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.


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


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