Brief history of Canada’s responses to refugees

40th anniversary of the Refugee ConventionOn 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.


Before confederation Loyalists and pacifists (including Mennonites and Quakers) fled to Canada during the American Revolution. Escaped slaves and free blacks fled the US in search of greater rights.
1869 Canada’s first Immigration Act was adopted.  It contained no specific provisions relating to refugees.
Late 19th century, early 20th century Refugees from Russia, especially Jews, Mennonites and Doukhobors, settled in Canada.
1920s Following World War I, hundreds of thousands were displaced in Europe.  Canada opposed the admission of refugees on the grounds that once admitted stateless refugees could not be deported.
1922 The League of Nations convened an intergovernmental conference, under the leadership of Fridtjof Nansen, leading to the development of a travel document for refugees, “the Nansen passport”.   Canada refused to accept the Nansen passport because it did not allow for the return of refugees.
1923 The government adopted an Order in Council excluding immigrants “of any Asiatic race”.  The definition of “Asiatic” included Armenians seeking refuge from persecution in Turkey. Only 1,300 Armenians were admitted to Canada between the two world wars.
1923-1930 The Canadian government cooperated with efforts of the Mennonite community to admit 20,000 Mennonite refugees between 1923 and 1930.
Doukhobor women breaking the prairie sod by pulling a plough themselves, Thunder Hill Colony, Manitoba. c 1899. Library and Archives Canada,C-000681.



MP Samuel Jacobs spoke in favour of “those who are obliged to leave their own countries in Europe by reason of religious and social persecution.  Now, this country, it seems to me, should be the haven of rest for people of that kind, and we ought to have our doors wide open for all those who flee from persecution, social or otherwise, in European countries.” 30 March 1921, House of Commons


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”.
The St. Louis, surrounded by smaller vessels in the port of Havana, 1938. Herbert Karliner. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Photograph #88358


“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


1945-1947 In the immediate post-war period, immigration controls remained tight, while pressure mounted for a more open immigration policy and a humanitarian response to the displaced persons in Europe.
1946 The Canadian National Committee for Refugees advised a parliamentary committee that Canadian law should be changed to exempt refugees from ordinary restrictions on immigration and subject them only “to whatever special restrictions on immigration considered by Parliament to be necessary and justifiable in face of the moral claim of the refugees to the right of sanctuary.”
1948 The first of a total of 10 boats carrying 1,593 Baltic refugees (mostly Estonian) arrived on the east coast of Canada. They sailed from Sweden, where they were living under threat of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union. They had been trying to resettle to Canada but had been frustrated by the long delays and barriers in Canadian immigration processing. They were detained on arrival and processed through an ad hoc arrangement. 12 were deported but all the others were accepted.
1946-1962 Canada admitted nearly a quarter of a million refugees.  They came as sponsored relatives, under contract labour schemes, or sponsored by government or church groups.  Selection criteria were guided by considerations of economic self-interest, racial prejudice and political bias.  According to John Holmes, an External Affairs officer, Canada selected refugees “like good beef cattle”.
1950 A United Nations committee was struck to draft a refugee convention.  The Canadian delegate, Leslie Chance, was the chair.
1951 The government implemented the Assisted Passage Loan Scheme to help immigrants from Europe who could not pay their own transportation.  Loans were to be repaid over the two years following landing.  A version of this loan scheme continues to this day and is used by resettled refugees.
1951 The Canadian Cabinet decided not to sign the text of the Refugee Convention, finalized on 28 July 1951.  Ministers were concerned that the Convention would impede Canada’s ability to deport persons they considered a security risk, especially Communists.  More generally, they worried that the Convention would confer rights, including “the right to be represented in the hearing of his appeal against deportation.”


The Canadian delegate and chair of the committee drafting the refugee convention was put in a very uncomfortable position by the last-minute withdrawal of support by his government.  He tried to explain the consequences to the External Affairs Minister: “Any turning back on our part now might create very unhappy situation. We have been regarded throughout as taking forward attitude, somewhat in contrast to that of the United States, concerning whose signature there has always been doubt and in consequence some little under­current of feeling among other delegations. It would in addition, in my opinion, weaken seriously the job of the High Commissioner for Refugees with whom I hope to have some discussion tomorrow.”  Telegram, Permanent Representative to European Office of United Nations to Secretary of State for External Affairs, July 3rd, 1951

For more information about Cabinet concerns, see CABINET DOCUMENT NO. 178-51, Ottawa, June 14th, 1951

Leslie Chance (left) of Canada at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries on the Status of Refugees and Stateless Persons, Geneva, July 1951. Mr Chance, on behalf of Canada, chaired the committee that drafted the conventions under discussion. Credit: UNHCR


