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Five important waves of refugees Canada has admitted since WWII

By Pieta Woolley

Quakers, United Empire Loyalists, Highland Scots, Black Americans fleeing slavery —  back in the 19th century, Canada attracted large numbers of people fleeing persecution, dire poverty and war at home. But throughout the 20th century, regulations on refugees tightened, and numbers dwindled.

Today, Canada regularly takes in between 10,000 and 20,000 annually (part of the 250,000 immigrants Canada accepts each year). That’s dwarfed by the roughly 20 million refugees who have become a fixture of the 21st century world. So morally, when we meet our maker, we may have some ‘splanin’ to do.

Nevertheless, there have been several significant waves of refugees since WWII, and with each new mass situation, Canada’s refugee laws seemed to have morphed.

1. European Displaced Persons
After WWII, Canada admitted 165,000 “displaced persons” — Europe’s internal refugees. Many came under a new Bulk Labour Program, matching people to manual jobs in Canada. By 1947, Europe had about 1 million Displaced Persons, originally from Poland, Estonia, Austria and other invaded countries, who were living in camps with nowhere to go (There’s currently about 170,000 Canadians who were born in Poland — a mix of those original refugees, and those who came through other immigration programs).

2. Czech and Slovak
About 36,000 people fled the old Czechoslovakia for Canada during the Cold War, spurred by the Warsaw Pact Invasion of 1968 (Canada accepted 11,000 within months of the invasion). Many who came were chosen for their advanced education and skills (There’s currently about 22,000 Canadians who were born in Czech Republic — a mix of those original refugees, and those who came through other immigration programs).

3. American Vietnamese War resistors
As many as 300,000 American draft dodgers and war resistors came to Canada between 1966 and 1973. Tellingly, Canada has no official statistics on this number, and it’s often referred to as “tens of thousands.” The 300,000 number is an American calculation. Some were able to “immigrate” under the new points system; others were part of a one-time amnesty granted in 1973. On the West Coast, it seems every second boomer-generation man — at the top of Vancouver’s business scene or in the woods, still “living off the land,” — came here as a draft dodger/war resistor (There’s currently about 250,000 Canadians who were born in the U.S. — a mix of those original war resistors, and those who came through other immigration programs).

4. Ugandan
In 1972, when dictator Idi Amin ordered the expulsion of Asians from Uganda, Canadian officials flew to that country's capital and processed 6,000 claims in two months. Then, the Canadian government flew the refugees to Montreal, where they were given winter clothes, and helped them resettle across the country (Interestingly, there’s currently just under 300 Canadians who were born in Uganda. Many of those original 6,000 were born in India. There are about 450,000 Canadians who were born in India).

5. Vietnamese
In the 10 years after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, 110,000 Vietnamese refugees came to Canada, often sponsored by churches. Some credit public moral pressure  — stemming from Canada’s tight controls during previous humanitarian crises — with convincing the Joe Clark government to admit greater numbers of refugees (There’s currently about 160,000 Canadians who were born in Vietnam — a mix of those original refugees, and those who came through other immigration programs).

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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