When The Refugees Came

Snapshots of five compassionate moments in Canada’s history.

In a news photograph, a young boy looks out the window of a plane chartered by the Canadian government bringing refugees to safety. Could this have been the image printed on newspapers around the world this week? Instead, a photo showing the drowned body of a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, has prompted heartbreak and outrage. The Canadian government specifically came under fire after reports emerged that the boy had family in Canada and at least one uncle had been denied refugee status. Almost immediately, the government was forced to defend its relatively low number of resettlements.

The first image described above is of a young Kosovar boy, aboard a plane arriving in May, 1999, from Macedonia. He was part of several watershed moments that established Canada’s reputation as one of the most hospitable and welcoming nations in the world — from chartered flights to Chile to an outpouring of sponsorship offers for Indochinese refugees.

With personal detail, those key moments are described here, as a reminder of what was — and still is — possible with enough political will and civil society mobilization.

1999: The wave of Kosovars

At the height of the war in Kosova in April 1999, Macedonia closed its Kosova border to the hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing rape, terror, and death perpetrated by Slobodan Milosevic’s 100,000 military members waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing on the majority of Kosova’s population. For days, Kosovar refugees remained on no-man’s land, in rain, fog, and cold, begging to be allowed into Macedonia, as that country’s authorities called on states around the world to shoulder their share of the refugee burden. Scenes of people covered in mud, crying for mercy reached the living rooms of households around the world.

It was at this time that Canada’s government announced an emergency airlift that brought over 5,000 Kosovars to military bases in Canada under Operation Parasol, and automatically granted refugee status to these individuals, allowing them to later seek permanent residency in Canada. The refugees were airlifted by Canadian planes. An additional 2,200 Kosovars joined their family members already in Canada under the Kosovo Family Reunification Program, which fast-tracked applications for family reunification.

Under the Joint Assistance Sponsorship (JAS) program, the federal government entered into partnerships with private groups to assist them in integrating Kosovar refugees in communities throughout the country, from British Columbia to Newfoundland and Labrador. Basic financial needs, including start-up costs and living allowances, were paid by the federal government during the first year of refugees’ arrival, while sponsorship groups were asked to facilitate integration by providing orientation and emotional support to the refugees.

I arrived in Canada towards the tail end of this program. As we landed at the St. John’s airport on a foggy October afternoon, we were greeted by strangers who had warm coats, warm coffee, and warm hugs. They didn’t know anything about us, other than our names, but over the past 15 years, they have become our closest family and are very much the reason I call St. John’s home today.

From these volunteers who signed up for the JAS partnership with the federal government, I learned much about humanity — I knew that I belonged in a place where strangers became family overnight. So many other Kosovar refugees had the experience I had, and for those who returned to Kosova, staying in touch with their ‘sponsors,’ as they called them, became part of life.

I couldn’t wait to become Canadian, so I could reach out to others the way my ‘sponsors’ had reached out to me and my family.

— Remzi Cej, former refugee & current Chair, Newfoundland & Labrador Human Rights Commission

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1980s: Baha’is from Iran

Following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, Canada was the first Western country to open its doors to Baha’i refugees. As the revolution unfolded, Baha’i citizens across Canada met with members of parliament to express concern about a wave of systematic killings and disappearances aimed at decimating the 300,000-member Baha’i community in Iran. Canada’s House of Commons subsequently became the first legislature to pass a resolution condemning this persecution in July 1980.

The Baha’i Faith is a world religion that originated in 19th century Iran, where its adherents have been long been persecuted by a prejudiced clerical establishment. The hardline clerics at the head of the new Islamic Republic seized their opportunity to lead a coordinated campaign of attack, which included hanging a 17-year-old children’s class teacher, razing grave yards and holy sites, banning Baha’i children from public schools, and stripping away most citizenship rights of Baha’is. Several thousand fled on foot over the border to Turkey and Pakistan. Others living abroad had their passports suspended and were threatened with deportation. At first, their pleas for international resettlement went unanswered.

