Vancouver — When Austrian and German Jews escaped Nazism by fleeing to Britain during the 1930s, the last thing they expected was to find themselves prisoners in Canada, interred in camps with some of the same Nazis they had tried to escape back home.
But that’s what happened to some 7,000 European Jews and “Category A” prisoners – the most dangerous prisoners of war – who arrived on Canadian shores in 1940. Fearing a German invasion, Britain had asked its colonies to take some German prisoners and enemy spies. But the boats included many refugees, including religious Jews and university students.
Though Britain alerted Canada to the mistake, it would take three years for all the refugees to be freed.
“It was a period where everybody was closing their doors,” said Paula Draper, a historian who worked on an exhibit about the refugees currently on display at the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre. “But Canada closed its doors more tightly than almost anybody else.”
While greatly overshadowed at the time by the enormity of the Holocaust, the refugee episode illustrates two characteristics of Canadian government policy that are difficult to imagine today: rampant anti-Semitism and restrictive immigration. The country is one of Israel’s staunchest allies and has a relatively liberal immigration policy. In 2001, more than 18 percent of Canada’s population was immigrant; in 2010, Canada admitted more legal immigrants than it had in 50 years.
This wasn’t the case during World War II, when Frederick Charles Blair directed Canada’s immigration branch. Blair believed an international Jewish conspiracy was trying to skirt Canadian immigration policies by sneaking the refugees into the country. Moreover, anti-Semitic attitudes among Canada’s Protestant elite had hardened in the run-up to World War II, according to University of British Columbia historian Richard Menkis.
The Protestants believed ethnic minorities lacked Canadian values, a view similar to that of Quebecois nationalists, who believed the province should remain both French and Catholic. Jews faced quotas in universities, were blocked from various professional fields and barred from certain neighborhoods.