Canada: A History of Refuge

What Does “Refugee” Mean?

It is not as easy to define “refugee” as one might expect. In its simplest meaning, a refugee is a person who flees his or her home country because of fears of persecution or abuse, particularly by their own government. However, the meaning is affected by political change, public perception and history. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are people who have been forced to leave their country and who are afraid to return because of war, violence or persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

Navigate through the exposition to learn more about some of the refugee movements to Canada.

1770 – 1779

The Quakers

A Quaker meeting (courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/USZ62-5808).

1770s: As refugees from the American Revolution, Quakers settled in what is now southern Ontario. Persecuted in England for their religious beliefs, many Quakers had migrated to North America, where William Penn founded Pennsylvania. They began arriving in British North America from England and Ireland in the 1820s. At the beginning of the 20th century, several Quaker settlements were founded in western Canada. The Quakers, properly called the Religious Society of Friends, are a Christian group that arose from the religious turmoil of puritanical England (mid-17th century). Quaker was a derogatory term given to the founder, George Fox, when he told a judge to tremble at the Word of the Lord. Quakers are pacifists who believe in social justice and international relief. In 1947, the international service bodies of the Society of Friends were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their postwar relief and reconciliation work.

1780 – 1789

Black Loyalists

A family of black Loyalists in Bedford Basin, Nova Scotia (painting by Robert Petley, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-115424).

1783–1785: Thousands of African Americans–“Black Loyalists”–joined the tens of thousands of American refugees who had supported the British cause during the American Revolution, lured northward by the promise of “freedom and a farm.” Most were runaway slaves. They had been encouraged to fight in British regiments against the Americans. Among the Loyalists who came to British North America were approximately 3,000 African Americans who went to Nova Scotia and settled near Shelburne, Digby, Chedabucto and Halifax. Nearly half of them initially went to Shelburne, drawn by the dream of a place where they could live independently on land they owned, free of prejudice. The British promise was 100 acres for each head of household and an additional 50 for each family member, plus provisions.

1830 – 1860

Poles Fled Eastern Europe

The Russian attack on Warsaw, 1831 (painting by Georg Benedikt Wunder, courtesy National Digital Library, Poland).

1830–1910: Thousands of Poles fled Eastern Europe after Russia, Prussia and Austria annexed Poland in 1793, beginning a period of brutal occupation and oppression. In 1831, a Polish uprising against Russia was ruthlessly suppressed, and a great number of Poles fled to Canada to escape economic, political and military reprisals. Many of these Polish refugees participated in the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837, using their political and military experience to contribute significantly to the British campaign in that province. During the second half of the 19th century, Poles continued to come to Canada in search of a better life, and many became successful businessmen, politicians, farmers and artisans in eastern and central Canada. During the first decade of the 20th century, the largest wave of Polish refugees immigrated to Canada, and by 1910, Poles represented 0.5 percent of the Canadian population.

1870 – 1899

Jewish Refugees in the Late 19th Century

The Loeffler refugee family in Edenbridge, Saskatchewan, c. 1920s (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-027525).

1870-1914: At the end of the 19th century, thousands of European Jews came to Canada to escape religious persecution, revolution, and the social and economic changes brought about by industrialization. The first wave of Jewish refugees came from Germany in the aftermath of the failed revolutions of 1848. The second wave came from the Pale of Settlement, a region in Eastern Europe and Russia that had a large Jewish population. Social and political upheaval in this region between 1881 and 1914 resulted in an increase in anti-Semitism, and Jews faced worsening restrictions on mobility rights and economic freedoms. At the turn of the 20th century, European Jews were coming to Canada in the thousands, seeking political, religious and social refuge. The peak year for Jewish immigration was 1914, when 18,000 refugees, mostly artisans, small merchants and unskilled workers, arrived in Canada.

1900 – 1939

Ukrainian Refugees in the Early 20th Century

Threshing on the Zahara homestead in Rycroft, Alberta, c. 1920s (courtesy Glenbow Archives/NA-3237-5).

1919–1939: After the First World War, Ukraine became embroiled in a bitter struggle for independence. The Soviet invasion, occupation and subsequent establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1919 created social and economic turmoil in the region. Thousands of Ukrainians fled to Canada, seeking refuge from religious and political oppression, and to escape the ravages of civil war.