The Canadian government was approached directly by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada, asking that Baha’is be resettled in Canada through the new private sponsorship framework developed in response to the Indochinese crisis. The government’s response, under both Liberal and Progressive Conservative leadership, was quiet, generous, effective, and humanitarian. In December 1981, Canada’s immigration manual told visa officers that Baha’i cases were to be “reviewed as sympathetically as possible with a view to approval by the use of positive discretion wherever reasonable.” Any cases that were denied had to be personally approved by the Minister. The Canadian government and officials went to extraordinary lengths to expedite the processing of cases, circumventing UNHCR refugee determination and reducing the wait time for refugees in Pakistan down to two weeks.

By the time the program concluded in 1989, Canada had accepted about 2,300 Baha’is for resettlement. A key element of its success was the close cooperation between the Baha’i community of Canada, its representatives, and public officials working in Ottawa and in the field. Refugees were settled in about 220 communities across Canada, where local families helped them to adapt to life in a new country.

The dimension of voluntary action at the grassroots level helped to initiate the program, assure the government of its sustainability, and guarantee its success. Ultimately, about 25 other countries took Baha’i refugees, most of them following the model of cooperation between public authorities and civil society that was pioneered here in Canada.

—Geoffrey Cameron, PhD candidate & Trudeau Scholar, University of Toronto. For information on an upcoming symposium on the topic at Carleton University, visit symposium.bahai.ca. 

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1979-1980: Indochinese refugees

How were 60,000 Indochinese refugees brought to Canada? Contrary to common perception, civil society did not pressure the government to do so. This is how it happened.

Operation Lifeline was started in my living room. I had invited our alderman, local priests, rabbis and ministers to attend my house on a Sunday afternoon in June of 1979 to draft a collective letter to our member of parliament and Minister of Immigration, Ron Atkey, to urge him to admit more refugees. Everyone invited showed up. Five minutes after the meeting began, I was surprised by a knock on the door and then to greet two gentlemen, the Director of Refugee Settlement and the head of public relations for the federal Ministry of Immigration in Ontario. They asked if they could join the meeting.

In shock, I mumbled a welcome. Fifteen minutes into our discussion about the wording of the letter, they asked for permission to speak. Did we know about the legislation permitting private individuals or organizations to sponsor refugees? Not one of us did. Perhaps we might want to give witness? Within the next two hours, we abandoned the idea of writing the letter and agreed to organize 50 private sponsorships in St. Paul’s riding.

My graduate student attended the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, he was a stringer for the Globe and Mail. He told Globe journalist Dick Beddoes about what had happened. The next morning my phone rang at 6:00 a.m. A woman from Marystown, Newfoundland, wanted to join Operation Lifeline. ‘What is Operation Lifeline?’ I asked. She read Dick Beddoes’ page-long column to me over the phone. Beddoes had given us a name and printed my phone number for anyone wanting to get involved.

The phone never stopped ringing for two weeks. People came to the door. At the end of eight days, not three months as planned, we had 50 sponsorships in our riding. At the end of two weeks, there were over 60 chapters of Operation Lifeline in various ridings across Canada.

A second story: In the first six weeks I was on TV, radio and was interviewed 163 times. I told the story that private sponsorship was not our idea, but that of the government of Canada. The civil service had been working to put private sponsorship on the public agenda for six months, but up to that point had only been successful with the Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church. We became the breakthrough for them along with Marion Dewar’s initiation of Project 4,000 in Ottawa and several other independently local efforts. I would tell this story of government foresight, initiative and leadership over and over again, but not once saw it in a news or magazine story.

The reality is that if it were not for almost a year of preparation under the Liberals and then under Joe Clark’s Conservatives, if not for the visionary leadership of the politicians at the time, if not for a dedicated, highly trained and very committed civil service, it is hard to imagine that we could have had an Indochinese refugee movement nearly as large as the one that took place.

Political and mandarin leadership is the real core of the story, not civil society pressure.

— Howard Adelman, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Refugee Studies, at York University

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1970s: Exodus from Chile

September 11, 1973, changed everything about Canadian immigration. Up to that point there was no designation of “refugee” in Canadian law. Previous refugee movements — Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks, Ugandans, Tibetans — were all brought to Canada by special Cabinet decision. That is until the coup d’etat in Chile took place.

