A History of Refugees In Canada

July 10, 2016 2 Comments

A History of Refugees In Canada

There has been a significant amount of feedback on social media about how SuraiTea should not be providing employment to refugees over Canadians who were already here. The short response to this is that we provide employment to all types of people; natural born Canadians, immigrant Canadians and refugee Canadians. However, we wanted to provide some history on how refugees have helped form this country and its history. We also wanted to show those opposed to what we are doing, how many of these same refugees will become the entrepreneurs which create the very jobs and opportunities which we enjoy here in Canada one day. You wouldn't believe how quickly many of the employees of SuraiTea have already begun planning for their own businesses!

Anyway, we hope you like it! Leave us a post if you have any comments or questions.

Best Regards,

Kevin Smiley, Founder


A History of Refugees In Canada

Canada has adopted more than 1 million refugees since the end of World War Two. This includes prominent public figures such as:

  • Adrienne Clarkson, former Governor General
  • Michaelle Jean, former Governor General
  • Maryam Monsef, current Minister of Democratic Institutions
  • Ahmed Hussen, current MP

There are two options for the process by which refugees can gain refugee status in Canada:

    A) Asylum seekers come to Canada on their own and prove to the Immigration and Refugee Board that they are a refugee.
      B) Asylum seekers gain refugee status from the Office of the United National High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or from the country which they are fleeing. Those who receive the refugee status can come to Canada in one of three ways:
        1. As a government assisted refugee;
        2. As a privately sponsored refugee; and,
        3. As a blended visa-office referred refugee in which case responsibility is shared equally between the government and private sponsors.

      The average number of refugees welcomed to Canada per year from 1979 to present is 27,600. Per 1000 inhabitants, Canada ranks 27th in terms of total number of refugees per natural born citizens. 

      Refugees are an incredible source of human capital. After their initial settlement period, refugees become employed and pay taxes. They thereby contribute to the Canadian economy by adding to its workforce and tax base. Moreover, refugees are often highly educated people, and Canada benefits from their knowledge, talents, and skills. Refugees contribute positively to the Canadian economy. Many of them possess an entrepreneurial spirit, the kind of spirit that would be required to fling yourself and your family halfway across the world in search of safety; they start businesses that provide jobs for themselves and for other Canadians. The following is a brief timeline of refugee resettlement in Canada since the beginning of this beautiful country we call home.


      Loyalists, African Americans, and Iroquois (1775-1783)
      Canada’s history of refugee resettlement began at the time of the American Revolution. Nearly 100 years before the 1867 Constitution Act which officially proclaimed the Canadian confederation, 40,000 to 50,000 people sought refuge and settled along the southern edges of Upper and Lower Canada. Though most were people of British extraction, this first wave of refugees also included nearly 3000 African Americans, freemen and slaves, and nearly 2000 indigenous allies, mostly Six Nation Iroquois.


      African Americans (from 1793)

      In 1793, Upper Canada abolished slavery; it was the first province in the British Empire to do so. Over the next 100 years, it is estimated that approximately 30,000 African American slaves escaped from the United States and sought refuge in Upper and Lower Canada with the aid of the Underground Railroad.


      Scots (1770-1815)

      Troubles relating to the Highland Clearances that accompanied the forced modernization of Scotland led approximately 15,000 Highland Scots to seek refuge in Canada between 1770 and 1815. Most of these settled in Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and Upper Canada. At that time, Gaelic became the third most common non-indigenous language in Canada.


      The Irish (Late 1840s)

      It is estimated that between 1.5 and 2 million people fled Ireland because of the Great Famine, also known as the Potato Famine. Tens of thousands found refuge in Canada.


      Poles (1830 and 1858)

      Many Polish people who took part in uprising and insurrections against the Russian and Prussian occupiers in Poland sought refuge in Canada. The first arrived following the 1830 Uprising against Russian occupation, and a second larger wave arrived after the insurrection against Prussian occupiers in 1858.


      Italians (1880-1914)

      First fleeing the ravages of Italian Unification, and then forced off their land as Italy began to implement wide ranging reforms, thousands of Italians came to Canada.


      Jews (1880-1914, 1950s-1970s, 1970s-1990s)

      Between 1880 and 1914, thousands of Jewish people fled from pogroms in Eastern Europe and sought refuge in Canada. They joined already substantial Jewish communities in Montreal, Toronto and other Canadian cities. Many more Jewish people fleeing difficult circumstances in Europe the Middle East and North Africa arrived in Canada throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. In the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, 20,000 Soviet Jews who had been deprived of basic political and religious freedoms in the USSR were welcomed in Canada.


