On 4 June 1969, Canada belatedly signed the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, 18 years after it was adopted by the United Nations, and 15 years after it entered into force.

In the 40 years since Canada became a party to the Refugee Convention, it has gained the enviable reputation of being a world leader in protecting refugees.

In fact, there has been good and bad in Canadian responses to refugees, both before and after signing the Refugee Convention.


Early 1930s In the context of the depression and fears of communism, there were many deportations of the unemployed, labour activists and suspected Communists.  Risk of persecution was not a barrier to deportation, despite concerns raised by the Canadian Labour Defence League about the dangers of return to fascist countries.  Hans Kist, one of the radical leaders deported in 1932, reportedly died of torture in a German concentration camp.
1930s With the rise of Hitler in Germany, efforts were made by the Jewish community and some non-Jewish groups to persuade the government to admit refugees.  They were unsuccessful.  Anti-semitism was dominant within the immigration department and in the Canadian public.
1938 The St Louis sailed from Hamburg with 907 Jewish refugees on board.  After being turned away by Cuba, their original destination, the ship sought a haven elsewhere in the Americas.  Canada, like all other countries, refused them admittance.  The ship returned to Europe where most of the passengers died in the Holocaust.
1938 US President Roosevelt convened a conference in Évian to discuss solutions to the refugee crisis.  Canada participated reluctantly and with the firm intention of making no commitments to admit any refugees.
1933-1945 During the 12-year period of Nazi rule in Germany, Canada admitted fewer than 5,000 Jewish refugees, one of the worst records of any democracies. In 1945, asked how many Jews Canada would admit after the war, a Canadian official answered “None is too many”.


“Ever since the war, efforts have been made by groups and individuals to get refugees into Canada but we have fought all along to protect ourselves against the admission of such stateless persons without passports, for the reason that coming out of the maelstrom of war, some of them are liable to go on the rocks and when they become public charges, we have to keep them for the balance of their lives” (F.C. Blair, Director, Immigration Branch, 1938)
“as human beings we should do our best to provide as much sanctuary as we can for those people who can get away. I say we should do that because these people are human and deserve that consideration, and because we are human and ought to act in that way.” Stanley Knowles, MP, House of Commons, 9 July 1943


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