Canadian Immigration Policy Towards Survivors
The admission of Jewish or any other refugees was far from the minds of
most government planners in the immediate aftermath of the war. There were
far more important domestic items on the government’s agenda, especially
the economy. They knew only too well that the Great Depression of the 1930s
had not been resolved through programs of economic redistribution or social
reconstruction. Canada did not even enjoy its own domestic variant of the
American New Deal. Rather, Canada spent its way out of the economic crisis
if the 1930s in an orgy of war-related public expenditures. But now, in 1945,
the war was over, and economic planners looked apprehensively to the future.
Without the stimulant of wartime spending, they worried, what would prevent
Canada from slipping back into a depression? Would victory mean massive
unemployment and endless breadlines at home?
Burdened by apprehension, Canada wanted no part of hungry refugees or
other immigrants. Officials would have enough to cope with in the
demobilization of more than 60,000 Canadian servicemen still overseas.
These soldiers would return home, some feared, with inflated expectations of
the good times that lay ahead. Planners shuddered at the prospect of battle-
hardened soldiers putting aside their uniforms only to confront unemployment
lines. Some officials even harbored fears of civil insurrection sparked by the
disappointment of social and economic decay.
This is not to say the Canadian government was completely unaware of or
unconcerned for the post-war refugee crisis in Europe. But Canada’s policy
was grounded in a definite unwillingness to admit these unfortunates into
Canada. As far as the government was concerned, these refugees - or
displaced persons, as they were collectively known - were not Canada’s
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No matter what the magnitude of the immediate refugee crisis, Canada, like
others of its Western Allies, initially saw the refugee problem as a temporary
one. These post-war refugees, including Jews, Canada agreed, would only be
refugees as long as they did not have a place to go. In the first flush of victory,
in the naive euphoria of Nazism’s defeat, Canadian officials fully expected that
everyone would have a place to go home. Once land transportation was re-
established and civil authority reconstituted, all refugees could be helped back
to their country of citizenship. If the Norwegians went back to Norway, the
French back to France, the Poles back to Poland, the Russians back to the
Soviet Union, the Ukrainians to their country of legal citizenship and the
surviving Jews back to whatever corner of Europe from which they had been
dragged, the Canadians correctly reasoned, the displaced persons would be
displaced no more. Allied post-war refugee planning had been predicated on
the principle of repatriation and, as such, was an administrative problem.
Once the DPs refused to go home, however, the administrative problem
became a political crisis.
It is likely that antipathy toward Jews in the spring of 1946 was also
aggravated by a Red Scare. On September 5, 1945, less than four months
after Germany’s surrender, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa,
Igor Gouzenko, defected. He took with him 109 secret embassy documents.
The defection unravelled into Canada’s most extensive investigation of Soviet
espionage. Even before the Cold War had found its name, Canada was
involved. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police was unleashed against a
suspected Communist espionage network at work in Canada. First police
investigation, then a Royal Commission and finally a series of highly
publicized spy trials dominated the press. Many of those named were Jews,
including Fred Rose, Canada’s first and only Communist member of the
federal parliament, representing a heavily Jewish area of downtown Montreal.
The degree to which this post-war anti-Communist crusade inflamed
antisemitic sentiment we may never know. It cannot be denied, however, that
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it did seethe below the surface. In February 1946, the prime minister, briefed
by police and security officials in their investigations, commented in his diary:
“I myself have never allowed that thought [of antisemitism] to be entertained
for a moment or to have any feeling which permits prejudice to develop, but I
must say that the evidence is very strong, not against all Jews, which is quite
wrong, as one cannot indict a race any more than one can a nation, but that in
a large percentage of the race there are tendencies and trends which are
Public concern about DP immigration, and especially about Jewish
immigration, had to be dealt with. But so did the continuing labor shortages,
business demands for a liberal immigration policy and protests from Canadian
ethnic communities in favor of DP admissions. Finally, in late 1946, massive
pressure from business interests and their articulate allies within the Cabinet
convinced the latter to take action, however tentative, to open the immigration
door. At first the government, ever mindful of a possible anti-immigrant and
anti-government backlash, moved slowly, as if to test the public reaction.
Once satisfied the public was amenable to some easing of the long-standing
barriers to immigration, if somewhat concerned about the ethnic suitability of
would-be immigrants, the government approved two programs - one for the
selective reunification of first-degree relatives, and the second a scheme to
admit to Canada 2,000 Allied Polish war veterans who refused repatriation.
Source: Gutman, Yisrael and Saf, Avital (eds.), She’arit Hapleta 1944-
1948, Rehabilitation and Political Struggle, Proceedings of the Sixth Yad
Vashem International Historical Conference, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem,
1990, pp. 270-277.
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