When the massacre of six men at a Quebec City mosque was commemorated In Parliament recently, the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, observed, “Our country has always welcomed those seeing freedom and better lives.” How wrong he was.
Canadian history is replete with examples of opposition to the arrival of newcomers. At no time, was this more evident than during the three decades between 1915 and 1945. The First World War, recession, uneven prosperity, the Great Depression, and then another world war, each in its turn helped to create antipathy to immigration and to throttle the movement of newcomers to this country.
During the Great Depression, there was even opposition — both federal and public — to accepting refugees who had escaped the engulfing Nazi tide and sought a new life in Canada. Fortunately, this widespread hostility to newcomers was not shared by all Canadians. Deeply disturbed by Canada’s immigration policy, some of them mobilized to fight on behalf of refugees. Foremost among the non-sectarian organizations was the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and Victims of Political Persecution, later shortened to the Canadian National Committee on Refugees (CNCR).
It was founded 80 years ago, in 1938, by the League of Nations Society in Canada, then headed by Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first woman senator. It was spurred to organize for a new struggle by the European pogroms in the autumn of 1938 and by the aftermath of the Munich Settlement, which saw a large chunk of Czechoslovakia surrender to Hitler and some 80,000 anti-Nazi residents flee for their lives. Under the chairmanship of Cairine Wilson the CNCR sought to bring about a dramatic change in government immigration policy during the pre-war and Second World War years.
The organization did not succeed in this objective. Nevertheless, it did manage to prod the Mackenzie King government into admitting refugees from the Iberian Peninsula in 1944. It also succeeded in settling individual families in Canada and in raising public awareness of the refugee question. Above all, it performed invaluable work in assisting anti-Nazi Germans, Italians and Austrians transported from Britain to Canada in 1940 and then interned in Canadian prison camps..
For further information about the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and its work, please consult my book First Person: A Biography of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s First Woman Senator