Refugees are those who flee their home countries to escape persecution or danger. Most Canadians believe that Canada is a country with a long tradition of welcoming refugees and dissidents from all over the world. This, at least, has been part of the Canadian mythology.

The first great wave of immigrants to arrive in Canada, the United Empire Loyalists, is widely regarded as Canada's first refugee contingent. But as Gerald Dirks points out in Canada's Refugee Policy, most were not refugees but were British settlers who preferred their old flag to the new American one. Among them were some legitimate refugees, mostly Quakers, Mennonites and other nonconformists who, fearing persecution by the new American government, fled northwards. Before 1860 thousands of fugitive American slaves arrived in Canada, and the public recognition given Canada as the final stop on the Underground Railroad reaffirmed to many that this country was indeed a sanctuary for the oppressed and the enslaved. An estimated 30,000 African Americans came to Canada seeking asylum. It was perhaps not much of a haven, because as soon as they could (after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the American Civil War) most of these ex-slaves returned home.

Over the next generation, two groups of refugees, Mennonites and Doukhobors, arrived from Russia. Both found life under the tsars intolerable and were anxious to leave. The Canadian government, desperately searching for immigrants — especially agriculturalists — to settle the West, was just as anxious to have them. Indeed, until the 1930s Great Depression, almost any immigrants except blacks and Asians could come to Canada. Among the millions who arrived were obviously numbers of refugees, but no special arrangements were made for them.

A major test of Canada as a refuge for the oppressed occurred in the 1930s as German Jews begged for admission to any country. Many nations suffering far worse economic distress than Canada were nonetheless much more receptive. While Canada grudgingly accepted some 4,000 of these refugees, the US welcomed 240,000, Britain 85,000, China 25,000, Argentina and Brazil over 25,000 each, and Mexico and Colombia received some 40,000 between them. But xenophobia and anti-Semitism permeated Canada, and there was little public support for, and much opposition to, the admission of refugees.

This attitude did not change until after the Second World War. With Europe full of "displaced persons" (a newly minted term to describe an old phenomenon, the refugee), Canada became much more receptive, largely because of a booming economy and a desperate need for manpower. Hundreds of thousands of displaced persons came to Canada, their journeys often subsidized by the Canadian government. Indeed, Canada began to play an increasingly active role in the United Nations refugee organization.

In 1956, Canada was put to the test again; this time, however, it did not fail. Within months of the Hungarian uprising against the Soviets, the government succumbed to much domestic pressure, especially from ethnic and religious groups, and announced that it would accept a large number of Hungarian refugees. Almost 37,000 arrived. The Canadian government was pleased; not only did these refugees bring some badly needed skills, but they provided the Western world with a not-to-be-missed opportunity of embarrassing the USSR. In 1968, 11,000 Czechs, following the Soviet invasion of their country, settled in Canada. Most were highly skilled and rapidly integrated into Canadian society. In 1972, Canada accepted 7,000 highly trained and educated Ugandan Asians who were fleeing the notorious regime of Idi Amin. Like the Czechs they quickly began making important contributions to Canada.

A more controversial group of refugees were the American war resisters ("draft dodgers"), who fled across the border to escape service in the Vietnam War. Though some returned home after the war, many took up new lives in Canada. Most controversial of all, however, were the Chilean and other Latin American refugees forced out of Chile by the September 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende's Marxist government. Fearing that most of these political refugees were too left-wing, and not wishing to alienate either the American or new Chilean rulers, the Canadian government took only a small number.

This is in sharp contrast to Canada's humanitarian behaviour during the Vietnamese "boat-people" crisis of the late 1970s. Touched by the plight of the hundreds of thousands who escaped the communist regime by taking to the high seas in leaking, unsafe boats, many Canadians offered to sponsor their journey to Canada, and the government admitted some 70,000 refugees.

A 1978 amendment to the Immigration Act made it possible for the first time for refugees to apply for admission as immigrants. Refugees had previously been permitted into Canada only by special orders-in-council. Their future admission would now depend less on Canada's political and economic vagaries. Although the government has not determined its precise definition of a refugee, Canada has agreed to accept the comprehensive definition of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR). The Immigration Act (1976) refers to a refugee as one who "by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion" is outside his own country and cannot, or fears to, return there.

In 1986, as a recognition of its generous policies, Canada was awarded the coveted Nansen medal by the UNHCR. Ironically, within a year, because of a public outcry against the admission of increasing numbers of refugees — Sri Lankans, East Indians and especially Central Americans — and concerned over abuses of the system by bogus claimants, the Canadian government introduced tough legislation to restrict the flow of refugees into the country.

See also Immigration.