “In a professedly Christian country the recognition of God should be part of receiving citizenship.”
On the letters-of-the-editor pages, all manner of opinions—some fuming, some thoughtful—were expressed. “The Ontario Supreme Court’s denial of citizenship to atheists is indeed a remarkable decision,” Karl Schuelz complained in the Globe and Mail on March 20, 1965. “It puts an end to any meaning of the Bill of Rights, the Ontario Human Rights Code or the work of such organizations as the Ontario Human Rights Commission. It implies that the atheist is dishonest, unkind and not fit to live in this society which cherishes Christian belief and the rights and freedom of the individual.”
The public and the press frequently wondered whether the Bergsmas could have avoided all the trouble by simply telling a white lie about their religious beliefs. “I would rather not be a Canadian than be a lying Canadian,” Ernest Bergsma bristled when questioned by a Globe and Mail reporter on September 18, 1964. “I cannot tell a lie and will not tell a lie just to become a Canadian citizen. The country has been good to me and my family and I feel I owe it to Canada to become a citizen.”
In the Globe and Mail of March 24, 1965, Charles Healy of the University of Toronto’s Philosophy Department praised this conscientious attitude: “Mr. and Mrs. Bergsma should be aware that there are many Canadians, Christian and agnostic, who prefer their honest agnosticism to the pietistic self-righteousness that denies them full membership in our national community.” By June 1965, a Gallup Poll found that 66 per cent of Canadians polled said atheism should not be a bar to citizenship.
In an extended interview with the Star, Ernest Bergsma noted that he’d been raised in the Dutch Reformed Church, attending Sunday school as a boy. But he’d abandoned religion when he came of age. “I believe in nature,” he said by way of explaining his beliefs, “but I don’t believe in the God that people fall on their knees and pray to. Why should I? I see no evidence that their praying does any good. It doesn’t seem to make them any better than those who don’t pray. And during the war, I saw a lot of people pray but God didn’t stop the bombs from dropping on them all the same.”
Although he stated that he was not anti-church, Bergsma explained: “I think the churches do harm as well as good. They instill fear in people. Look at the misery that’s caused by the fuss over birth control and divorce. The church is responsible for that. I know a man whose wife left him years ago but he can’t get a divorce and remarry because he’s a Roman Catholic. So he runs around with women. That man could be living a real good, human life with a family if it weren’t for his church.”

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Toronto Star, July 23, 1965.

On July 22, 1965, in a unanimous decision by Chief Justice Dana Porter and justices Colin Gibson and F.G. McKay the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that “lack of religious belief alone is not a ground upon which a citizenship court should decide against an application for citizenship.”
Gibson further stated that while the Bergsmas “entertained certain honest convictions and intellectual doubts which persuaded them to reject the idea of the existence of a Supreme Being,” they could replace the oath with an affirmation of allegiance in terms determined by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.
From his home in Caledonia, Bergsma told the Star: “I am very happy that I am now a Canadian citizen. My wife is very happy also. This means that our children can now become Canadians.”
On October 4, 1965, the Dutch couple and their eldest son Peter appeared in a citizenship hearing in Judge Leach’s chambers at the courthouse in Cayuga. The other children were at school but would attend a similar ceremony within weeks. When called upon by Leach, they gave an affirmation rather than an oath.
After the ceremony, Ernest quietly took Leach aside and asked whether the ordeal had been in any way personal. The judge replied that he’d handled it according to his interpretation of the law, Ernest later recalled to the press. As the two shook hands, Leach asked if there were any hard feelings. Ernest added, “I don’t have any hard feelings. The law is the law and he had to do what the law told him.”
The steelworker had a shift that evening but said the family planned a small party to celebrate on the weekend. Ernest summed up what his ordeal had accomplished. In the Globe and Mail on October 5, 1965, he said, “Now at least you don’t have to lie any more and that is good. After all a citizenship is not much good is it if you have to lie for it.” In Ottawa, Nicholson’s staff—informed in part by the experience of the Bergsmas—was already at work on a white paper that would completely overhaul immigration policy when introduced in 1966.
Other sources consulted: Pierre Berton, My Times: Living with History: 1947-1995 (Doubleday Canada Limited, 1995); A.B. McKillop, Pierre Berton: A Biography (McClelland & Stewart, 2008); Harold Troper, “Becoming an Immigrant: A History of Immigration into Toronto since the Second World War,” in Paul Anisef and Michael Lanphier, eds., The World in a City (University of Toronto Press, 2003); as well as clippings from the Globe and Mail of September 21 & 29, October 8, 1964; March 18, 19, 20, 24 & 31, June 11, August 20, October 5, 1965; and June 1, 1967; and the Toronto Star of September 18, December 10, 1964; March 19, 23 & 31, April 2 & 3, May 8 & 11, June 7 & 21, and July 23, 27 & 31, 1965.

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