Passangers aboard the Komagata Maru Photo: CC, Leonard Juda Frank
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Canada’s past can show us how not to handle crises that happen today

If all goes according to the Liberal government’s plan, 10,000 Syrian refugees will be admitted into our country before the year is out. 

Unfortunately, many people are adamantly against the idea of letting refugees into the country, citing security concerns.

A quick glance at different social media platforms, and you’re bombarded with comments such as “focus on Canadians first,” among others, that condemn the idea of giving refugees sanctuary in Canada.

The idea that Canada is a nation of immigrants, with the exception of Indigenous peoples, has already been brought up, when discussing how many refugees Canada should let in.

However despite our reputation for multiculturalism and openness, Canada has denied entry to those fleeing persecution before—and if you’re surprised to hear that, it’s probably because it’s not something our country likes to proudly talk about. 

First, and perhaps most infamously, we have the S.S. St. Louis—a ship carrying 907 German Jews that was denied access to Cuba, the U.S., a whole host of Central American countries, and then finally Canada.

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, members of his government, and the general public felt that this wasn’t a Canadian problem, and that taking in all of the Jewish people fleeing Nazi persecution wouldn’t be feasible.

A common view at the time was that someone had to draw the line at allowing refugees in, and it might as well have been Canada. The SS St. Louis was turned around when it arrived in 1939 and returned to Europe. Of the 907 who were denied access to Canada at least 254 would die in Europe, according to the National Post.

In 1914 came the S.S. Komagata Maru, a ship with economic immigrants from India. The ship and its 376 occupants were confined to a port in Vancouver for almost two months without being resupplied by the government. The ship and its passengers were eventually forced to leave under the watchful eye of two Canadian naval vessels.

The  reason given for the exclusion of these passengers was the “Continuous Passage Act”, which meant that only ships that had arrived directly from their port of origin, without stops, would be accepted into Canada.

The treatment of Chinese immigrants in the early 20th century is yet another refugee issue that Canada failed to act on. Taxes were imposed by Canada that limited the amount of family members a worker could bring over by charging a price per person.

There was also the “Chinese Exclusion Act” which refused entry to any Chinese immigrant who wasn’t a merchant, dignitary or student. Passed in 1923 under Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, this law wasn’t repealed until 1947. Some of these refused Chinese immigrants were hoping to join family that had arrived to do work on the railroad, while others were fleeing the first skirmishes of the Chinese civil war.

Does any of this sound familiar? If you’ve been paying the headlines any attention over the past few weeks, it should be clear that we are living through one of these moments right now—and now is exactly the time to change this pattern. In 20 or 30 years from now we can point to the current refugee crisis and say that, in comparison to Canada’s previous refugee situations, we did the right thing.

As a country we need to change our attitudes toward refugees to ensure that future Canadians are proud of their country’s identity on a global scale, and do those Canadian history books a favour.

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