A Mixed Past: Canada and Refugees

Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.

Jewish women refugees aboard the M.S. St. Louis (May 1939).

Hello everyone! Thank you for all the well wishes in my going away post. I had the most wonderful time in both the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Now back to business——The Migrant Crisis (unsurprisingly) dominates European news channels. When I came home, I found that coverage of the crisis had picked up here while I was gone. If you pay attention to the rhetoric of those who are critical of the government’s response to the situation, you will notice that they often use Canadian history to further their argument. These historical citations are always mentioned in passing though and never really discussed. Now there are many, many examples of Canada being both welcoming and unwelcoming to refugees. After all, with a definition like this…

Refugee: A person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster.

…it should be no surprise that refugees have been coming to Canada for centuries. For the sake of brevity however, this post will focus on Canadian efforts from the Second World War onwards and look at three periods that critics reference with regards to today’s crisis.

Jewish Refugees During World War II

The M.S. St. Louis in Havana, Cuba in June 1939. [Source]

Whenever the topic of Canada and Jewish refugees during WW2 comes up, the M.S. St. Louis is usually mentioned. In 1939, 937 Jewish Germans boarded the ship in Hamburg, Germany bound for Havana, Cuba hoping to escape Nazi persecution. Just before departure, the Cuban government changed immigration laws and closed the loophole that many refugees had hope to use to gain entry to the country. As such, only 22 were allowed into Cuba. Afterwards, Captain Gustav Schroeder (a non-Jewish German) sailed up to Florida. The refugees did not have permission to land; to do so would have been illegal. The US Coast Guard prevented such a move and so they sailed up to Canada in desperation. Academics and clergy members urged Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and other government officials to grant the refugees asylum. Their pleas were ignored and at the Halifax Harbour the refugees were denied entry. Out of options, the St. Louis sailed to Belgium. Various European countries granted them asylum, but in the end 254 Jewish refugees died in concentration camps.

Not much changed over the course of the war. Our acceptance rate of Jewish refugees during WW2 was very low, especially in comparison to other countries.

Jewish Refugee Admission During WW2 by Country
United States 240,000
Britain 85,000
China 25,000
Argentina 25,000+
Brazil 25,000+
Canada < 5,000

So why was that? Aside from blatant anti-Semitism,* the truth was that the Canadian government had a long history of being hostile towards non Anglo-Saxon immigration. Despite this, prior to the Great Depression the number of  immigrants allowed into the country often surpassed 100,000. The economic downturn changed this though and from 1931 onward, the government began to clamp down and numbers sharply fell. They hit their lowest point in 1942, only 7,576 were allowed in. Also, it did not help that Canada did not have a refugee policy at the time, so refugees were grouped into our overall immigration laws. These laws were racist; based on ethnicity and culture, the government had the right to reject immigrants based on political beliefs, religion, and/or race. As such, prior to WW2’s end, unless you were rich and preferably Anglo-Saxon, good luck getting in.***

* In 1945, a senior Canadian government official was asked how many Jews would be allowed in Canada after the war. His response? “None is too many.” Most believe the official was Frederick Blair, the head of the government’s Immigration Branch.

Hungarian Refugees During the 1950s

Arrival of Hungarian refugees (1956). [Source]

Millions were displaced in Europe during the first two decades of the Cold War. Fleeing the Soviets, many set their sights across the Atlantic. Post-WW2 Canada had a booming economy and a desperate need for skilled labourers. As such the government was far more receptive to immigrants and refugees than in the years prior. From 1946 to 1962, Canada welcomed nearly a quarter of a million refugees. Aside from coming via relatives, church groups, or labour contracts, government sponsorship played a major role in these numbers. The biggest test for the newly refugee-friendly Canada occurred in 1957. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, public pressure on Louis St. Laurent’s government led to the creation of a free transport program. Over 200 chartered flights occurred and 37,000 Hungarians were admitted to Canada within a year.

The 1970s

Vietnamese “Boat People” Awaiting Rescue. [Source]

Vietnamese refugees carry children off the plane at Montreal’s Dorval Airport. Nov 26, 1978. [Source: John Goddard, The Canadian Press]

This was decade of dissidents coming from all over and is the source behind the mythology of Canada having a “long tradition” welcoming those seeking refuge. To name a few, you had American “draft dodgers” fleeing from serving in the Vietnam War. Thousands of Bengali Muslims came to escape the Bangladesh Liberation War. 7,000 Ugandan Asians came after being expelled from Uganda. Thousands from came Iran after the Iranian Revolution. Most substantially, the end of the Vietnam War and the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia resulted in 1.5 million refugees in South-East Asia. Dubbed the Vietnamese “Boat-People” crisis, media coverage of thousands of people fleeing on leaky, unsafe boats generated widespread sympathy towards their plight. By June 1979, the Canadian government pledged to resettle 50,000 of these refugees by the end of 1980. In addition, thousands of regular Canadians came forward and the new Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program was launched. Between 1978-1981, refugees made up 25% of all immigrants to Canada.

Supporters of President Allende are rounded up by Pinochet’s troops (1973). From 1973 to 1990, over 200,000 were exiled. [Source]

The 70s were a pretty good time to come here…unless you were a South American (namely Chilean) refugee. The fall of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile as a result of Augusto Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973, along with the rise of other right-winged dictators in South America created a wave of left-wing/Marxist political refugees. The government’s response was slow and reluctant. In the end, around 1,200 were welcomed to the country. Critics claim that the government dragged its heels with these refugees in particular due to ideological and geopolitical reasons. Namely, the government was anti-Marxist and there was a fear of negatively impacting trading relations; to accept refugees may alienate various South American countries along with the US who backed these newly right-winged governments.

Mixed reception for Chilean refugees. Toronto Star, Jan. 14, 1974. [Source]

Needless to say, Canada has a mixed past when it comes to refugees. These historical examples have certain parallels to today’s situation so it is easy to see why critics draw upon them so frequently.

I’m not too sure how the current crisis is going to play out. What do you think about our actions with regards to past humanitarian crises? How about our response to the current one? Are we doing enough? How should our government and others respond? What should the role of private citizens be in this? Love to hear your thoughts!


Bélanger, Claude. “Why did Canada Refuse to Admit Jewish Refugees in the 1930’s?” The Quebec History Encyclopedia, Department of History, Marianopolis College, 2006. Accessed from: http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/quebechistory/readings/CanadaandJewishRefugeesinthe1930s.html

“Brief history of Canada’s responses to refugees,” Canadian Council for Refugees. Accesed from: http://ccrweb.ca/sites/ccrweb.ca/files/static-files/canadarefugeeshistory.htm

“Canada: A History of Refuge,” Government of Canada. 2012. Accessed from: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/refugees/timeline.asp

Carlson, Kathryn Blaze, “‘None is too many’: Memorial for Jews turned away from Canada in 1939,” National Post. January 17, 2011. Accessed from: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/none-is-too-many-memorial-for-jews-turned-away-from-canada

“Jewish Immigration to Canada – A government’s position,” Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. (Numbers from Statistics Canada). Accessed from: http://www.mhmc.ca/media_library/files/50ca081151b8b.pdf

“What was the Coast Guard’s role in the SS St. Louis affair, often referred to as “The Voyage of the Damned”?” United States Coast Guard, U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 2014. Accessed from: http://www.uscg.mil/history/faqs/St_Louis.asp


One thought on “A Mixed Past: Canada and Refugees

  1. Matthew says:

    I didn’t realize we had such a sorted past with refugees. I was under the impression we always let them in. Not too happy with the current response but the economy isn’t so great so I’m not sure if we can handle the masses that are seeking asylum. Good post.


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