      Ukrainians (1891, 1920-1939, 1945-1952)

      The first wave of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Canada in 1891 consisted of 170,000 people fleeing oppression under Austro-Hungarian rule. The second (1920-1939) and third (1945-1952) waves consisted of people fleeing from civil war, Soviet occupation, and communist rule.


      Sikhs (1914)

      Canada turned away 376 refugees, most of whom where Sikhs, who had crossed the Pacific Ocean on the Komagata Maru. Forced to sail back across the Pacific, and many were massacred when they returned to India. On May 18, 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a formal apology for the incident in the House of Commons.


      German Jews (1939)

      Canada turned away hundreds of Jewish German refugees on board the SS St. Louis, who were forced to return to Germany where they faced death. Canada eventually accepted approximately 4000 European Jews, but this paled in comparison to the efforts deployed in other countries. The refusal to provide refuge to Jewish people fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe came to be recognized as a national shame.


      Post World War Two Displaced People (1947-1956)

      Despite some resistance, the Canadian Government acknowledged Canada’s moral obligation to assist people who had been displaced by World War Two and who did not wish to return to Communist dominated countries, and offered refuge to 163,000 people by the end of 1951, and to 29,000 Easter Europeans between 1951 and 1956.


      Palestinians (1956)

      Many Arab Palestinians were driven from their homes during the Israeli-Arab war of 1948. By 1955, it was estimated that approximately 900,000 Arab Palestinian refugees lived in Gaza and in the neighbouring countries of Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan. In 1956, Canada welcomed 39 Arab Palestinian families.


      Hungarians (1956)

      In 1956, Hungarians rebelled against Soviet occupation. By the time the attempted revolution was suppressed, nearly a quarter of a million Hungarians had escaped the country. The Canadian government was very slow to react at first, but the media covered the events of the uprising extensively, and the Canadian public came perceive the Hungarian refugees as freedom fighters. Public opinion turned in favour of the refugees and Canadian media was filled with calls on the government to do something. Responding to strong domestic pressure, the Canadian government eventually jumped into action, and resettled 37,000 Hungarian refugees.


      Chinese People (1960s)

      Throughout the 1960s, hundreds of thousands of people sought to flee from ravages and instability associated with large-scale economic and social reform projects in China. Thousands applied to seek refuge in Canada. 109 families were selected to be resettled in Canada in the early 1960s, but most were turned away.


      Czechoslovakians (1968-1969)

      11,000 Czechoslovakians were granted refuge in Canada following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Many individual Canadians, Canadian universities, provincial and municipal agencies, and other organizations rallied in an effort to facilitate the resettlement process.


      Tibetans (1970-1972)

      Canada welcomed 228 Tibetan refugees; according to the Canadian Council for refugees, these were among the very first non-European refugees to be resettled in Canada.


      Bengali Muslims (1971)

      Thousands of Bengali Muslims seek refuge in Canada following the outbreak of the Bangladesh Liberation War.


      Ugandans (1972-1973)

      Following the expulsion of Ugandan Asians from Uganda on the orders of then president, Idi Amin, Canada moved quickly to resettle more than 7,000 Ugandan Asian refugees.


      Chileans (1970s)

      The 1973 coup d’état that lead to the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende’s government in 1973 led many Chileans to seek refuge in other countries. The Canadian government was initially reluctant to admit Chilean refugees; there were concerns that those who fled might have left leaning tendencies, and that accepting them as refugees could trouble Canada’s relationship with the United States government. As had happened with the Hungarians, the media provided constant coverage of the events, and civil society, particularly churches, organized to pressure the government into action. As a result, 7,000 Chileans and other Latin Americans, including political prisoners and their families, were welcomed to Canada.


      Americans (1970s)

      Tens of thousands of American war resisters fled from the United States to Canada in order to avoid being drafted to fight in the Vietnam War.


      Iranians (1979 onward)

      Following the overthrown of the Shaw in 1979 and the consolidation of the Islamic Revolution, many Iranians fled and continue to flee the country. Since that time, thousands of Iranians, including members of the persecuted Baha’i community, continue to come to Canada each year, many of whom have been admitted as refugees.


