Canada, a prosperous country known for its kind people and multicultural mosaic today, was not always the welcoming land of the free. As a matter of fact, throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Canada took in fewer Jews proportionate to its population to any other country in the western world . This era marked the rise and fall of Hitler but more often forgotten than not, it also highlights a dark past of Canadian history. One notable incident during this era was the refusal to take the St. Louis in as refuge by the Canadian government. On May 15, 1939, 907 German Jews with visa for Cuba fled from Nazi persecution by boarding the SS St.
Louis, in search of a better life in the western world. However, Cuba later denied the ship permission to land, while the United States coast guard escorted the St. Louis away . Their last strand of hope was to plead to Canada for refuge, but discrepancies between the landing permits and visas and failed diplomacy on behalf of Canada’s part resulted in the failure of immigration. The passengers of the SS St. Louis were denied entrance into Canada because of the mentality that it was not a Canadian issue to deal with, economic factors, and prevalent anti-Semitism throughout Canada.
One of the most compelling and frankly apparent reasons for the rejection of the St. Louis was the fact that the government did not want to deal with the Jews through any means. First of all, F. C. Blair, the Director of Immigration felt that the refugees were not qualified to enter Canada based on their current immigration policy. He suggested that, “No country could open its doors wide enough to take in hundreds of thousands of Jewish people who want to leave Europe: the line must be drawn somewhere. ” In other words, he felt that no exception should be made for Jewish refugees in relation to Canada’s immigration policy .
Moreover, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King believed that Canada was not responsible for solving internal difficulties of other countries and was far from a proponent of humanitarianism. He was well aware of the overwhelming anti-Semitism propaganda overseas and recognized the movement as a twisted method of getting rid of unwanted minorities. Given his evaluation, King refused to offer refuge to the unwanted Jews, as he states in a letter to Simmons “other governments must not be encouraged to think that harsh treatment at home is the key that will open the doors to immigration abroad” . Despite
King’s persona of a sympathetic morally sound politician, he shared similar sentiments with the rest of Canada, bearing a mentality of “none [Jews] is too many”. Throughout King’s political career, he’s been accused of being afraid to challenge public opinion and building his career on “the prevailing wind of public opinion”. Consequently, he’s labelled as a laissez faire leader who makes a “habit of not straying too far from popular desire”. Since the clear Canadian consensus on Jewish immigration was clearly against, given King’s track record, he was not about to say otherwise. He resorted to quiet diplomacy rather than assertive tactics .
With the parliament led by King, there was little to no chance that the government would permit the St. Louis to take refuge in Canada since such an act would be completely out of character for King. In addition to the government’s reluctance, the Canadian economy was also a significant factor that weighed into the decision to dismiss the St. Louis. In 1933, a quarter of the labour force was unemployed due to the Great Depression, which pitted Jews and immigrants as scapegoats through international anti-Semitic propaganda. As a result of a slowly recovering economy, Canadians viewed immigrants as threats to a scarce job market.
Canadians did not want Jews to take jobs that could’ve belonged to citizens. Foreigners and Jews with jobs at the time became the targets of enraged hostile Canadians who felt that they [foreigners & Jews] were undeservingly occupying their jobs . Furthermore, the increase in immigrants would have placed a heavier burden on the precarious economy. Jews were seen as pests, nobody wanted them, and everybody wanted to get rid of them . They were struggling to live in a world where anti-Semitism was prevailing and in result, they were deprived of opportunities, leaving them hopeless and inept to contribute to the economy.
Given the context of that time, it would have been impossible for a Jew to succeed in a society where their basic rights have been deprived, as they were accordingly branded as undesirable hogs. By now, the world had been enthralled in anti-Semitism propaganda, originating from Germany, stretching far across North America, with an especially strong impact on Quebec. Jews could not hold certain jobs, could not own property, and were not allowed to stay in certain hotels. Further discrimination came from right-wing nationalists,
French newspapers, politicians and organization castigating and denouncing Jewish immigrants. In King’s terms, it was a priority of his to keep Canada united, which meant he could not ignore political realities in order to satisfy the majority . There were a lot of votes to be lost and no votes to be gained by the admission of Jews. It would be completely contradictory of King’s tendencies if he were to suddenly infuriate Quebec through a controversial decision that would upset the majority of the country, seeing as how anti-Semitism was so broad and dominant that even Blair and King are considered anti-Semites.
Blair openly wore strong anti-Semitic sentiments when discussing Jewish immigration in a condescending tone, referring to Jews as an issue that needed to be “controlled” (source 3). King, on the other hand, likes to wear a grey mask, due to his longing habit of not aggravating anybody in order to satisfy everybody. He declares that “only a public outcry could bring about liberalization of Canada’s immigration policy”, something that was not likely to happen given the sway anti-Semitism had on Canadians and the seeds of doubt it planted.
(source 9). However, in his diary, he admits that he did not want Canada to be settled with “too great an intermixture of foreign strains of blood”, exposing his xenophobia and true characteristics of being an anti-Semite . The truth of the matter was that there was no support for Jews from non-Jewish communities. To make matters worse, the majority, including religious liberals, labourers, and the Church of England were hostile towards them . As a result, it raised the concern of violence and riots if the St. Louis were to take refuge in Canada .
By the late 1930s, the fact that anti-Semitism was on the rise at a seemingly endless rate posed as a major issue for immigrating Jews likes those aboard the St. Louis. The voyage of the SS St. Louis epitomized the failure of immigration of refugees that led to Nazi realization that since nobody wanted to take in these Jews and that concentration camps were necessary to rid of the unwanted Jews in the German empire. Likewise, it also further supports Hitler’s views of anti-Semitism on a smaller scale, as he used the St. Louis as a piece to support his propaganda.
However, the greater message this tragedy left behind is that “all that’s needed for evil triumph is for good men to do nothing” . It is evident that Canadians were afraid to stand up to anti-Semitism in mass volume because of their lack of knowledge and protruding fear of being criticized. Nowadays, this notion has exerted to everyday, where the people are given a voice to influence government decisions, whether it be a mass gathering or a viral media outlet. All in all, at the time, Canada felt that maintaining its political stance, economic issues and anti-Semitism simply outweighed the benevolent act to take the St. Louis in as refuge.
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