Canada's Refugees

Throughout its past, Canada has had a checkered history of welcoming people at its borders. 

Compiled by Alison Nagy

Posted June 19, 2018

Racism and inclusion. Xenophobia and welcome. It’s all there in how Canada has treated refugees coming to our country. As you can read in George Melnyk’s article “The Country of Half Welcomes” in the August-September 2018 issue of Canada’s History magazine, there is much to be ashamed of but much to be proud of, too. Here are some of the major milestones along the way.

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The Acadians are expelled from Canada’s present-day Maritime provinces by the English; most are relocated in Louisiana.


Quakers come to what is now southern Ontario as refugees from the American Revolution. More arrive in the 1820s escaping religious persecution in England and Ireland.


United Empire Loyalists flee to the remaining British North American Colonies after the American Revolution.

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18th and 19th centuries

The closure of common lands in Scotland, known as the Highland Clearances, displaced many families who made their way to Canada.


After Poland is annexed by Russia, many Poles flee to North America, including Canada, to escape economic, political, and military reprisals.


Hundreds of thousands of Irish arrive, driven out by starvation during the potato famine. With passage to Canada cheaper than to the United States, Canada receives many of the most destitute.


Louis Riel flees Canada, seeking asylum in North Dakota following the North-West Resistance. Gabriel Dumont follows suit in 1885.


After the Battle of Little Bighorn, Chief Sitting Bull and the Sioux head to the Canadian prairies. They return to the United States after the Canadian government refuses to recognize them as a migratory people or to grant them land for a reserve.


European Jews come to Canada seeking religious, political, and social refuge as anti-Semitism grows in Eastern Europe and Russia.


More than 7,500 Doukhobors arrive in Canada to escape persecution in Russia, aided by author Leo Tolstoy and Canadian pacifist groups such as the Quakers.


Thousands of Ukrainians seek refuge from religious and political repression in their civil war-ravaged homeland after the Soviets invade. In 1932 the Holodomor, a devastating famine, drives more Ukrainians to Canada.


The Komagata Maru arrives in Vancouver, but its Sikh, Muslim, and Hindu passengers are denied entry into Canada, despite being British subjects.


Thousands of Mennonites, fleeing religious and ethnic persecution in the new Soviet Union, are allowed into Canada.


The MS St. Louis and its 937 Jewish passengers, fleeing fascism and Nazism, is turned away first from Cuba, the United States, and then Canada. The MS St. Louis returned to Europe, docking in Antwerp, Belgium and its passengers dispersed to Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. Of those onboard ship, 254 passengers were sent to concentration camps and did not survive to the end of the Second World War.


About 165,000 people displaced by the Second World War, most of them refugees, arrive in Canada.


After the Hungarian Revolution, thirty-seven thousand Hungarians flee to Canada to escape communist rule.

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Fearing economic instability and persecution following the liberation of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) hundreds of Bengalis seek refuge in Canada.


Conscientious objectors from the United States head to Canada to escape the draft during the Vietnam War. Most were educated men and their families who easily gained entry as regular immigrants.


South Asians including Ismailis are driven out of Africa because of their race, religion, and economic status. The 5,700 refugees accepted by Canada represent the first large group of non-white refugees to arrive en masse in Canadian history.


Nearly thirteen thousand Chileans seek refuge in Canada to escape persecution and authoritarian rule after General Augusto Pinochet seizes power.


More than sixty thousand refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, often referred to as “boat people”, are resettled in Canada.


Nearly thirteen thousand Bosnian refugees enter Canada to escape ethnic cleansing after the breakup of Yugoslavia.


More than seven thousand Kosovar refugees are airlifted to military bases in eastern Canada to escape a brutal civil war.


Canada resettles 3,900 Karen refugees from Thailand, Myanmar, and Burma.


More than twenty-five thousand Iraqi refugees resettle in Canada, representing a small portion of the more than two million who fled to neighbouring Jordan and Syria.


Canada welcomes more than forty thousand Syrian refugees. They fled Syria to escape the full-scale civil war that grew out of a peaceful uprising that was brutally repressed by President Bashar al-Assad.


Canada commits to accepting 3,500 refugees from Sudan, primarily Eritreans and some Ethiopians.


After warnings that the United States would end protected status for Haitians who sought refuge in the United States from the devastation of the 2010 earthquake, thousands of Haitians cross into Quebec, seeking refuge. Asylum-seekers from other countries follow suit. In the first four months of 2018, 7,500 claimants use this method to enter Canada, with higher numbers anticipated during warm weather.

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The August-September 2018 issue of Canada’s History magazine features an article detailing Canada’s checkered history with refugees. “The country of half welcomes” was written by George Melnyk.

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