      Vietnamese ‘Boat People’, Cambodians, and Laotians (1979-1980)

      Saigon fell to communist North Vietnam in April 1975. As the North Vietnamese took over the city, many of those who had supported the U.S. backed South Vietnamese regime fled the country by any means available to them, but most did not make it out. Many were killed, and millions were imprisoned and sent to re-education camps. Conflict continued to spread throughout the region and nearly 1.5 million people were trying to flee. Most fled overland to neighbouring countries, but approximately 300,000 people paid human traffickers exorbitant fees to secure a spot for themselves and their families on crowded, barely seaworthy boats. Nearly a third of these ‘boat people’ died at sea desperately trying to make their way across the South China Sea to reach the shores of neighbouring countries that were already overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of refugees trying to survive in inadequate camps. Every month saw 50,000 new refugees arriving in Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Soon enough, these countries began turning away the boat arriving at their shores, and in June 1979, these countries declared that they would no longer be accepting any new refugees. The UN called on the world to respond to the crisis, and soon thereafter cities across Canada began organizing. Ultimately, across the country, 60,049 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees found refuge in Canada.


      Somalis (mid-1980s onward)

      People began to flee from Somalia by the tens of thousands in the mid- 1980s. Initially, they were fleeing the human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime of Mohamed Siad Barre, and then from the civil war that led to the fall of the regime in 1991. It is estimated that approximately a fifth of the population had left Somalia by 1990. The flow of refugees did not stop with the overthrow of the regime because Somalia was completely destabilized by the civil war, and remains unstable to this day. The Somali diaspora has established itself all around the world, and Canada has received 55,000 to 70,000 Somali refugees.


      Bosnian Muslims (1992)

      5,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees fleeing ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav Civil War were welcomed to Canada.


      Kosovars (1999) Operation Parasol

      In April 1999, at the height of the war on Kosovo, Macedonia closed its border to the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the massacres being committed by Slobodan Milosevic’s military. Footage and photographs of cold, wet, mud-covered Kosovar refugees trapped at the Macedonian border were shown around the world. The Canadian government decided to airlift 5,000 Kosovar refugees, to bring them to refugee bases in Canada, and to automatically grant them refugee status, which would allow them to seek permanent residency in Canada. They also fast-tracked the Kosovo Family Reunification Program, which allowed another 2,200 Kosovar refugees to join their family members in Canada.


      Colombians (2005 onward)

      Colombia has been marked by internal conflict for decades, and civilians have often been the targets of the military, right-wing militias, and leftist guerrilla forces alike. Since 2005, Canada has resettled approximately 150,000 Columbian refugees.


      Karen (2006)

      Canada welcomed 3,900 Karen refugees who had been living in refugee camps in Thailand.


      Bhutanese (2008-2013)

      Canada welcomed and resettled 5,000 Bhutanese refugees.


      Iraqis (2003 onward)

      Many Iraqi refugees sought refuge in Canada as they fled the violence and chaos that followed the American-led Operation Iraqi Freedom, and more have sought refuge in Canada since the Iraqi insurgency and civil war began in 2011.


      Tamil Refugees (2009-2010)

      Hundreds of Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers arrived on the West coast on the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea in 2009 and 2010. Using the provisions of Bill C-31, many, including women and children, were sent to detention centres, where they did not have access to lawyers and psychosocial supports. Some were kept in detention centres for years. In the end, the great majority were accorded refugee status.


      Haitians (2010 onward)

      Canada welcomed thousands of Haitian refugees, including many orphaned children, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.


      Syrians (2011-2015)

      The Syrian refugee crisis began in 2011 with the onset of the armed conflicts which would lead to the Syrian Civil War. Over 4 million Syrian fled and sought refuge in the neighbouring countries of Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Egypt, and 2.8 million have been registered as refugees. Many Syrian Canadians, civil society, and religious groups applied to privately sponsor Syrians refugees, and thousands of Syrian refugees applied to come to Canada, but slow processing times, restrictive rules limiting which refugees could be sponsored, extremely complicated forms combined with a lack of local government officials to offer guidance made the process extremely difficult. The result was that compared to the efforts being made in European countries, Canada welcomed relatively few Syrian refugees during this period.


      Kevin Smiley, Founder


      [1] “History and Legacy of Refugee Resettlement in Ottawa.” April Carriere, OLIP/PLIO. 2016

      [2] “2015 Annual Report to Parliament on Immigration.” 2016. Ottawa: Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, Government of Canada.

      [3] “UNHCR Global Resettlement Statistical Report 2014.” 2016. UNHCR.

      2 Responses


      March 20, 2017

      Thanks for the feedback Chris. We will update the article.

      All the best!


      February 24, 2017

      What a great summary. For some reason the Sudanese/ South Sudanese refugees of about 200-2006 aren’t on your list. Edmonton became a much more interesting place to live as a result of people coming from the civil war in Sudan that led to the creation of the newest country, South Sudan.

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