Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
May 2006

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Why did Canada Refuse to Admit

Jewish Refugees in the 1930's?


Claude Bélanger,

Department of History,

Marianopolis College


The rise to power of Hitler in early 1933, and the establishment of Nazism in Germany, led in the remaining years of the 1930's to a set of increasingly severe measures against Jews that were to end, in the course of the Second World War, with the Holocaust, an attempt to annihilate an entire people and in which an estimated 6 million European Jews were to die. In the 1930's, the boycotts initiated in 1933 and 1934, the Nuremberg laws (1935) and Kristallnacht (1938) gave clear signals to the Jews of Germany that they should leave the country and seek asylum elsewhere. The main problem they faced was that few countries were prepared to accept large numbers of refugees. For its part, Canada only admitted around 5,000 Jewish refugees in the 1930's. What explains such a low number?

  1. A first factor was the impact of the Great Depression. The 1930's brought misery to Canadians as low wages and high rates of unemployment became the norm at the same time as prices remained comparatively high. Unemployment reached about 30% in 1933, and the percentage was even higher for certain categories of workers, or in certain regions. For example, the rate of unemployment among the young males between the ages of 16 and 24 of Quebec City reached 46% in 1936-1937 if we are to trust the result of a survey conducted by the local chapter of the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne. It should be borne in mind that unemployment insurance did not yet exist in the 1930's. As well, Canadians had always been conditioned to think of immigration as essentially serving the economic interest of Canada. Immigration had been supported by ordinary Canadians to the extent that the immigrants "knew their place", that they contributed to the Canadian economy, that is that they settled on farms in the great western prairies of Canada, that they were not seen as competing for the often scarce industrial jobs of Canada. When the job market contracted, few in Canada were prepared to support the entrance of any large number of immigrants. These could only be seen as potentially entering Canada to compete for jobs and depressing wages further. Governments were accutely aware of these feelings and adjusted the system accordingly. Thus, in 1907, in 1913, and again in 1919-1921 – all years witnessing economic strains in Canada – steps had been taken to reduce immigration. As time passed, Canadian governments became increasingly effective at regulating immigration and matching it to the impulses of the economy. In this respect, the Great Depression was to decimate immigration in Canada. Its first impact can be measured by looking at the rapidly rising number of deportations of immigrants that occured during the Great Depression. If immigrants lost their job, which was frequently the case since they were the last to be hired, they were ruthlessly deported from Canada. Between 1930 and 1934, 16,765 immigrants were deported from Canada as having become "public charge"; by 1935, the number of deportations had reached more than 28,000. These numbers were several times the rate of deportation seen in the 1920's. As time passed, the grounds for deportation became more and more varied: one could be deported for union activities, or for membership in the Communist Party, for medical reasons or for petty charges of criminality, such as vagrancy, a not uncommon charge during the Great Depression. The ruthless application of deportation shows to what extent immigration was unpopular in the country during the depression years. In this context, immigrants found few friends in Canada. The first few years of the Great Depression saw several restrictive regulations adopted by the Canadian government (P. C. 1113 in 1929; P. C. 659 and 1957 in 1930 and P. C. 695 in 1931). The net effect of these regulations was that, by 1932, only Americans, British subjects and agriculturalists with enough capital to start farming in Canada could be admitted. In the process, the number of landed immigrants into Canada had gone from 166,783 in 1928 to 14,382 in 1933 (and was to continue to decrease until 1937). Thus, Jews attempted to enter Canada in the 1930's at a time when the country had nearly entirely closed its doors to immigrants and when immigration was likely at its most unpopular level since Confederation. As historians Robert Bothwell, Ian Drummond and John English put it in their book entitled Canada, 1900-1945: "For Canadians, the Great Depression was the overwhelming fact of the decade (p. 295)." It should also be noted that the percentage of Jews in the overall number of immigrants to Canada in the 1930's did not decrease when we compare it to the situation that prevailed in the period of 1896 to 1929.
  2. Another problem for Jews was that Canada did not have a refugee policy. Essentially, the country did not distinguish between refugees – who clearly would require special considerations, if not the total suspension of the ordinary rules – and regular immigrants. Consequently, refugees were required to follow all the regulations that were imposed on ordinary immigrants. How could a Jewish refugee from Germany who had been dispossessed of all his worldly possessions show he could support himself in Canada? Canada had admitted some groups of refugees in the XIXth century (Hutterites and Mennonites for example) but only because these were farmers who came as a block settlement at a time of intensive western development, and who otherwise qualified under Canadian Immigration Law. Other groups, such as Armenians for example, had been largely denied asylum in Canada (see Isabel Kaprielian-Churchill, "Armenian Regugees and their Entry into Canada, 1919-1930", Canadian Historical Review, Vol. LXXI, No. 1 (Spring 1990): 80-108). Only after the Second World War did Canada begin to develop a significant refugee policy. The absence of a generous and sensitive refugee policy in Canada during the Great Depression was hugely felt by Jews in the 1930's.
