I had been the president of the University of Toronto chapter of the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CUCND) in the early sixties. Though the head office of the CUCND was located in Montréal, where national policies and priorities were determined and where the core literature was published, the Toronto chapter turned out to be the largest in terms of membership, the richest in terms of finances, and the most active in terms of programs. Less than twenty years later, my experience at CUCND was transferred to the organization and activities of Operation Lifeline, which became the largest NGO fostering the private sponsorship of Indochinese refugees into Canada. One form of mobilization begat another.
Private sponsorship of refugees was an idea first initiated by Joseph Kage of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society when he commented on Canada’s 1967 white paper on immigration.1 Kage upped his efforts in light of the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1970s and argued that Canada should insert a provision for private sponsorship in the envisioned new Immigration Act so that Jewish groups and synagogues could sponsor immigration to Canada.2 The direct result of that initiative was the inclusion in the 1976 Immigration Act, promulgated in 1978, of a small paragraph that permitted Canadian citizens in groups of at least five to privately sponsor refugees within a quota established by the government. These Sponsorship Agreement Holders, as they were called, guaranteed lodging and food, settlement assistance, and financial support for up to a year as needed.
Operation Lifeline started in the living room of my home in Toronto on June 10, 1979. By the end of that month, there were an astonishing sixty-six chapters of OL across Canada, the largest by far of any non-religiously based refugee assistance organization to emerge in response to the new legislation. The Mennonites and the Christian Reformed Church had already been organizing private sponsorships for three months. In Ottawa, Mayor Marion Dewar led Project 4000. London, Ontario had a separate movement that had arisen at the same time. Mayor Bert Weeks of Windsor organized a consortium of faith and civil society groups to assist in the integration of Indochinese refugees. The first meeting of the London consortium was held in March 1978, a year before even the Mennonite sponsorship initiative.3 However, the founders of OL were ignorant of these earlier initiatives and were not influenced by them.
Canadian policy under the Liberal government had targeted 5,000 government-sponsored Indochinese refugees for admission into Canada for 1979. In the latter part of June, that target was raised to 12,000. Of that total, 4,000 were projected to be sponsored by the private sector. On July 18, three days before a UNHCR-led conference on refugees in Geneva, the Canadian minister of external affairs, Flora MacDonald, upped the target to 50,000, including up to 21,000 additional government sponsorships on a matching basis of one-to-one for every refugee sponsored by the private sector.4
The private sector exceeded its target by 50 percent. Over the next forty years, about 200,000 refugees in total were brought to Canada under the private sponsorship program. The activism of the private sector created a legacy for the future in addition to helping the Indochinese refugees; OL played a significant role in that success. In July 1979, OL’s offices moved from my house into a set of offices provided by Toronto Mayor John Sewell in City Hall. In August, OL moved to occupy a full floor in an old government office building. Many of the reasons for this rapid growth were serendipitous, but the most important was political. Joe Clark had just formed a Progressive Conservative minority government. When Ron Atkey was named minister of employment and immigration in the Clark government, Bud Cullen, the departing Liberal minister, briefed him on the portfolio and told him that his biggest and most immediate challenge would be dealing with the Indochinese refugee crisis. It was evident that any progressive policy toward the Indochinese refugees would enjoy all-party support. As far as OL was concerned, it was significant that Ron Atkey happened to be the member of Parliament for St. Paul’s, the riding in which OL was founded.
A second favourable circumstance was that the senior civil servants who had been preparing the groundwork since the 1978 provision for private sponsorship were ready with policies and procedures, and with the paperwork and the personnel, to make private sponsorship work. These mandarins had actively been seeking private sponsorships from the faith communities. In 1979, they finally had a positive response, first from the Mennonites and then from the Christian Reformed Church.
