Racism, Cultural Purity and Canadian Refugee Policy, 1920s -1930s

Authors: Zohra Akhter*, The Australian National University
Topics: Human Rights, Canada
Keywords: Refugee, Canada, Race, Racism, National identity, Institutions
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/6/2019
Start / End Time: 8:00 AM / 9:40 AM
Room: Madison B, Marriott, Mezzanine Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


During the inter-war period (1920s -1930s), Canada neither had any special policy/privilege nor cooperated with any international arrangements, e.g., the Nansen Passport, that were undertaken under the League of Nations, to deal with the refugees, particularly who intended to avail themselves of its territorial protection. This paper seeks to understand what explains such responses of Canada to inter-war refugees. Using a policy process framework, I argue that the 20th century’s Canadian immigration policy in general and the refugee policy in particular effectively mirrored the social value/norm of the day – the racism. Racism promoted a pseudoscientific belief of “superior race” and “inferior race” among human groups based on their inherent traits and evolutionary development. In Canada, such racist belief was intrinsically wedded into the concept of nationhood that promoted a view of homogenous society free from those of the inferior race (non-whites). As such, Canada successfully institutionalised a set of immigration rules as the institutional mechanism to preserve the Anglo-Canadian national identity. As most of the inter-war refugees did not fit the race criteria, Canadian authorities considered them ‘undesirable’. Refugees were merely treated as ordinary immigrants and their right to entry was administered through the existing immigration rules. The paper finally concludes that in a exclusionist society where the ideal of humanitarianism, an anti-thesis to the belief of racism, that upholds the rights of refugees was not only unwelcomed but also was powerless to exert any influence over the immigration policy.

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