In the spring of 1962, newspapers and television screens across the world carried news of an exodus of people from the People’s Republic of China. Persistent famine conditions in southwest China were wreaking havoc in the countryside. When local Chinese authorities temporarily lifted restrictive emigration controls, hundreds of thousands of people tried to flee. When they sought shelter in nearby Hong Kong, they were rounded up and physically pushed back across the border into China by the local police and the British Army.
At the time of the crisis, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker was on the campaign trail. Absorbing the news out of Hong Kong, Diefenbaker declared that Canada “should set an example for the rest of the world.” He then announced that Canada would take one hundred families. The government advertised the special resettlement program in several Hong Kong newspapers, and more than 3,000 families applied. A mere 109 families were ultimately selected.
It was a drop in the bucket given the desperate conditions in Hong Kong. The program was billed as a great humanitarian gesture, but in practice it was a carefully orchestrated political act. It was intended to garner votes and to convince Canadians of the merits of recently introduced immigration reforms.
To ensure the Canadian public received the refugees in a positive manner, the federal government arranged for journalists, local politicians and Chinese community representatives to be present to greet newcomers as they disembarked in airports across the country. The first contacts between Canadians and the refugees from Hong Kong made great headlines. Jim and Joanne were shown trying Christmas candies. Other children were shown grappling with spoons for the first time. All of the press coverage showed happy, smiling families.
The government wanted Canadians to support refugee assistance in particular and immigration reforms more generally. The Canada of 1962 was still a Canada where people were only beginning to think about immigration from diverse parts of the world as something positive. Up until then, “White Canada Forever” was a widely held truism.
Attitudes shifted slowly after the Second World War. And in February 1962, Ottawa had introduced major immigration reforms that would eventually serve to restructure Canadian society. First, the skilled worker program was universalized — using what is commonly known as the “points system.” Then, in 1967, family sponsorship rules were made equal for all. The result was growing immigration diversity. People came from new and varied places, and they brought with them an equally rich range of experiences, interests and cultures. The effects of these reforms continue to be felt today.
Today, Joanne Dale is a principal at a grade school in Vancouver while her brother was named Chief of the Vancouver Police in 2007. While their success is their own, Joanne and Jim’s stories serve as reminders of the impact of positive government discussions about refugees on the public’s mood.
Current discussions by federal officials about people as “queue jumpers” and “foreign criminals” affect all immigrants, not just a select few. Earlier this year, an Angus Reid poll found Canadians were equally divided (at 39% respectively) on whether immigration had a positive or negative impact on the country. On the fiftieth anniversary of Canada’s historic reception of Chinese refugees, the value of positive public rhetoric is something worth remembering.
Laura Madokoro is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Postdoctoral Fellow. She teaches a course in Asian Migrations to the Americas at the University of British Columbia.