I, along with many Canadians, watched in horror as its presidential palace, La Moneda, was aerially bombed and where the body of President Salvador Allende lay dead. Soccer stadiums were transformed into concentration camps, torture centres set up, bodies floated in the Mapocho River. Loudspeakers called out long lists of people who were directed to report to military command centres. Thousands fled into foreign embassies, including Canada’s, in urgent bids to claim safe haven. Leaked Canadian diplomatic dispatches, broadcast by CBC, urged Ottawa to reject “the riff-raff of Latin America” and Ottawa complied.

Then Canadian civil society sprang into action.

Faith groups, students, trade unions, professional associations, and ethno-specific groups, came together to influence the Canadian government to live up to its international obligations under the United Nations Convention on Refugees. I can remember long meetings planning strategies on how best to garner the upsurge of support demonstrated by Canadians from coast to coast to coast. We were unrelenting in planning assistance for would-be Chilean refugees and finally efforts opened the door a crack.

In late 1973 and 1974, the first groups of Chileans were able to enter Canada. Canadian missionary, Father Gregory Chisholm, was with one of these groups on a Canadian airplane where newly released prisoners were reunited with their families on the flight. Chisholm remembered the palpable tension of silent and restrained passengers until suddenly there was an eruption of joy with hugs and cheers all around. The plane had cleared Chilean airspace.

Reception committees met Chileans at Canadian airports. They were equipped with cold weather clothing, leads to apartments and friendship. Lyn Center recalled her shock upon meeting Claudio and Marcella Duran when they stepped off the plane. Only months previously the Chilean couple had hosted Center in their Santiago home and now they were homeless.

When repression became institutionalized in Chile with the creation of a military junta and renewed states of siege, Canadians continued their efforts. Pressure continued to mount in the following years so that close to 7,000 Chileans would find eventually refuge in Canada.

The coalition first formed for Chilean refugees continued to urge change to Canadian policy. It was ultimately successful when after years of lobbying the 1976 Immigration Act, enacted in 1978, included a process and mechanism to admit refugees to Canada.

— Joan Simalchik, Associate Professor, University of Toronto Department of History

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1956-57: The Hungarian Movement

The Hungarian refugee movement of 1956-57 set the pattern and precedent for Canadian responses to refugee crises that impacted Canadian refugee policy for decades, despite its slow and inauspicious start. When the Hungarians revolted in the fall of 1956 against the communist system imposed by the Russians after World War II, the Liberal government of Louis St. Laurent, preoccupied by the Suez crisis, was slow to react. Security advisors warned the refugee population could be infiltrated by Soviet spies while immigration officials expressed doubts about whether Hungarians would fit in as successful immigrants.

The media gave extensive coverage to the uprising. CBC carried grainy black and white images of lightly armed workers and students confronting the heavy handed communist government and, when the USSR intervened to prop up the regime, bravely battling Soviet tanks. The public quickly came to romanticize the Hungarian refugees who poured into neighbouring Austria as “Freedom Fighters,” especially after Time magazine featured an anonymous fighter as “Man of the Year.” Our government waffled for a month until the Conservative government of Ontario announced it would take some of the refugees, while increasingly strident headlines demanding that Canada respond goaded it into action. (Sound familiar?)

Having made the decision, the government acted with resolution and energy. Immigration Minister Jack Pickersgill flew to Vienna armed with authority to make things happen. Medical and security screening were reduced to an absolute minimum and refugees began to arrive by ship before Christmas. Pickersgill persuaded the governments of half a dozen European countries to billet thousands of Canada-bound refugees over the worst of the winter. When travel to Canada resumed in 1957 the refugees arrived on an “air bridge” of over 200 chartered flights. Among those arriving was the entire faculty and student body of Hungary’s Sopron University Forestry Faculty, recruited by Pickersgill and integrated into the University of British Columbia. Engineering students were absorbed by the University of Toronto.

The Hungarians adapted to Canada quickly despite the linguistic hurdles. The vast majority of the 37,000 refugees were young (almost half were under 25). In terms of the skills they brought to Canada, Pickersgill described them as “way and above the average stream of immigrants you get in ordinary times.”

The government took considerable pride in the success of the Hungarian Movement and rightly so. It was a success in its own right and a historic reference point for future refugee operations.

We do well to remember that it was the media coverage and popular demand for action that pushed the government to act.

— Michael Molloy, Adjunct Professor, University of Ottawa, & former Director General of Refugee Affairs

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