This Week in History


"None is Too Many": Cairine Wilson's Fight to Liberate Canadian Immigration Policy

This story was initially published in 2007

On March 21, 1933, Heinrich Himmler of Germany’s Nazi party ordered the establishment of the country’s first concentration camp at Dachau. So began the violent persecution of Germany’s Jews. At a time when anti-Semitism ran rampant worldwide, few rose in defence of European Jews. One among this minority was Cairine Wilson.

The entrance to the Senate
The entrance to the Senate
© Parks Canada / Mallory Schwartz / 2006
Wilson had a long history of activism. Along with being a founding member of the Twentieth Century Liberal Association and the National Federation of Liberal Women of Canada, Wilson became Canada’s first female Senator in 1930. This was only four months after the “Persons Case” declared women to be persons and thus eligible to serve in the Senate. She was also the first chairperson of the Canadian National Committee on Refugees (CNCR), established in 1938.

That year, the rapid decline in German-Jewish rights suffered a massive low. On November 9 – Kristallnacht (“Crystal Night”) – anti-Semitic riots raged across Berlin, violently marking the drastic decline that ended with the slaughter of approximately six million European Jews.

German-Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria reach Montréal to seek new homes
German-Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria reach Montréal in 1938 to seek new homes 
© Courtesy of The Montreal Gazette
During the escalation of violence, numerous Jews attempted to escape to countries like Canada. Few succeeded. Among the lucky few was Thomas Bata, who fled his native Czechoslovakia when it was annexed by Germany in 1938. He gained admission to Canada, where he rebuilt his life and established the international Bata Shoe Company.

Wilson, an advocate of such immigration, led the CNCR to: lobby the government to permit the entry of Jewish refugees; encourage improved conditions for, and the release and re-classification as “friendly aliens” of those anti-Nazi civilians from enemy countries interned in Canadian prison camps; and, combat anti-Semitism in Canada through public education campaigns.

Cairine Wilson
Cairine Wilson
© Library and Archives Canada / 1997-212-1

Many, however, remained apathetic. In 1939, when the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Europe with nearly 900 Jews onboard in search of refuge in the Americas, the passengers were refused entry at every stop. Canada, their final chance to escape the horrors in Europe, refused them entry, forcing them to return to countries that soon fell under Nazi control. Few survived.

Canada only permitted entry to roughly 5000 Jewish refugees. Between 1947-49, when the scope of the holocaust was revealed, Canada opened its doors to 1123 Jewish orphans from Europe.

For her philanthropic efforts to awaken Canadian empathy and to liberate the country’s immigration policies during a dark time in Canadian history, Cairine Reay Mackay Wilson was designated a National Historic Person.

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