The challenge facing the global community is greater than ever. According to the UN Refugee Agency, 65.3 million people were forced from their homes in 2015 by violence and persecution - the highest number in recorded history. Sadly, this number will continue to rise.
Although the magnitude of the current refugee crisis is greater than anything we have ever seen, we look to history to understand what these refugees might be experiencing.
Over seventy years ago, the Holocaust and the devastation of the World War II created thousands of Jewish refugees, who had lost everything and were desperately searching for a chance to rebuild their lives in peace, free from violence and persecution.
We can we learn from Canada’s response to the needs of Jewish refugees before, during and after World War II and the Holocaust history by letting this history guide our response to the crisis we face today.
I spoke with Dr Adara Goldberg, author of Holocaust Survivors in Canada, to gain a deeper understanding of how Canada has responded to refugees in the past. We explored the woeful history of Canadian immigration policy, which abandoned European Jewry to the destruction of the Holocaust, Canada’s history of xenophobia and antisemitism and how, eventually, over 30, 000 Holocaust survivors resettled and rebuilt their lives here in Canada.
Canada needs to learn from its history of ignoring the needs of refugees. For much of Canada’s past, the nation’s immigration policy has been marked by “explicitly racist laws and practices” that were put in place to preserve a white English Canada by restricting immigration of all “undesirables.”
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Jews in Europe were trying to flee an increasingly dangerous Nazi Germany, Canadian immigration policy was actively antisemitic and Canada refused to offer shelter.
Adara Goldberg explains that “Canada’s discriminatory immigration policy and public opinion made it nearly impossible for Jews seeking asylum from Nazism to settle in Canada,” and about the Canadian government’s policies to help refugees, Goldberg states that “there was no refugee policy to speak of.”
Canada had shut its doors to European Jews, abandoning them to the unprecedented maelstrom of systematic mass murder.
And after two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish population had been murdered in the Holocaust and Europe was left in tatters following the war, millions of refugees (then commonly referred to as Displaced Persons or simply DPs) needed a new, safe place to settle, but Canada again failed to offer sanctuary.
In fact, Canada at first rejected any notion that it might offer sanctuary to any of these DPs.
Canada initially supported a plan to repatriate all of the DPs back to their countries of original citizenship. The Canadian government reasoned that if refugees went home, there wouldn’t be any refugee problem.
When it became clear that more than a million DPs would not voluntarily agree to repatriation — particularly Holocaust survivors who were forever uprooted from their former homes, many of whom had suffered violent persecution at the hands of their former neighbours — Canada denied it had any obligation, moral or otherwise, to take them in.
The response of the Canadian government came “more than two years after liberation” and only after “significant international pressure and a change in leadership,” said Goldberg, adding that not only was it too late but too little. Only “a trickle of Holocaust survivor refugees were allowed in” — when Holocaust survivors started to be allowed to immigrate to Canada, only those who could fill ”skilled labour posts or individuals sponsored by relatives” were welcomed.
What is even more unsettling is that there was no significant pressure on the Canadian government to change the regulations that shut out those who had lost everything . There was no great public outcry demanding that Canada’s door be opened to the hundreds of thousands of DPs languishing in refugee camps in Germany, Austria and Italy.
Goldberg shared startling statistics that illustrate the xenophobia and antisemitism bolstering the policies that denied asylum to Jewish refugees. “A Gallup poll taken in mid-1943,“ she said, “asked Canadians to identify groups deemed least desirable as immigrants. Jews were listed third after Japanese and Germans, members of the Axis and ‘enemy’ states.”
And even more alarming is the fact that “a year after the war’s end, Jews rose in undesirability, coming in second only after the Japanese, demonstrating Canadians’ deeply ingrained anti-Jewish sentiment.”
Although there was eventually a public push to provide asylum, these voices were marginal and ultimately ineffective at changing government policy. The policy did not change, even in spite of the fact that, as Goldberg points out, Canadian Jewish communities stated their “unconditional willingness and ability to support any refugees permitted to enter Canada“ and had “friends in high places” like Senator Carine Wilson who “championed Mackenzie King’s government to widen the nation’s gates.” In the end, “Canadian immigration policy offered no room for negotiation.”
Canadians’ anti-Jewish sentiment and Canada’s racist immigration policy were not the result of ignorance or a lack of information in Canada regarding global events.
Canadian politicians and the general public knew the extent of the mass violence and persecution happening in Europe, and did nothing.
"By the mid-1930s, Canadian journalists were aware of the situation in Nazi Germany — and the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and anti-Jewish measures," Goldberg states , "and by 1943, the destruction of European Jewry and the concentration camp system was well known by politicians and the media."
And after the war, on top of military and media reports on the horrors of the holocaust, Goldberg reminds us that “newsreels depicting starving, skeletal survivors of concentration camps and the liberation of occupied territories screened in cinemas around the country.” Awareness, even of the most horrible of crimes against humanity, was not enough to sway the Canadian public to respond.
So how is it then that over 30,000 Jewish refugees were eventually resettled in Canada?
It was certainly not out of humanitarian concern for the refugees.
Canada’s eventual interest in taking in thousands of DPs was out of economic self-interest: the post-war Canadian economy expanded rapidly and the demand for Canadian goods and services grew both at home and abroad. For the first time since the 1929 onset of the Great Depression, the biggest peacetime economic problem was not unemployment but a shortage of workers to meet the nation’s job needs.
Changes to Canada’s racist, exclusionary immigration policies come from labour-intensive Canadian industries lobbying Ottawa to allow them access to the large labour pool of refugees fleeing war-torn Europe.
And as Goldberg explains, significant international legislation was also required before Canada decided to open its doors: “international policy, beginning with the Convention on the Status of Refugees, would eventually facilitate the resettlement of Jewish refugees.... More than anything else, the Convention raised public awareness of the refugee plight and made Canadians on the whole more receptive to the needs of asylum seekers.”
Without the post-war economic boom and international pressure, Canada might have never offered asylum to the millions searching for safety and prosperity after the devastation of World War II and the Holocaust. We can do better.
This history paints a picture of Canada antithetical to the popular image many of us have grown up with. Our national media, and even the Washington Post and New York Times, glowingly portray Canada as a beacon of multiculturalism and tolerance. We love to highlight our role as global peacekeepers. Today, it is easy to bask in "Canadian exceptionalism,” be pacified by a bucolic picture of Canadian inclusivity and openness.
But our response to Jewish refugees in the 1930s and 1940s — and realizing that today a large number of Canadians have a worrisome, dangerous view of what it means to truly be Canadian — shows we need to be vigilant and continually fight to create a society free of xenophobia that pushes our elected officials to increase resettlement numbers to meet the unprecedented humanitarian crisis we now face.
The current refugee crisis is a second chance for Canadians to prove that we can be a country that offers those who have been driven from their homes due to violence and persecution the opportunity to live #StrongAndFree.
Let Canada’s celebration of its 150th year since confederation be a meaningful celebration not just for Canadians currently living #StrongAndFree but for people around the world.