ARCHIVED – Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Citizenship and Immigration, 1900–1977

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Chapter 6 (continued)
Trail–Blazing Initiatives


top of page  Refugees

After Canada removed racial and geographical discrimination from its immigration policy and belatedly signed the Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol (Canada signed in 1969), refugees from outside Europe could apply for and frequently gain admission to this country.

As if to signal the import of these changes, Allan MacEachen, then Minister of Manpower and Immigration, declared in 1969, “Greater attention will be given to the acceptance of refugees for settlement in Canada from other parts of the world.”

Fittingly enough, the Minister made this promise the year after Canada began accepting Czechs who had fled their homeland when Warsaw Pact troops crushed an uprising intended to remove Czechoslovakia from the Soviet sphere of influence. Before the end of 1969, Canada would admit approximately 12,000 of these refugees. In the 1970s, the government would have many an opportunity to admit other groups of refugees and, in so doing, live up to its promise. In this decade Ottawa and the Canadian people would find themselves judged by their response to the fallout from the large international refugee movements that attracted so much attention in these years.

top of page  Refugees from Tibet

Expressed intentions were translated into action in 1971 and 1972 when Canada admitted some 228 Tibetans. Along with their fellow countrymen, these refugees had fled their homeland after China occupied it in 1959. Led by their Dalai Lama or spiritual leader, they had sought sanctuary in Nepal, but they were not welcome there. India, however, furnished them with as much assistance as it could. In 1966, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees tried to interest Canada in accepting some of the Tibetans, all of whom were agriculturalists, for permanent resettlement. Canada turned down the proposal that they be settled on land in groups.

There the matter might have died but for the interest that a later Canadian High Commissioner to India, James George, took in their plight. In the late 1960s, largely through his efforts, plans were devised to bring this small group to Canada, where, despite initial difficulties, they adapted quickly and successfully to Canadian life.

top of page  The Ugandan Asians

Among the newcomers accepted from Africa in these years was a group of well–trained and highly educated Asians who had been expelled from Uganda by Idi Amin’s decree of August 1972. In response to an urgent appeal from the British government, Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government decided to accept some 5,000 of these refugees. However, despite the opposition parties’ tacit agreement with the decision, the government moved cautiously, sensing marked public opposition to the exercise and fearing a backlash if the Asians were granted special concessions. Only when the situation grew more critical with the approach of the deportation deadline did Ottawa relax the points system and medical requirements for the Asians. Eventually 4,420 of these refugees entered Canada, arriving on an emergency airlift conducted between October and November 1972. Another 1,278 Ugandan Asians followed them in the first half of 1973.

Photo of Asian immigrants boarding plane in Uganda, 1972

Asian immigrants boarding plane at Entebbe Airport, Uganda, 1972.

Roger St. Vincent Collection

top of page  Draft–age Americans in Canada

American draft–dodgers and military deserters who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War would ignite even more controversy, some of it provoked by the Canadian government’s initial refusal to admit those who could not prove that they had been discharged from military service (this changed in 1968). Draft–dodgers were usually college–educated sons of the middle class who could no longer defer induction into the Selective Service System; deserters, on the other hand, were predominantly sons of the lower–income and working classes who had been inducted into the armed services directly from high school or who had volunteered, hoping to obtain a skill and broaden their limited horizons.

Starting in 1965, Canada became a choice haven for American draft–dodgers and deserters. Because they were not formally classified as refugees but were admitted as immigrants, there is no official estimate of how many draft–dodgers and deserters were admitted to Canada during the Vietnam War. One informed estimate puts their number between 30,000 and 40,000. Whether or not this estimate is accurate, the fact remains that immigration from the United States was high as long as the war raged and that in 1971 and 1972 Canada received more immigrants from the United States than from any other country. Although some of these transplanted Americans returned home after the Vietnam War, most of them put down roots in Canada, making up the largest, best–educated group this country had ever received.

Photo of a group of U.S. Army deserters who fled to Canada, 1970

A group of U.S. Army deserters who fled to Canada and reunited at the American Deserters Committee, Montreal, Quebec, 7 February 1970.

