Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1923-48: “None is Too Many”

While writing a paper for a class on Canadian political theology, I was shocked and saddened to learn about our response, or lack thereof, to the Jewish refugee crisis during World War II. Here’s my short summary of the story told in Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s award-winning history None is Too Many.

On May 15, 1939, the M.S. St. Louis left Hamburg with 907 Jews fleeing Nazi Germany. Two weeks later they reached Cuba, but the government refused to recognize their Cuban entrance visas. This set off a series of frantic appeals by Jewish organizations to other countries, including Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Panama, and the United States. All rejected their frantic appeals to land, and the U.S. even sent a Coast Guard gunboat to prevent them from doing so. Canada was also approached, and the Prime Minister consulted with his cabinet and officials, who recommended he deny the request. As Canada’s director of immigration explained, there was no country that could “open its doors wide enough to take in the hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere.” (64) Canada drew its line and also refused permission to land, and the St. Louis returned to Germany, where an estimated 254 of the refugees on board would perish in the Holocaust.

Sadly, the response to the St. Louis was characteristic of Canada’s general attitude  towards Jewish refugees before and during World War II, when the Canadian government systematically tightened immigration policy to prevent Jews from entering Canada. At the time, anti-Semitism was pervasive in all western countries, but Jews presented a particular problem for Canadian public policy, which saw non-Anglo immigrants as suitable only if they settled in rural areas and worked in mining, forestry, or agriculture. Because Jews were much more likely than other immigrants to settle in cities, they were perceived as threatening Anglo-Canadian jobs and culture. Thus, even before the Great Depression, in 1923 Canada’s government began ranking potential immigrants by their degree of racial similarity to Anglo-Canadians. “Would-be European settlers were divided into three groups: the Preferred Class, the Non-Preferred Class, and a group called the Special Permit Class.” (xii) Immigrants were sorted into these groups by their country of origin, except for non-British Jews, who required a special permit regardless of their citizenship or birthplace. Subsequently, Jews could only enter Canada in three ways: with specific cabinet approval, as part of the railway settlement program, or by being first degree relatives of already successful immigrants.

Then the depression came. In 1930 and 1931, two Orders-in-Council set up capital requirements for immigration and also “effectively banned all non-agricultural immigrants unless either British or American.” (6) After these changes to immigration policy, all that remained was enforcement. Under the Liberal government elected in 1935, there was no minister of immigration. Instead the Immigration Branch was part of the Department of Mines and Resources, and the minister responsible was Thomas Carlyle. Unfortunately, Carlyle deferred to the director of immigration, Frederick Blair, who was not only against immigration, but against Jewish immigration in particular. For example, before 1938 Jews could still apply to immigrate as part of the railway settlement program, designed to bring farmers to the Western prairies. Then Blair “removed the responsibility for processing Jewish applicants from railway personnel offices to his own, where he personally scrutinized each application.” (16)  Blair still admitted 50 Jewish families a year, but his action guaranteed no overzealous railway agent would allow more. (16) As Blair told his minister later that year, “pressure on the part of Jewish people has never been greater than it is now, and I am glad to be able to add … that it was never so well controlled.” (8)

However, Abella and Troper argue Prime Minister Mackenzie King and his Cabinet were ultimately responsible for keeping Jews out of Canada. King was apprehensive about the effect admitting Jews would have on Canadian unity and civil order. As the Prime Minister wrote in his diary in March 1938, “We must … seek to keep this part of the continent free from unrest and from too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood.” (17) He was particularly concerned to pacify Quebec, where the Liberal party was struggling and where newspapers and politicians regularly denounced Jewish immigration and refugees. Therefore, King supported the increasingly restrictive policies of the Immigration Branch. He also opposed the American proposal for an international conference on Jewish refugees, warning of the possible political consequences. “Other governments with unwanted minorities must equally not be encouraged to think that harsh treatment at home is the key that will open the doors to immigration abroad.” (27) In reality, the failure of the conference at Evian in July 1938 taught the opposite lesson. As one Nazi newspaper put it, “the Evian Conference serves to justify Germany’s policy against Jewry.” (32) And they were right: no one wanted the Jews. Indeed, a month after the conference, Blair convinced his minister to raise the capital requirements for Jews higher, to $15,000.