1940 – 1949

Ukrainians and the Second World War

Wives of Ukrainian Settlers, Val-d’Or, Quebec (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-027486)

1945–1952: In the wake of the Second World War, millions of displaced Ukrainians sought refuge in Western Europe and North America. Between 1945 and 1952, 35,000 to 40,000 Ukrainians settled in Canada, largely as a result of the lobbying efforts of Canadian-Ukrainians who had come as refugees earlier in the 20th century. Unlike the previous waves of Ukrainian immigration, those who came to Canada during the post-Second World War period tended to gravitate toward the urban centres of Quebec and Ontario rather than the Prairies. Ukrainian immigration to Canada peaked in 1949 and by 1951, there were nearly 400,000 Ukrainians in Canada, contributing significantly to the cultural fabric of the nation.

1950 – 1959

The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

Delegates at the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (courtesy UN Archives)

1951: The United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees was created. It was an international agreement that defined who was a refugee and the protocols that guided the relationship between refugees and their host nations. It entered into force in 1954 to deal with Second World War refugees and Displaced Persons, and expanded in 1967 to include refugees from other parts of the world facing a broader range of social, economic, political and religious afflictions. Canada signed both treaties. In the end, the United Nations determined a refugee to be a person with a “fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion.”

1960 – 1969

Canada’s First Bill of Rights

Prime Minister John Diefenbaker displays the Canadian Bill of Rights, Ottawa, Ontario, September 5, 1958 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-112659).

1960: Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, whose grandfather was a German refugee of the Napoleonic Wars, introduced Canada’s first Bill of Rights. Created during a period of broad social reform and in the spirit of national independence, the Bill of Rights was a federal charter that recognized and protected the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Canadians. It formally put into legislation the right to life, liberty and personal security, and provided Canadians with freedom of speech, assembly and association. It also expressed Canada’s respect for the dignity and worth of the human person and its respect for moral and spiritual values regardless of race, colour, religion, sex or national identity. The 1960 Bill of Rights set the groundwork for the creation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms of 1982.


1970: Chilean Refugees of the 1970s

Chileans like the Enriquez family, who had taken refuge months earlier in the Canadian embassy, were airlifted to Toronto out of Santiago in early 1974 by the Canadian Forces (courtesy Multicultural History Society of Ontario).

1970s: Between 1970 and 1973, Chile tried democratically to create a socialist system under the leadership of Salvadore Allende. Fearing the spread of socialism and communism in Chile and other South American countries, the Chilean military took down the Allende government in 1973. The socialist reforms were reversed and a capitalist dictatorship was established by military coup under the leadership of General Augusto Pinochet. For more than a decade, Chile experienced a period of brutal political repression, economic turbulence and social restrictions. Between 1973 and 1978, nearly 13,000 Chileans fled to Canada to escape persecution and the authoritarian rule of General Pinochet. By 1978, Chilean immigration to Canada represented nearly 2.5 percent of the national total.

1971 – 1975

The Bangladesh Liberation War

Neer Hasim, with his four daughters, wife and mother, refugees from Myanmar en route to Canada (photograph by K. McKinsey, courtesy United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees).

1971: Between 1955 and 1971, a state of conflict existed between the Muslims of West Pakistan and East Pakistan who could not agree on political representation and economic systems. After a series of disputed elections, the Bangladesh Liberation War broke out in 1971 between the two states. West Pakistan troops attempted to suppress East Pakistan by taking control of the cities. When the population resisted, the army carried out a series of massacres and human rights atrocities. While East Pakistan won its independence in 1971, becoming the new state of Bangladesh, many thousands feared persecution and economic instability after the war. At first, only a few hundred Bengalis fled to Canada, but between 1971 and 1986, many hundreds more joined their family members in Canada.

1976 – 1979

The Immigration Act

Volunteers and participants at an event sponsored by Immigrant Settlement &Integration Services in Nova Scotia (courtesy Immigrant Settlement &Integration Services).

1976: During the 1970s, in response to the increasing need to find places for migrating populations and with a restrictive policy that had not been changed since 1962, Canadian immigration and population policies were officially reviewed. The Immigration Act of 1976 (proclaimed in 1978) established for the first time the fundamental objectives of Canada’s immigration policy, setting the cornerstone of modern immigration policy. The expressed goals included the promotion of Canada’s demographic, economic, social and cultural goals; family reunification; non-discrimination; the fulfilment of Canada’s international obligations in relation to refugees; and cooperation between all levels of government, as well as with the voluntary sector, in promoting the adaptation of newcomers to Canadian society. Among the Act’s innovations was a provision requiring the government to establish targets for immigration and to consult with the provinces on planning and managing Canadian immigration.

1979 – 1980

Indochinese Refugees

Vietnamese boat people in Malaysia, part of an exodus of Indochinese refugees that began after the fall of Saigon (© UNHCR/K.Gaugler)

1979−1980: In 1975, the fall of Saigon, Vietnam, marked the end of a long, protracted conflict that engulfed Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The violence and large-scale destruction of villages and civilian infrastructure forced thousands of Indochinese to flee. In the twenty years that followed the conflict, more than 2.5 million Indochinese people, often referred to as ‘boat people,’ were resettled, mostly in North America and Europe.

