As Hitler attacked the Jews in the 1930s many of them sought refuge in other countries, including Canada. Prime Minister Mackenzie King counseled Canadian Jewish groups and concerned MPs to work quietly behind the scenes, implying that something would be done, but he took no action. There was a significant public sentiment in the country against Jewish immigration, and Canada actually turned away a ship containing Jews fleeing Germany. On 30 June 1939 a Quebec MP tabled a petition signed by thousands demanding that the government not allow Jews into Canada. That prompted A. A. Heaps, a CCF MP from Winnipeg, who had accepted King’s advice about quietly diplomacy, to rise in the House and criticize both the prime minister and his government’s inaction. Heaps was one of the few Jewish Members of Parliament.
“Never have human beings been treated so barbarously”
During the twenty-two years that I have been in public life, thirteen of which have been spent in this Chamber, it has been always my aim to try to bring about a closer understanding and more harmonious relationship among the various component parts of our population, not merely of Winnipeg, but of the whole of the Dominion of Canada. I regret to say I have found that one of the main obstacles to that natural development of our people has been the fact that there are many politicians in the west, as there are probably in other parts of Canada, who are too ready to try to obtain political advantage by exploiting racial feelings and misunderstandings. I have always tried to avoid that in my public life . . .
“During the past few days, there has been raised in this House the question of immigration and the question of the refugee. Representing as I do a constituency made up of a mixture of races, although it is preponderantly Anglo-Saxon, I feel I should be remiss in my duty if I did not make some statement with regard to these important questions, affecting as they do so many peoples, and touching principles with which I think most of the honourable members of this House are concerned.
So much has been said on this question of immigration that the facts, I believe, ought to be known and given consideration and prominence. Certain honourable members have been speaking of immigration and refugees as if they were one and the same problem, with the same meaning and the same implications. There is a great difference between immigration and the problem of refugees. No one to my knowledge has ever asked in these times for an influx of immigrants in the ordinary sense of the word. No one has even asked that the country should be flooded with refugees. In matters of this importance, people should not make rash statements without ascertaining the facts, nor should they deal in generalities.
What are the facts? Early last year, a delegation of members of this House met the prime minister (Mr. Mackenzie King) and discussed the question with him. Subsequently, a subcommittee of the Cabinet was appointed to consider the matter, and a number of the members of this House had an interview with the subcommittee . . .
What the delegation requested was that a reasonable number of refugees of all races and creeds be allowed to come forward to parts of Canada where it was considered most desirable that they should settle. The number suggested at the time was five thousand men, women, and children, approximately one thousand to twelve hundred families. All the members of the subcommittee at the time appeared to me to be sympathetic, and the members of the delegation present were prepared to give proper undertakings that none of the refugees would become a public charge. The number for which entry was requested was extremely small, in view of the need, but we felt that our government should show its sympathy in the matter; and to permit refugees to enter Canada and be freed from political, religious, or racial persecution was in strict accord with historic Liberal principles.
But a new phase has now been injected into the problem. Everyone who has kept himself informed as to recent events cannot help extending sympathy to the refugees for the plight in which they find themselves, whatever their race or creed may be. Never in the history of mankind have human beings been treated so barbarously as they are being treated at the present time by fascist powers. Men, women, and children, families which have been rooted for centuries in the land in which they lived, have been deprived and robbed of everything they possessed and ordered to leave the country, their only crime being that their racial origin or religious beliefs were distasteful to the powers that be or their democratic principles unwelcome in totalitarian states. The pitiful plight of all these people has aroused international concern. Almost every civilized country has definitely taken sympathetic action. Canada as yet has not done so, and I should like to see her take her rightful place with other democratic countries and show her sympathy in a practical manner. Great Britain, France, Holland, Australia, and many other countries are giving asylum to tens of thousands of refugees, and in no place, to my knowledge, have they been a burden to the governments that have received them.
In regard to employment, it might be well to mention that lately . . . in England, eleven thousand refugees had given employment to fifteen thousand Englishmen. Speaking now with a knowledge of the conditions, and not from mere hearsay, I say that if our government had shown the same sympathetic attitude on this question, the same conditions could have obtained here.
May I point out that the Right Honourable R. B. Bennett, speaking in Saint John, New Brunswick, only on Thursday last, said that we owed a debt of gratitude to those refugees and that we should accept our quota of them. There is in this country as a whole a very large body of opinion to the effect that the government should extend the hand of brotherhood and friendship to these people. It is they who have been the first victims of fascist tyranny and oppression; who knows who will be the next?
I make this plea on broad humanitarian grounds, not for any one sect or creed, but for all victims of persecution. It pained me last week to hear honourable members deny the plea of the refugee to the right of asylum. It seemed so inhuman. I am in a sense proud to have this opportunity of making such a plea and in a humble way to follow the teaching of ancient and modern religious thought so beautifully expressed in the words, “Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you,” and if I may be permitted to add one further quotation familiar to us all, let us if possible have peace on earth, goodwill towards men.
Source: House of Commons. Debates, 18th Parliament, 4th Session: Vol. 1. January 30, 1939, pp: 431-38. See Links 434-440. See: http://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC1804_01/434?r=0&s=2
Photo credit: Manitoba Historical Society
Related materials: Irving Abella & Harold Troper. None Is Too Many (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Denys, 1983).
See also a CBC-TV documentary in 1982: http://www.cbc.ca/archives/entry/auschwitz-jews-not-welcome-in-wartime-Canada