This year, Canada celebrates its one hundred and fiftieth birthday. a century and a half as a nation based on immigration. There will, of course, be other public milestones marked this year, some of which will receive little recognition,but which, nevertheless, deserve mention. One of these was the unveiling of a plaque to commemorate the opening of Petofi house. Its opening sixty years ago was recalled by an engineer, who told me how grateful he was for the generous help provided by Petofi House’s director, Dr.E. Clifford Knowles, my father-in-law.
Established at McGill University in Montreal, Petofi House was a residence for Hungarian student refugees. Its opening was heralded by an announcement made by Jack Pickersgill, then the minister of Citizenship and Immigration. On February 25, 1957, he informed the House of Commons that the “board of governors of McGill University, acting in co-operation with the government of Canada and the national conference of Canadian universities, have made available a hostel for the Hungarian student refugees until August 15, 1957, at which time these buildings will be required for academic use.”
These Hungarians were part of a large influx of refugees that fled Hungary for Austria after Russia’s brutal crushing of the Hungarian uprisings of October and November 1956. As the revolution unfolded the coffers and facilities of Austria became so taxed that an SOS went out for help.
Among those countries that responded was Canada, which agreed to accept some of the refugees for permanent settlement.Initially this country’s response was cautious, but then pressure steadily mounted outside the government and Parliament for a more energetic response. As a result, the government decided in late November to proceed with a generous admission program.
During the opening months of 1957, over two hundred chartered flights brought nearly 17,600 immigrants to Canada, many of whom were Hungarians. Among them was a sizable group from the Faculty of Forest Engineering at the University of Sopron, some 350 students, professors and families. Thanks to initiatives taken by Pickersgill, the forest faculty was incorporated into the University of British Columbia. Another group, associated with Sopron’s Faculty of Mining Engineering, made up of approximately 150 people, went to the University of Toronto.
Never before had such a large number of refugees arrived in Canada in such a short time. Equally significant, the influx of Hungarians actually succeeded in uniting the House of Commons briefly on an immigration issue, a remarkable feat.
For further particulars about the Hungarian refugees, please consult my book “Strangers At Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2015 (4th edition).