Friday, January 10, 2020

Response: Levine on refugee history

Allan Levine responds to my post from yesterday:

Boat people at sea, 1979
I would greatly qualify your opening comments in your recent post “Canada’s history of welcoming refugees.” Until about the 1950s, and then in the 1970s, Canada was not exactly a haven for refugees. Most were unwanted. The list goes back to pre-Confederation with victims of the Irish Famine, followed by among others: Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the early 1880s; the Komagata Maru incident of 1914; German-Jewish refugees in the 1930s trying desperately to escape Nazi Germany, only to be confronted by the “none is too many” policy promoted by Frederick Blair who in 1936 became the director of the immigration branch. (Canada did not then have a refugee policy.) Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King followed Blair’s lead mainly because it was politically expedient to do so (there were those seats in Quebec to consider). And, after the Second World War, King and his officials made it very difficult for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust to come to Canada. As he articulated in a May 1947 speech, Canada’s post-war immigration policy was aimed at preserving the “fundamental composition of the Canadian population”—that is, white, Christian, Western European. “I wish to make it quite clear,” King declared, “that Canada is perfectly within her rights in selecting the persons whom we regard as desirable future citizens. It is not a ‘fundamental human right’ of any alien to enter Canada. It is a privilege.” That policy applied to refugees as well.

Here’s an interesting story passed on to me by Irving Abella, co-author with Harold Troper of the ground-breaking 1982 book, None is Too Many. In 1979, the two had published an article in the Canadian Historical Review based on their research for the book. They sent the article to Ron Atkey, the immigration minister in the newly elected government of Joe Clark. It came with a cautionary note: “We hope Canada will not be found wanting in this refugee crisis the way it was in the last.” At the time, Atkey was trying to figure out a proper response to the emergency precipitated by the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing from North Vietnamese Communist rule. Canada had taken in only about 6,000 of an estimated 130,000 refugees. Atkey’s deputy minister, John Manion, read Abella and Troper’s article about Mackenzie King’s closed-door policy and passed it on to the minister with a warning: “This should not be you.” Atkey spoke to Clark about it, who agreed to a dramatic shift in the government’s position. Working with a large network of volunteers, the Conservatives opened Canada’s doors wide enough for more than 50,000 refugees to come to the country. But that was in in 1979.
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