The mandarins and the politicians were not only all onside, but together they were passionate about the project. Ron Atkey had read a recent article by Irving Abella and Harold (Hesh) Troper on the shameful actions of Canadian authorities toward Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany.5 He did not want to go down in history as a second Frederick Blair, the director of the immigration branch of the department of mines and resources who in 1938 did his utmost to exclude Jews from entering Canada. Upon instructions from Ron Atkey, André Pilon (Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s settlement director for the Ontario region) and Bob Parkes, his communications director, showed up at my house (to our surprise, if not shock because it was a Sunday and the meeting had just been organized on Friday) while our founding meeting of priests, rabbis, ministers, and friends was crafting a letter asking that Ron Atkey do more to help the refugees. André and Bob asked if they could sit in, and we agreed that they could. As we debated the wording of the letter, André asked for permission to speak and make a suggestion. Everyone assented. They informed us about the provision for private sponsorship and suggested that we might want to give witness to our convictions. We agreed, and in no time at all, had decided to set a target of fifty sponsorships for St. Paul’s riding.
There was another serendipitous event that occurred at the same time. One of my graduate students who had attended the meeting turned out to be a stringer for the Globe and Mail. He fed the story to Dick Beddoes, whose page-long column reported a version of what we had decided to do. I only learned about this when a woman phoned me at 6:30 a.m. from Marystown, Newfoundland, on Monday morning and asked if she could help Operation Lifeline. I asked her what she was referring to. She read the Globe’s story to me over the phone. Dick Beddoes had christened us with that name. He had also printed my name and number at the bottom of the column. The phone literally did not stop ringing for weeks. I asked the woman to organize a chapter of OL in Marystown in the same way we had done. I would send her follow-up material on how to implement a private sponsorship. This process was repeated numerous times as individuals from across the country phoned in. I told them to start a chapter or, if someone from that riding had already phoned, to get in touch with that person. The media proved to be as important as the government in pushing private sponsorships, though they had an unfortunate and mistaken habit of insisting that government policy was only a response to the pressure of the private sector.
Besides the willingness of civil society, the commitments and actions of both politicians and civil servants in the government, and the tremendous and continuous coverage by the media, there was a fourth element that contributed to OL’s success. An old colleague from graduate school, now a lawyer, dropped over to the house when he could not reach me by phone. Earlier that year, he had been unsuccessful in getting his United Church to sponsor refugees. In the process, he had collected all the requisite information. Overnight, we prepared a 62-page handbook on private sponsorship, which we sent out as new chapters were organized. Mastery of facts, policies, laws, and procedures, as we had learned in the early sixties, was critical to success. By now, we had the knowledge.
We had the opportunity. We had politicians, civil servants, and major media on the same side. But what about money? On the first morning, three former Ugandan Ismaili refugees were at the front door with loads of bills—ones, fives, tens, twenties, fifties, and even hundreds. They offered the money to us to assist us in our efforts. We refused the money and insisted that they use it to start their own private sponsorship group—which they did.
With help from governments at all levels, as well as donations of time, services, and office materials, we had managed to get along without raising any money. However, Murray Koffler, a well-known philanthropist, and founder of Shoppers Drug Mart, agreed to join our board. Against my view, which was to avoid becoming a recipient of money ourselves and to insist that money be directly spent to help refugees by sponsors, Murray insisted that I was being short-sighted. Public enthusiasm would erode. New needs would emerge. Some sponsorships would run into trouble and need additional support. He proved to be correct on all three counts. With the approval of the Board and my abstention, he agreed to lead a fundraising effort. With the help of a funding marathon on the CBC that he organized and donations from other sources, he managed to raise almost $400,000, which proved to be needed, as he had anticipated.
Decades later I became involved in the attempt to get the Canadian government, first under Stephen Harper and later under Justin Trudeau, involved in expanding the program to assist Syrian refugees. I also became marginally involved in the private sponsorship of Syrian refugees through my synagogue and the beginning of Lifeline Syria. My experiences in the second decade of the twenty-first century were markedly different from those in 1979.
It helped that this time round, Mike Molloy and Naomi Alboim, both from the government policy and delivery side, and I from the private sponsorship side, were veterans of the Indochinese refugee movement. All three of us had carried out research on refugees. We were concerned with the enormous increase in Syrian refugees resulting from the Syrian civil war. Refugees were flooding into Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon and, unlike Southeast Asia, these host countries, while troubled by the enormous responsibilities refugees thrust upon them, did not close their borders. They also had a much greater refugee burden—four million or more.