  3. A particularly important factor in the plight of Jewish refugees was the widespread presence of Anti-semitism in Canada. This factor cannot be ignored or underestimated, although its impact is also sometimes overestimated. Historian David Rome wrote in Clouds in the Thirties (Vol. 11, p. 510): "The reluctance of the Canadian government to admit Jewish refugees in any great numbers was a fair reflection of public opinion [...] which was a strong Anglo-Saxon nativism permeated with Anti-semitism". Thus, even when Jews would have had the means to support themselves in Canada, they were often refused entry. For instance, after Kristallnacht (1938), the Canadian Jewish Congress was prepared to sponsor the coming, and guarantee the financial support of 10,000 Jewish refugees to Canada. Yet, the government of Canada rejected this proposal. The reason was simple: not only was immigration unpopular in the context of the Great Depression, but, as well, Anti-semitism was rife in Canada. The social exclusion of Jews was common in the institutions of English-speaking Canada while a vociferous anti-semitic discourse was heard in Quebec, spearheaded by the home-grown Nazi movement of Adrien Arcand, and legitimized by some members of the Catholic clergy and, otherwise, respectable newspapers such as Montreal's Le Devoir. Thus, Jews had few friends in Canada and many enemies. In Quebec, for the most part, Jewish immigration was unwanted because any immigration was unpopular and Jews were seen, especially by the ultramontane nationalists, as a threat to the Catholic values of the province. Furthermore, for decades, the Federal Government had conducted an aggressive immigration policy oblivious to the bilingual and bicultural character of Canada, not sufficiently concerned with Quebec's wishes, hopes, goals and aspirations. The net result was to make Quebecers suspicious of the Federal Government, and of immigration in particular. Quebec's federal politicians – Rinfret, Cardin and, especially, Lapointe – voiced in cabinet these anti-immigration views and their opposition to the admission of Jewish refugees. The King government relied significantly on support from Quebec. However, Quebecers were plainly not alone in the country in expressing anti-Jewish feelings and opposing Jewish immigration. Still in 1946, a full year after the end of the war and of the disclosure of the horrors of the holocaust, a poll conducted by the Canadian Institute of Public Opinion showed that 60% of Canadians approved of the exclusion of Jews from Canadian immigration.The factor of Anti-semitism having been raised and its importance underlined, it should not be considered as the only factor at play, as it is sometimes portrayed. In the period of 1891 to 1931, tens of thousands of Jews entered Canada despite the existence of Anti-semitism. The percentage of Jews entering Canada before and during the Great Depression remained fairly steady (around 5-6%). Thus, by itself, Anti-semitism could not keep Jews out of Canada. However, compounded with the other factors presented above and below, it made it virtually impossible for Jews to find refuge in Canada in any significant numbers in the 1930's.
  4. The lack of an international sympathetic response to the Jewish refugees is also a factor to consider. Until the Evian Conference of 1938 no concerted international action in favour of the refugees was attempted. Even after the Conference was held, little changed. While several countries did noticeably better than Canada in admitting refugees (others did even less), none can be said to have had a really favourable position to the Jewish refugees and to have had a generous policy; the closest to generosity were Argentina (63,000) and the United States (102,000). Had the rest of the world mounted a significant response, Canada might have been shamed into following a similar course. In the context of the 1930's, few countries could point an accusing finger to other countries.
  5. The negative response in Canada to Jewish refugees is also a clear indicator of the lack of influence of the Jewish community in Canada. Here we touch a rather interesting point. Antisemites were fond of accusing Jews of controlling the government and the economy (or the world, as claimed by the more extreme antisemites of the time). Yet, Jews were unable to have their brothers and sisters of Germany accepted in Canada. Clearly, this was because as a group of fairly recent immigrants they, in fact, had little influence in Canada. There were only three Jewish members of Parliament and the Jewish community trusted too much that they could achieve results through quiet diplomacy.
  6. Still, if Canada had had a different federal government, the response might have been more positive. However, Mackenzie King was not a Prime Minister to forge ahead and challenge public opinion. On the contrary, he made it a habit of never straying too far from popular desires. From time to time, Mackenzie King expressed sympathy with the plight of the Jews of Germany, especially from 1938. He was not a rabid antisemite, as some ill-informed commentators have written. He admired some qualities that he associated with Jews but also held negative views and suscribed to stereotypes about them. On this, he was probably typical of the views of many Canadians. He built his public career on identifying properly the prevailing wind of public opinion. He was forever cautious, identifying the welfare of the country with the health of his government. Anything that threatened the position of the government he led must be rooted out as the welfare of the country would suffer if his government had to be replaced. Appropriately, he was extremely concerned with the maintenance of national unity, with keeping Quebec and the rest of the country working in the same direction. On the question of immigration and Jewish refugees, the electors of Canada were clear: the doors should remain closed. King was not about to do otherwise.
  7. The very magnitude of the problem probably also contributed to the difficulty in solving it. As Hitler enlarged progressively "his country" by annexation (Austria, Sudetenland, etc.) more and more Jewish refugees were created. Where would it end? Many Canadians seem to have reflected that if a boatload of refugees was allowed to land, many more would evidently follow? Many thought - and the Director of the Canadian Immigration Branch, Frederick Blair, was among them - that "the line must be drawn somewhere", and that it would be best not to admit any at all.

Thus, a web of complex factors brought about Canada's poor response to the desperate appeal of the Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. In responding so negatively, the government of Mackenzie King followed the lead of its predecessors who had never developed a refugee policy. King was not about to create one for a group that faced so much prejudice and discrimination in Canada. He faced little pressure from the international community, or from ordinary Canadians, to adopt a different policy. Unfortunately, during the Great Depression, too many people were hurting and were not in the mood to pay much attention to the problems of others...


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© 2006 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College