National Archives of Canada (PA 153762)

top of page  Refugees from Chile

Further controversy was unleashed when over 7,000 Chilean and other Latin American refugees were admitted to Canada after the violent overthrow of Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Socialist–Communist government in 1973. Chilean and non–Chilean supporters of the old regime had fled the oppression directed against them by Chile’s new military ruler, General Pinochet, in the wake of the coup.

Although Canada took the refugees in, it did so grudgingly—at least initially. Despite pressure from Amnesty International, church, labour, and Latino groups, the government was slow to react, not wanting to antagonize Chile’s new administration and the United States, which had deplored Chile’s slide into economic chaos under Allende. Ideological rather than racial considerations had apparently become a determining factor in Canada’s admissions policy.

top of page  The boat people

This country was far more humanitarian in its response to the plight of the “boat people,” Vietnamese, Laotians, and Kampucheans who fled Communist regimes in the wake of Saigon’s fall in 1975. In 1979 and 1980, Canada accepted approximately 60,000 of these refugees, most of whom had endured several days in small, leaky boats, prey to vicious pirate attacks, before ending up in squalid camps in Thailand and Malaysia. Their numbers were such that they comprised 25 percent of all the newcomers to this country between 1978 and 1981, a very high proportion given that refugees normally make up only about 10 percent of the annual flow to Canada.

Photo of small boat with Vietnamese refugees on board

Arrival of a small boat with 162 Vietnamese refugees on board. The boat sank a few metres from the shore. Most of the refugees were rescued and reached the coast safely.

UNHCR/K. Gaugler

It was not until 1978, however, that the movement of the boat people to Canada gained momentum. Its springboard was the announcement that Canada would offer a home to 600 refugees on board the Hai Hong, which the Malaysian government had refused permission to dock. In the following year, the defeat of the Liberals and their replacement by Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative government coincided with a dramatic increase in the number of refugees fleeing Vietnam. In response to intensive lobbying by church congregations and other organizations in the voluntary sector, the government announced in July 1979 that it would admit 50,000 refugees to Canada by the end of 1980. The decision provided for both privately sponsored and government–sponsored refugees, the government initially agreeing to match each refugee that individuals and church and other voluntary groups supported. Thanks in large part to the Clark government’s generous response, some 77,000 Indo–Chinese refugees entered Canada between 1975 and 1981.

Michael Ondaatje:
Writer and Filmmaker

Anyone who has seen The English Patient instinctively recognizes it as one of the most haunting, harrowing, and beautiful films ever made. But does the viewer also realize that it is based on an award–winning novel written by a Canadian, and that this same Canadian co–authored the film’s script?

Michael Ondaatje has gained an international reputation as a Canadian novelist, poet, and filmmaker, but he was actually born in Colombo, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), on 12 September 1943, to a privileged and exotic family of Dutch, Sinhalese, and Tamil ancestry. In 1962, he emigrated to Canada via England, where he had studied at Dulwich College, London.

Ondaatje continued his formal education at Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec (1962–64), at University College, University of Toronto, where he obtained a BA in 1965, and at Queen’s University, which awarded him a master’s degree in 1967.

The author’s first collections of poetry include The Dainty Monsters (1967), The Man with Seven Toes (1969), and Rat Jelly (1973). The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (poetry and prose), a factual and fictional recreation of the life of the celebrated outlaw, won the Governor General’s Award in 1970. It has been adapted for stage and produced at Toronto, New York, and Stratford.

His book Coming through Slaughter (1976) employs fiction, fact, and poetry in a recounting of real and imagined events in the life of New Orleans jazz cornetist, Buddy Bolden, while Running in the Family (1982) depicts the unconventional lives of Ondaatje’s parents and grandparents. A book of collected poems written between 1963 and 1978, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, won him a second Governor General’s Award in 1979. In the Skin of a Lion (1987), a novel set in Toronto, received the Trillium award.

Michael Ondaatje also has several films to his credit, including Sons of Captain Poetry, which is about the poet bp Nichol, Carry On Crime and Punishment, The Clinton Special, which deals with Theatre Passe Muraille’s Farm Show, and Royal Canadian Hounds.

The author and filmmaker has combined his writing with teaching at York University, Toronto, and editing collections of poems and stories. He will probably be best–known, however, for his novel, The English Patient, which not only garnered a Governor General’s Award for fiction (1992) and the coveted Booker Prize but also inspired the film that won nine Academy awards.

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