Friday, 2 October 2015

When Did We Stop Being Canadians?


We would not have been Canadians if we had turned our backs on them [Ugandan Asian refugees]” 
– Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, Toronto Star, September 25, 1972


In the wake of another heartbreaking story surrounding a Syrian refugee family denied entry to Canada and their tragic deaths, we are reminded that Canada is no longer on the outskirts of the current refugee crisis. With more than 60 million refugees world wide, a number that surpasses the levels of displacement following the conclusion of the Second World War, the international community is left wondering how things have taken such a dramatic turn in the wrong direction.

But, what has been Canada’s response to the conflict in Syria and the droves of refugees it has created?


The Harper government has applauded themselves for this well publicized and humanitarian endeavour but how does this compare to Canada’s history? What have been our previous responses to global conflicts?

The Numbers

56,000 Hungarian refugees in 1956
12,000 Czechoslovakian refugees in 1968
8,000 Ugandan Asian refugees in 1972-1974
7,000 Chilean refugees in 1973
60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees 1979-1981 
- (Kelly and Trebilcock, 2010, 348 & 398)

This would not have been possible without the wide support of the Canadian public and government who played crucial roles in each of these major resettlements. It was an aggressive public lobbying affair in 1973 that altered the response of the Canadian government to accept more Chilean refugees. Within the first six months of processing in Chile, the Canadian government had only accepted 150 refugees (Bangarth, 2014). This paled in comparison to a year earlier when officials distributed over 6,000 visas within just 90 days during the Ugandan Exodus (St. Vincent, 1993). Furthermore, through Operation Lifeline, approximately 30,000 Indochinese refugees were privately sponsored by Canadians to be resettled in Canada. They had challenged the government to match their initiative on a one to one basis. This means that their entire livelihoods and financial costs were handled by Canadians including anything from enrolment in language training programs to finding a doctor and employment.

Is Canada’s response to the current refugee crisis proportional considering our past?

The short answer is no. The reality is that when many of these refugee groups came to Canada they arrived from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds with varying language abilities, skills, and expertise. They also arrived in dramatically different historical contexts albeit they were all influenced both positively and negatively by Cold War rhetoric. Each faced their own issues surrounding varying Canadian economies. For example, the unemployment rate was over 6% during the resettlement of Ugandan Asians (Vancouver Sun, September 14, 1972).

It was thanks to the humanitarian impulse of both Canadians and the government that my family and 8,000 other Ugandan Asian refugees were resettled in Canada between 1972 and 1974. The Canadian response represented the largest resettlement of non-European refugees in Canadian history by 1974 (Whitaker, 1987).

Upon arrival in Canada, many of the refugees enrolled in retraining programs conducted by the Department of Manpower and Immigration if employment was not readily available. In December of 1972, approximately 3300 Ugandan Asians were receiving some form of government subsidy, but within only ten months this number had dwindled to fewer than 150 people. Canada also admitted another 2000 Ugandan Asians in 1973 as some migrants had been placed in refugee camps in Malta and Spain. They possessed neither a British nor a Ugandan passport and the UNCHR requested that they be permanently resettled in Canada. Of the initial group of migrants more than fifty percent of them possessed at least twelve years of schooling (Dirks, 1977).  The federal government provided funds for a six-month period enabling special ad hoc assistance committees to operate in twelve settlement centers across Canada. In a follow-up survey one year after the arrival of Ugandan Asians to Canada, eighty-nine percent of respondents who had wished to enter the labour force had and more than ninety percent planned on staying in Canada permanently (Kelly & Trebilcock, 2010).

Without the extraordinary work performed by the Canadian government and the compassion of Canadians my family and thousands of others would never have made it to this country. With the ongoing refugee crisis it is time for Canadian society to recall their impressive past. Our country was even awarded the Nansen medal in 1986 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in “recognition of their [Canada’s] major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees”.


We’ve witnessed a dramatic decline in the number of refugees coming to Canada in the past decade. I dare to ask the question, have we as Canadians truly changed who we are?

1 comment:

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