Thursday, 5 January 2017

Adventures from the Archives XII - Myth Busters Edition

After a very long hiatus from this series I'm back at it with another one that dispels a few myths about the Ugandan Asian refugee community in Canada.

What: Statistical data on Ugandan Asian Refugees
Who: V.A. Latour, Department of Manpower and Immigration
When: November 10th 1972
Where: Canada
So what: Demonstrates the religious diversity amongst Ugandan Asian refugees and refutes the myth that all refugees were Ismailis. It also highlights how the priority for Canadian immigration officers on the ground in Kampala was to accept all those who were stateless.

One of the largest misconceptions about the arrival of Ugandan Asian refugees is the commonly repeated statement that they were all Ismaili Muslims. It was even repeated by the current Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, when discussing past major refugee resettlements in Canadian history. [0:58 in the video] Although, the Prime Minister does not openly say all Ugandan Asian refugees were Ismailis, he does fail to acknowledge the religious diversity within the group and is seen in other webpages:


Since Ismaili Muslims consisted of just under 70% of the entire group that came to Canada, many have called the initiative a resettlement of Ismaili refugees from Uganda. Unfortunately, this ignores the religious diversity within the refugee community. In reality, the religious affiliations of Ugandan Asian refugees are vast and varied. This includes: Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Parsis, and Muslims of various other denominations including Ithnasheris, Bohras, Ahmadiyyas, and Sunni Muslims. Most importantly, it has created a myth that the government purposefully selected only Ismailis because of the relationship between Pierre Elliot Trudeau and the Aga Khan IV. Canada did accept a disproportionate number of Ismaili Ugandan Asian refugees as seen from the available statistics but it utilized a universal immigration policy that did not discriminate admission based on religious affiliation. The determining characteristic for visa officers in Kampala was to accept all those who were stateless.

Following the advice of their spiritual leader the Aga Khan IV, many Ismailis opted for Ugandan citizenship to show their allegiance to Uganda and embody their attachments to East Africa. However, government reports also note how visa officials openly acknowledged that not all Ismailis were truly stateless since some of them still held British or Indian passports. One report exclaimed that, "earlier estimates that most Ismailis were stateless are not being borne out. Neither is the belief that most stateless are Ismailis. Accordingly, the decision to give priority to the stateless group will not necessarily mean that a sizeable portion of the Ismailis will come to Canada was originally expected.” [Library and Archives Canada, Records of the Immigration Branch, RG 76, volume 990, file number 5850-3-650, “Report Respecting the Special Movement of Ugandan Asians,” October 19, 1972, 6.]

Being stateless was the primary reason why a large number of Goan Christians also ended up in Canada alongside the Ismailis. The Goan community held a strong presence within Ugandan civil service. As public servants they were required to become Ugandan citizens in order to continue working for the government. Once President Idi Amin had revoked the citizenship of all those of South Asian descent disproportionate numbers of Goans and Ismailis were rendered stateless. Since this was the primary admission policy for Canadian officials, being stateless meant almost guaranteed admission to Canada.

One incredibly important note about the statistics from Latour's report is that there is only concrete data on the religious background of Ugandan Asians who flew on chartered aircrafts. All those who paid for their own passage and were sponsored by relatives from refugee camps are not included in the report. This means that these statistics reflect only 4, 042 Ugandan Asian refugees and do not include the religious affiliations of all 7, 550 refugees that arrived by the end of 1974. However, we can assume that the proportions remained relatively similar by the end of the movement since refugees continued to sponsor family members from their own religious communities to be resettled in Canada. Based on the archival documents cited at the bottom, I've created a few fun infographics and images to accompany the information.

Numbers on the citizenship status of Ugandan Asian refugees reveal some very interesting insights. First, it is clear that since those who were stateless or Ugandan citizens (due to the precarious status of citizenship this practically meant you where stateless) reflected the majority of those who received visas to come to Canada. This reaffirms the Canadian government's priority for accepting stateless refugees. Second, the large number of those who held British or Indian citizenship demonstrates how visa officers did accept those who met the points system since they were desirable refugees. This complicates the question surrounding Canada's motivations for resettling Ugandan Asian refugees and the balance between humanitarianism and opportunism. If it was truly an altruistic policy, all of those who received visas should have been stateless. However, if immigration officials could justify that an individual would contribute to the Canadian economy they could also be granted admission without being stateless.

In terms of the settlement patterns of Ugandan Asian refugees in Canada another more detailed and interactive map is currently in development at Carleton University's Ugandan Asian archive. It should be launched in early 2017 and will feature the exact breakdown of which Canadian city refugees landed in between September 28th and November 9th 1972.


  1. This is just amazing and concurs with everything I say in my book: The selection process was sect-blind; it was opportunistic. Ismaili rejection rate was 66%, whereas for Goans (both groups statelss) it was 90% sine they scored more points on education and skills than Ismailis. Fewer that 5 people >60yrs were admitted, my late father among them."Mythbusters" eh? My book will burst some myths too and at 11.2kg it WILL break some wrists and hernias. Carleton have ignored my book I think deliberately. Molloy I wrote to 5 times since 2012 - no response.Am sharing on Facebook.

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