Between 1979 and 1980, Canada resettled more than 60,000 refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Approximately half of them came through the private sponsorship stream.

In 1986, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees took the unprecedented step of awarding its prestigious Nansen medal to the people of Canada for their compassionate response to the Indochina refugee crisis.

1990 – 1999

Refugees in Canada in the Late 20th Century

A young girl who was living in the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Nairobi, Kenya, resettled in Canada with her family with hopes of a better future.

1990s: By the 1990s, asylum seekers had come to Canada from all over the world, particularly Latin America, Eastern Europe and Africa. An asylum seeker is someone who claims to be a refugee but whose claim has not been definitively evaluated. People who arrive in Canada can apply for refugee status at any border, airport or immigration office inside the country, even people who would be turned away by other countries, and their claim will be examined. Legislation concerning such claims is important to prevent human smuggling and abuse of the asylum system that may have a negative impact on people who are truly in need of international protection.

1999 – 2001

Kosovar Refugees

Refugees from Kosovo at the Blace crossing on the Macedonian border in 1999 (© UNHCR/R.LeMoyne)

1999−2001: During the civil war between the Serbs and the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, thousands of ethnic Albanian Kosovars fled to neighbouring countries. In response to an urgent appeal from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and at the urging of the United States, Canada agreed to resettle some of the Kosovar refugees displaced into Macedonia.

Canada moved to ensure that family reunification was an option available to Kosovars. Under the code name Operation Parasol, over 7,000 Kosovar refugees were airlifted to military bases in eastern Canada in May 1999. Some 5,051 were part of the emergency evacuation from Macedonia, while an additional 2,239 Kosovar refugees from Albania had been identified in response to requests for family reunification.

After spending an average of two months at the military bases, these refugees were moved to different cities across Canada. According to the book, Memories of Kosovo, produced by the department following this movement, up to 70% of Kosovars opted for permanent resettlement to Canada.

2000 – 2011

Karen Refugees from Thailand

A group of Myanmar refugees at the Thai border town of Mae Sot, November 8, 2010 (photograph by Chaiwat Subprasom, courtesy Reuters).

2006: In the fall of 2006, Canada accepted the first group of 810 Karen refugees from Thailand. The majority of the Karen people live in Myanmar, Burma, but they also comprise the largest of the Hill Tribes of northern and western Thailand, near the border with Myanmar. Political struggle and persecution resound throughout Karen history. The Karen fled their Burmese homeland in waves throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Many went to Thailand where they ended up in camps and came under pressure from the Thai government to leave. Many were forcibly evicted. Canada continued to receive Karen refugees from Thailand and eventually resettled 3,900.

2007 – 2015

Bhutanese Refugees

Bhutanese refugees in Sanischare camp in 2007 (© UNHCR/J.Rae)

2007−2015: Since the early 1990s, Bhutanese refugees of ethnic Nepalese descent have been living in seven camps in eastern Nepal. Canada was part of a group of eight countries – including Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, the United States and the United Kingdom – which took steps to address this long-standing situation by resettling some of these refugees.

As part of a multi-year commitment, Canada pledged to resettle up to 6,500 Bhutanese by the end of 2015. Today, nearly 6,600 Bhutanese refugees have arrived in Canada.

2009 – 2015

Iraqi Refugees

Internally displaced people from Mosul in a transit camp in Iraqi Kurdistan (© UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin)

2009−2015: A U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and toppled the government of Saddam Hussein. It is estimated that up to 600,000 Iraqis were killed in the first three to four years of the conflict. More than two million Iraqis were forced to flee their country for neighbouring countries, primarily Jordan and Syria.

As part of a multi-year commitment, Canada pledged to resettle 23,000 Iraqi refugees. By the end of 2015, Canada had resettled more than 25,475 Iraqi refugees.

2015 – 2016

Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees make their way from Syria into northern Iraq (© UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin)

2015−2016: A violent conflict in Syria has forced millions of Syrians to flee and seek refuge in neighbouring countries, primarily Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. More than four million Syrians are now registered as refugees with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). The conflict in Syria is widely recognized as having created one of our generation's largest humanitarian crises.

Between November 2015 and February 2016, as part of the #WelcomeRefugees Initiative, Canada resettled 26,166 Syrian refugees to communities all across the country. Thanks to the efforts of Canadians, private sponsors, service providers, corporate Canada and all levels of government, more Syrian refugees are expected to arrive over the course of 2016 and onward. For the latest updates, see Syrian Refugee Figures.

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