Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee
Balanced Refugee Reform Act

Mr. Speaker, refugee laws have the ability to define a nation and sometimes it is not obvious until decades later.



    Had the former prime minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, eased up on the refugee laws at the time, several hundred thousand Jews might have been saved from the Nazis.



    Hiding behind the argument of the national self-interest of Canada, then immigration minister Thomas Crerar, with his official Fred Blair, barred Jews from entering Canada. Mr. Blair said it was “for the reason that coming out of the maelstrom of war, some of them are liable to go on the rocks”–he was talking about refugees–“and when they become public charges, we have to keep them for the balance of their lives”.



    Between 1933 and 1945 the United States under Roosevelt accepted 200,000 Jewish refugees. England accepted 70,000. Bolivia, a relatively poor country, accepted 14,000. Sadly and shamefully, Canada, a rich and vast country, accepted only 5,000 Jewish refugees.



    Even the young Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in an election rally in November 1942, stated that he feared “the peaceful invasion of immigrants more than the armed invasion of the enemy”, an obvious reference to Jews.



    It was only when the Jewish community through the People’s Committee Against Anti-Semitism protest action that Canada began to ease its refugee policies. The people’s committee sent a delegation to Ottawa representing 10,000 Canadian Jews and met with minister Crerar. Because of the huge and sustained outcry, finally in 1944, 450 Jewish refugees were allowed into Canada.



    By 1945, the 972 very highly skilled, professional male refugees who had been in jail since 1940 were finally released from jail and became a professional pool of musicians, teachers, artists, writers, theologians and scientists.



    Why do I bring up the history? Because establishing a fair and humane refugee policy is very difficult. Oftentimes doing the right thing is not necessarily the most popular thing to do and any mistakes made can result in beatings, torture, jail, and sometimes death.



    There is an important lesson to be learned from that dark chapter of our history. We have to work with the people who are most affected, people who work with refugees, and then the government laws and policy will be perfected.



    Today, in these difficult times, many refugees have to leave their countries because they suffer persecution. Last year, 43.3 million people faced persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is the highest number of people uprooted by conflict and persecution since the mid-1990s and represents more than our country’s population. If Canada makes a mistake and we end up turning away some of these people, it could be a matter of life and death.



    That is why we must learn from that dark history and provide fast and safe entry for genuine refugee claimants and turn away those who are trying to exploit Canada’s system.



    New Democrats have always supported the creation of a fast, fair and effective refugee system. When this bill was first presented, we said we feared that no country is truly free from any form of persecution, whether it is hate crimes directed toward gays and lesbians, and transsexual people, or a woman fleeing domestic violence, genital mutilation, or an honour killing. Those countries may be democratic but they are not safe.