1954 The UN adopted the Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons.  Canada has still not signed this Convention.
1956-1957 The crushing of the Hungarian uprising led to over 200,000 Hungarians fleeing to Austria. In response to public pressure, the Canadian government implemented a special program, offering the Hungarian refugees free transport, instead of loans. Thousands of Hungarians arrived in the early months of 1957 on over 200 chartered flights. More than 37,000 Hungarians were admitted in less than a year.
1959 World Refugee Year. Canada admitted 325 tubercular refugees and their families (the first time that Canada had waived its health requirements for refugees). External Affairs raised again the question of Canada signing the Convention, but the Department of Citizenship and Immigration opposed it.
1960 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker introduced the Bill of Rights.
1967 Interest began to be charged on loans under the Assisted Passage Loan Scheme.
1968 Canada changed its rules to allow deserters from foreign armies to received landed immigrant status.  This opened the door to status for US citizens opposed to participating in the Vietnam War.  Over the following years, tens of thousands of war resisters are estimated to have fled to Canada (no exact figures are available as they were not accepted under any specific program).
1968 Warsaw Pact troops enter Czechoslovakia. 10,975 Czechs entered Canada between August 20, 1968 and March 1, 1969. According to the departmental annual report, “[m]any Canadian organizations, universities and provincial and municipal agencies assisted in the settlement of the refugees. Without this surge of public and private cooperation, the task would have been immeasurably more difficult”.
4 June 1969 Canada acceded to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol. The occasion was barely noticed and went unreported in the media.
1970 Canada welcomed a group of Tibetan refugees, among the first non-European refugees resettled to Canada.
1970 The government issued a “Guideline for Determination of Eligibility for Refugee Status” for use by immigration officers selecting refugees overseas.


One of several organizations helping Hungarian refugees resettle to third countries. 1956. © UN 56817


“By the 1970’s it was widely held that Canada was then and always had been a haven for the oppressed. In retrospect the public imagination turned a select series of economically beneficial refugee resettlement programs into a massive and longstanding Canadian humanitarian resolve on behalf of refugees.” Harold Troper


1972 The Ugandan president announced that Ugandan Asians would be expelled. Canada responded swiftly, setting up an office in Kampala.  At first the government insisted that the applicants meet the usual immigration criteria, but later requirements were somewhat relaxed. By the end of 1973, more than 7,000 Ugandan Asians had arrived, of whom 4,420 came in specially chartered flights.
1973 The Immigration Appeal Board Act was amended, abolishing the universal right of appeal from a deportation order.  Among those allowed to appeal were “bona fide refugees”.
1973 Allende’s government in Chile was overthrown. Groups in Canada, particularly the churches, urged the government to offer protection to those being persecuted, but the Canadian response was slow and reluctant (long delays in security screenings were a particular problem). Critics charged that the lukewarm Canadian response was ideologically driven. By February 1975, 1,188 refugees from Chile had arrived in Canada.
1976 The new Immigration Act was tabled.  This was the first Canadian immigration legislation to recognize refugees as a special class of immigrants.  Among its objectives, the Act was to “fulfil Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and the persecuted.”  The Act entrenched the definition of a Convention refugee, created a refugee determination system (decisions made by the Refugee Status Advisory Committee – RSAC), provided for admission on humanitarian grounds of designated classes and enabled the private sponsorship of refugees.  The Act came into force April 1978.
1978 The Canadian Council for Refugees was formed, under its original name, Standing Conference of Canadian Organizations Concerned for Refugees.
1979-1981 By mid-1979, nearly 1.5 million refugees had fled their homes in South-East Asia.  In June, the Canadian government announced that 50,000 South-East Asian refugees would be resettled by the end of 1980.  Thousands of Canadians came forward to welcome refugees, giving a dramatic launch to the new Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program. Popular pressure forced the government to adjust upwards its initial commitment to resettling the refugees. For the years 1978-81, refugees made up 25% of all immigrants to Canada.
4 April 1985 The Supreme Court of Canada rendered the Singh decision, in which it recognized that refugee claimants are entitled to fundamental justice under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Court ruled that this would normally require an oral hearing in the refugee status determination process.
1986 The people of Canada were awarded the Nansen medal by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in “recognition of their major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees”.


A Vietnamese refugee working in a supermarket in Montreal. 1979. Photo credit: UNHCR/9090/H. Gloaguen/VIVA


1987 A group of Sikhs arrived by boat in Nova Scotia and claimed refugee status. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney issued an emergency recall of Parliament for the tabling of Bill C-84, the Refugee Deterrents and Detention Bill. Despite the so-called emergency, the draconian bill was not passed for a full year.
1987 Canada ratified the Convention Against Torture.
1989 Changes to the Immigration Act came into effect, creating a new refugee determination system and the Immigration and Refugee Board.
1993 The Chairperson of the Immigration and Refugee Board issued Guidelines on Women Refugee Claimants fearing Gender-related Persecution. Canada was the first country in the world to issue such guidelines.  Non-governmental organizations including the Canadian Council for Refugees were active in drawing attention to the need for gender sensitivity.
1999 The flight of thousands of Kosovars led the UNHCR to request countries to offer them “safe haven”.  Canada responded enthusiastically, taking in over 5,000.
2002 The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act came into force – for the first time in Canadian history, the immigration legislation recognized refugees in its title.  However, the articles of the law giving refugees the right to an appeal were not implemented.
December 2004 The Safe Third Country Agreement between the US and Canada came into effect.
4 June 2009 40th anniversary of Canada signing the Refugee Convention