The admission of Jewish or any other refugees was far from the minds of most government planners in the immediate aftermath of the war. There were far more important domestic items on the government’s agenda, especially the economy. They knew only too well that the Great Depression of the 1930s had not been resolved through programs of economic redistribution or social reconstruction. Canada did not even enjoy its own domestic variant of the American New Deal. Rather, Canada spent its way out of the economic crisis if the 1930s in an orgy of war-related public expenditures. But now, in 1945, the war was over, and economic planners looked apprehensively to the future. Without the stimulant of wartime spending, they worried, what would prevent Canada from slipping back into a depression? Would victory mean massive unemployment and endless breadlines at home?
Burdened by apprehension, Canada wanted no part of hungry refugees or other immigrants. Officials would have enough to cope with in the demobilization of more than 60,000 Canadian servicemen still overseas. These soldiers would return home, some feared, with inflated expectations of the good times that lay ahead. Planners shuddered at the prospect of battlehardened soldiers putting aside their uniforms only to confront unemployment lines. Some officials even harbored fears of civil insurrection sparked by the disappointment of social and economic decay.
This is not to say the Canadian government was completely unaware of or unconcerned for the post-war refugee crisis in Europe. But Canada’s policy was grounded in a definite unwillingness to admit these unfortunates into Canada. As far as the government was concerned, these refugees - or displaced persons, as they were collectively known - were not Canada’s responsibility.
No matter what the magnitude of the immediate refugee crisis, Canada, like others of its Western Allies, initially saw the refugee problem as a temporary one. These post-war refugees, including Jews, Canada agreed, would only be refugees as long as they did not have a place to go. In the first flush of victory, in the naive euphoria of Nazism’s defeat, Canadian officials fully expected that everyone would have a place to go home. Once land transportation was reestablished and civil authority reconstituted, all refugees could be helped back to their country of citizenship. If the Norwegians went back to Norway, the French back to France, the Poles back to Poland, the Russians back to the Soviet Union, the Ukrainians to their country of legal citizenship and the surviving Jews back to whatever corner of Europe from which they had been dragged, the Canadians correctly reasoned, the displaced persons would be displaced no more. Allied post-war refugee planning had been predicated on the principle of repatriation and, as such, was an administrative problem. Once the DPs refused to go home, however, the administrative problem became a political crisis.
It is likely that antipathy toward Jews in the spring of 1946 was also aggravated by a Red Scare. On September 5, 1945, less than four months after Germany’s surrender, a cipher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa, Igor Gouzenko, defected. He took with him 109 secret embassy documents. The defection unravelled into Canada’s most extensive investigation of Soviet espionage. Even before the Cold War had found its name, Canada was involved. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police was unleashed against a suspected Communist espionage network at work in Canada. First police investigation, then a Royal Commission and finally a series of highly publicized spy trials dominated the press. Many of those named were Jews, including Fred Rose, Canada’s first and only Communist member of the federal parliament, representing a heavily Jewish area of downtown Montreal. The degree to which this post-war anti-Communist crusade inflamed antisemitic sentiment we may never know. It cannot be denied, however, that it did seethe below the surface. In February 1946, the prime minister, briefed by police and security officials in their investigations, commented in his diary:
“I myself have never allowed that thought [of antisemitism] to be entertained for a moment or to have any feeling which permits prejudice to develop, but I must say that the evidence is very strong, not against all Jews, which is quite wrong, as one cannot indict a race any more than one can a nation, but that in a large percentage of the race there are tendencies and trends which are dangerous indeed.”
Public concern about DP immigration, and especially about Jewish immigration, had to be dealt with. But so did the continuing labor shortages, business demands for a liberal immigration policy and protests from Canadian ethnic communities in favor of DP admissions. Finally, in late 1946, massive pressure from business interests and their articulate allies within the Cabinet convinced the latter to take action, however tentative, to open the immigration door. At first the government, ever mindful of a possible anti-immigrant and anti-government backlash, moved slowly, as if to test the public reaction. Once satisfied the public was amenable to some easing of the long-standing barriers to immigration, if somewhat concerned about the ethnic suitability of would-be immigrants, the government approved two programs - one for the selective reunification of first-degree relatives, and the second a scheme to admit to Canada 2,000 Allied Polish war veterans who refused repatriation.
Source: Gutman, Yisrael and Saf, Avital (eds.), She’arit Hapleta 1944- 1948, Rehabilitation and Political Struggle, Proceedings of the Sixth Yad Vashem International Historical Conference, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1990, pp. 270-277.