That fall was Kristallnacht. On November 9, 1938, Jewish homes and businesses across Germany were attacked, and Jews were beaten, killed, and dragged to concentration camps. The news quickly reached the West, and thousands across Canada turned out to protest Nazi brutality and sign petitions calling on the government to accommodate Jewish refugees. King was moved, but after speaking with his cabinet, he told a Jewish delegation his duty was “the avoidance of strife … [and] maintaining the unity of the country.” (42) And indeed, despite a popular outcry in the Anglo-Canadian press, political opinion remained firmly against welcoming Jews to Canada. King’s secretary of state, Fernand Rinfret, justified the government’s position on economic grounds. “So long as Canada has an unemployment problem, there will be no ‘open door’ for political refugees here.” (58) The leader of the Conservative Party, Robert Manion, articulated the same justification. (59) It was no coincidence that both speeches were made in Quebec where anti-Jewish sentiment was at its’ highest. Of the three party leaders in parliament, only the leader of the CCF, J. S. Woodsworth, joined Liberal back-benchers in criticizing government policy.

Therefore, the refusal of the St. Louis in May of that year was perfectly in keeping with the government’s general policy. “As late as March 1939, [the immigration branch] was attempting to expel Jews who had only tourist visas back to Germany.” (61) And after Canada declared war on Germany in September, the border became even tighter. Blair instructed immigration officials to refuse visas to Jewish refugees in Britain and France and insisted no nationals from Germany or “any country occupied by Germany” would be admitted regardless of their refugee status. (69) Then in 1940, the Canadian government even canceled transit rights and pre-examination procedures for refugees destined to travel through Canada to other countries. Possibly the only Jewish refugees to arrive in Canada that year was a group of interned aliens from Britain, who included over a thousand German Jews who spent the next two years in prisoner of war camps. A small number of Jews from Japan and Portugal trickled through the next year, as a portion of the thousands of refugees from Poland. Then, in 1942, stories of Jews disappearing and being massacred by the Nazis began to leak out of Poland, and Jewish organizations put pressure on the Allies to denounce the genocide. In December, the Canadian government agreed to do so but no change in policy followed. Visas for thousands of Jewish children were even denied after furious negotiations. (101-125) For the rest of the war, and for three years afterwards, almost no Jewish refugees would enter Canada.

Finally, in 1948, the wall fell and Jews began to be admitted to Canada as part of a general upswing in immigration. What changed was Canada’s economy, which demanded labour for its post-war recovery. The Minister of Reconstruction and Supply was pro-immigration and he influenced the prime minister to choose a pro-immigration bureaucrat as Blair’s replacement. (239-40) Also, in May the state of Israel was proclaimed and mass European immigration to the new Jewish homeland began to relieve pressure on Canada to accept Jewish refugees. Coincidentally, seven months earlier “Canada broke with Britain at the United Nations and voted for the partition of Palestine into two states.” (278n101) Abella and Troper do not argue Canada voted for partition solely to divert Jewish refugees away from Canada, but they do cite government correspondence that demonstrates the Canadian delegation was aware of this benefit. (329n102)

Through the consistent efforts of the immigration branch, Canada largely succeeded in preventing Jewish immigration, before, during, and immediately after World War II. Abella and Troper estimate that Canada accepted less than 5000 Jews between 1933 and 1945, proportionally much less than the hundreds of thousands saved by the US and the UK. Of course, even those numbers pale in comparison to the millions of Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. Still, why was Canada even more callous than its peers? Abella and Troper argue Mackenzie King and his cabinet accurately understood public antipathy towards Jewish immigration and reflected it in their policies. To do otherwise would have courted political disaster for the Liberal Party. “There were not votes to be gained in admitting Jews; there were, however, many to be lost.” (282) Canada’s normal anti-Semitism was further reinforced by the economic crisis, which made all immigration unpopular. Finally, Jews had little influence in Ottawa, where their outsider status was reinforced by the many “Christians only” signs dotting the capitol – signs which were intended to bar Jews, not atheists. In this context, Abella and Troper conclude that Canada’s Jewish community could never have obtained much more consideration from the government, regardless of their tactics. Quite simply, Jews were not welcome in Canada.