Mount Royal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather has asked Canada to issue an apology for refusing the entry of over 900 Jewish refugees aboard MS St. Louis in 1939.
Housefather made the request on Jan. 31 during the House of Commons’ emergency debate on the impact of the U.S. executive order suspending immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
While Housefather said he was “profoundly shocked” by these restrictions, his message was that Canadians should not congratulate themselves on being better than the Americans, and the United States at times in history was more welcoming than Canada.
“I come from the Jewish community. We all remember that when the Jewish community needed Canada the most, in the ’30s, when Hitler was in power, the doors of Canada were closed to Jewish refugees,” he said.
In May 1939, people with visas for Cuba fleeing Nazi persecution left Hamburg, Germany on the St. Louis, he recounted. When they arrived in Havana harbour, the Cuban government refused them entry.
After the ship failed to find a dock in the United States, appeals were made to Canada.
“Then there was just one hope before they went back to Europe, and that was Canada – and Mr. [Frederick] Blair and Mr. [Mackenzie] King closed the doors of Canada to those refugees,” said Housefather, referring to Canada’s then-head of immigration and prime minister, respectively.
In June 1939 the St. Louis sailed back to Europe.
Blair was the official to whom historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper attributed the comment “none is too many” in reference to Jewish refugees.
In the same address, Housefather also brought up the former Parti Québécois government’s proposed banning of religious attire in the public service in a charter of values.
“The fact that we lived this only a couple of years ago in my home province of Quebec means that Canadian governments, provincial governments, and politicians are no different here from politicians elsewhere. People can always capitalize on xenophobia. People can always spark fear in the population,” Housefather said.
A lesson from the St. Louis episode, he concluded, is that executive orders should not arbitrarily reverse what a government has approved, nor should there be discrimination based on asylum seekers’ country of origin or religion.
Housefather said his government should consider raising the number of privately sponsored refugees.
“I think the total number of refugees would have to be an international agreement because we cannot unilaterally react to what one country does when we are just one small country of the globe,” he said.