Canada Welcomes Chinese Refugees

Decision in 1962 to accept one hundred families ended decades of exclusion.
Written by M.C. Reid Posted September 5, 2023

Between 1959 and 1961, China faced widespread famine as a result of Communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s failed “Great Leap Forward” policy that dispossessed small farmers of their lands and forced them to live in agricultural and industrial communes. Extreme weather conditions caused crop yields to plummet even further, and as many as thirty million Chinese citizens starved. Thousands of Chinese fled the country to neighbouring Hong Kong, then a British territory, and sought asylum. Overwhelmed, British authorities asked other democratic countries, including Canada, to accept some of the famine refugees.

Back in Canada, the idea of accepting Chinese refugees was controversial. In 1923 Canada had passed the racist Chinese Immigration Act, known colloquially as the Chinese exclusion act, which effectively barred Chinese immigration to the country. The act was repealed in 1947, but many Canadians still objected to increased Chinese immigration, with some fearing that it would lead to a rise in communism in the country. Despite these concerns, in 1962 Prime Minister John Diefenbaker accepted one hundred Chinese families as refugees.  

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This article originally appeared in the October-November 2023 issue of Canada’s History.

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