A nation of immigrants and refugees
by Jon Malek
During the campaign, the Liberal Party promised that they would open Canada’s doors to 25,000 Syrian refugees displaced by the conflict raging in Iraq and Syria. The Conservative government, campaigning for a fourth term in office, had committed to bring 11,300 by 2018 (they promised an additional 10,000 during the campaign), although by September 2015 they had only brought in around 2,500. With the growing refugee crisis in the Middle East and in Europe, spurred by civil war in Syria, the spread of ISIS, and as a result of political upheaval resulting from the so-called “Arab Spring,” many nations have been reacting differently. Some, like Turkey, Italy, and Germany have been generous in their humanitarian response to these refugees, while other countries have closed their borders and even arrested those trying to enter their borders in search of asylum. While Canada has not taken such a route, neither has it been liberal in its acceptance of refugees. With the new Liberal government in Ottawa, this will hopefully change (and at this time, it seems as if it will) because Canada, historically, has not been a country to ignore people in need. Indeed, the past few years has seen a re-branding of Canada from an open, humanitarian nation to one driven by (trumped up) security fears and xenophobia to populations coming from the Middle East and North Africa.
Canada has a long history of accepting refugees and asylum seekers, such as British North American Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution in the 1770s. But it also has a dark past of rejecting refugees with tragic consequences. In the spring of 1939, the S.S. St. Louis, carrying 936 passengers (930 of them Jewish refugees) was denied docking rights at a Canadian port. Canada at this time had an unfortunate anti-Semitic attitude, with members of Parliament going so far as to say, on record, that Canada had no place for European Jews. This ship, the St. Louis, began what has been called its “voyage of the damned” in May of 1939 from Europe seeking refuge from Hitler’s Germany. Travelling first to Cuba, they were denied entry and continued on to United States where a coast guard shift was dispatched to escort the refugees out of American waters. As the ship approached Canada, a large group of prominent Torontonians urged the government under Prime Minister Mackenzie King to give sanctuary to the St. Louis. The government, however, refused and denied entry to the refugees. Defeated and with nowhere else to go, the ship had to return to Germany. While their exact fate is not known, one author states that they returned to “where almost certain death awaited the majority of her passengers.”
The decision to deny the S.S. St. Louis, and many other Jewish asylum seekers, during the period of World War II was largely due to Mackenzie King’s understanding of public opinion being against such actions. However, these responses have not come to characterize Canada’s responses. During the 1970s, Canada on a number of occasions rose and opened its doors to refugees. In 1972, the Ugandan President Idi Amin declared that all South Asians living in Uganda were to be expelled. Canada quickly responded to this crisis and established an office in Kampala to process refugees as quickly and efficiently as possible. By the end of 1973, more than 7,000 Ugandan Asians were brought into Canada. Following quickly on the heels of the Ugandan Asian crisis, the government in Chile was overthrown in 1973; although Canada responded, it did not bring the same energy as with the Ugandan Asians. Nevertheless, around 1,188 Chilean refugees had arrived by the beginning of 1975. The decade ended with the mass upheaval of around 1.5 million Southeast Asians, known in Canada as the “boat people.” Canada pledged to accept 50,000 refugees initially, but this was increased following public pressure.
Until the last few years, Canada had a global reputation of being a peacekeeping nation willing to open its doors to those in danger. While Canada has always retained strict conditions on how an asylum seeker is allowed to enter the country, its conditions have become increasingly difficult and the last government often treated refugees not as genuine asylum seekers, but instead as “queue jumpers,” and possible security threats. Indeed, some even raised the fear that Syrian refugees are hiding ISIS militants. To date I’ve seen no actual evidence for this. Despite this, there are numerous screening protocols to prevent such a thing. However, with a new government comes a hope for change. This is not just a question of refugee policy, but a question of what do we want Canada to be, and how do we want Canada to be seen? As citizens and residents in this country, it is up to the public to hold government accountable to this vision. It is almost cliché to state Canada is a nation of immigrants, but we should be more inclusive in our definition of Canadian identity as also including Canada, the nation of refuge.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.