Canada’s refugee policy is back sliding

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Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Canada’s policy towards refugees has had an up and down history. Until the Second World War, it tended to be

Pontiac Perspective  Peter J. Gauthier

Canada’s policy towards refugees has had an up and down history. Until the Second World War, it tended to be
negative. Actually, Canada had no refugee policy as such but had a definite bias as to what types of immigrants were welcome and, more noticeably, which ones were not welcome. Two examples illustrate this.
The first is the Komagata Maru
incident. This ship entered Vancouver
harbour on May 23, 1914. On board were 376 passengers from India seeking
immigration status under the British Commonwealth rules that all British subjects could move anywhere within the Empire. However, Canada had its ownrules, supported by Prime Minister Laurier, that Canada should remain a “white man’s country”. The result was that all but
twenty-four were forced to return to India. Upon their return, because they were
considered political agitators, police were sent to arrest those responsible, and a general riot ensued with 19 passengers killed and many other arrested and imprisoned.
The second incident was that of the St. Louis. This ship, with 905 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler’s Nazi regime, left Germany on May 15, 1939. The initial intention was to bring the refugees to Latin America.  When this did not work out, Canada was asked to accommodate the refugees.  Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated the “it was not Canada’s problem”. One
senior government official stated that in terms of offering refuge from Hitler, “none was too many”.
Canada’s attitude towards immigrants and refugees changed significantly after World War II. In 1951 the United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees was adopted by the United Nations and Canada began revisions to its immigration policies. The first major test of the new rules came in October, 1956 with the Hungarian uprising against the communist regime of that country. Canada accepted 35,000 Hungarian refugees – the first time Canada accepted as many refugees of a single origin. A second example of the new policy was illustrated by the arrival of the “boat people”. During 1975 – 1976 Canada accepted 5,600 Vietnamese refugees. The Canadian government reacted to the increasing demands by opening up its refugee policy. The result was 50,000 Vietnamese refugees were welcomed to Canada in the period 1979 – 1980. And, of course, American draft-dodgers and
dissenters were allowed into Canada
during the entire Vietnam War when an estimated 100,000 Americans took advantage of Canada’s open policy. In 1986, in recognition of its generous policies, Canada was awarded the coveted Nansen medal by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
But under the Harper government, Canada has reverted to its pre-WW II
practices. Many refugees and asylum seekers have been denied basic social assistance.  Applicants cannot come from a “safe
country” such as Zimbabwe. But the most egregious case is Canada’s handling of Syrian refugee claimants. Despite requests from many international organizations and the United Nations directly, the Harper
government continues a policy of placing extreme restrictions on potential refugees from this troubled part of the world.  One of the excuses used is that of religious
considerations. This is somewhat ironic in that on February 13, 2013 the Harper
government officially open the Office of Religious Freedom. Not much has been heard from this office since then but,
perhaps its first major act should be to investigate the religious bias displayed by Canada’s refugee actions.