As we strategized our approach, Naomi pointed out that over the past decade, Canada had greatly increased the number of unskilled temporary workers it was bringing into the country, and that the program was fraught with difficulties. This led her to suggest that refugees could substitute for these unskilled workers. We therefore proposed greatly increasing the intake of Syrian refugees with the support of private sponsorships by arranging jobs in advance that would normally be filled by unskilled temporary guest workers. We ran two pilot workshops, one in Halifax and one in Calgary, to test the idea, not only with refugee private sponsors and settlement organizations, but also with business leaders. The idea received enthusiastic support, especially from businesses, who resented the money they spent on recruiting temporary guest workers and the loss of their investment in training when those workers’ visas expired. Consequently, a number of firms committed to offering jobs to the refugees.
When we took the plan to the senior civil service, we received a mixed response that was at once enthusiastic and skeptical. On the one hand, they were excited by the proposal and were willing to back it enthusiastically. On the other hand, they let us know that all decision making was now centralized in the office of the prime minister and were skeptical about positive change forthcoming, even with business support. They estimated that such a proposal would take eighteen months to obtain approval. They helped us devise a more “diplomatic” proposal—specifically by deleting any specific reference to Syrian refugees which they believed would raise Harper’s negatively oriented antennae. Further, they devised a method of including the idea under an existing program. In “the old days,” this would have meant the program could be implemented within a few weeks. They let us know it would take four months at least. As it turned out, it was never implemented at all.
Despite the compatibility of the proposal with conservative business interests, the prime minister’s office never supported the initiative. In October 2015, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals defeated Stephen Harper’s Conservatives with an unprecedented election plank to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees. This was a relatively low number given the enormous number of refugees in need of resettlement, but especially when compared to the government commitments to a much larger number of Indochinese refugees in 1979. However, it was unprecedented because it was the first time that a political party had made the intake of refugees a central part of its promised initiatives in running for election. In 1979–80, whenever questions arose about making refugee issues central to an election campaign, the idea was buried because, in an open debate, the anti-immigration sector of society would emerge and turn the proposal into a matter of great controversy.
The plan promised to bring the 25,000 refugees in by the end of the year. That was an extraordinary commitment which the experienced old hands resisted because logistically that was too large a number to bring in within such a short period. Further, given the way the staff in the immigration department had been reduced and for almost a decade had been denied any program initiatives on the administrative level, the department was seriously depleted. Most of the people with experience were gone and many of those who were left were unpracticed in taking responsibility and initiative. The task of taking in those refugees within two months would have been an enormous challenge for a civil service better prepared to tackle the problem, much less this one. The surprise, given these factors, was that the government, to its enormous credit, was able to deliver the program in a reasonable timeframe.
However, there were many problems. The forms that needed to be completed for private sponsorship were far more complicated than they were in 1979, and almost needed professional help to complete. Money for a year had to be shown up front rather than simply guaranteed. For speed, government-sponsored refugees were brought in first, which frustrated many refugee sponsors (as well as the privately sponsored refugees) and led to long waiting periods. Though the new program was widely supported by the media, that support lacked the enormous, sustained coverage that had been provided to the Indochinese refugee movement. Further, the private sector was riddled with many more tensions than had been the case in the 1980s, perhaps because organizations like Syria Lifeline lacked the organizing experience that the Indochinese sponsors had gained from being activists in the sixties.
The crisis was much worse, and Canada was in a far better position to bring in refugees, both because we had a far richer economy and were not immersed in a recession like the one in 1979. Besides, despite the weakened mandarin capacities, the government was determined to show it could deliver on its election promises. However, it lacked the experience to deliver on those promises, and it showed. Besides, the nature of giving seemed to have shifted. Humanitarians seemed to be much more oriented to more specific interests and ones closer to home. All these factors meant that the Syrian sponsorship movement and government support for Syrian refugees never reached the heights of the Indochinese refugee movement. The times had changed, and so had the ability to deliver on humanitarian obligations.
1 Joseph Kage, “Re-appraising the Canadian Immigration Policy: An Analysis and Comments on the White Paper on Immigration,” Jewish Immigrant Aid Society, January 1967.
2 Joseph Kage, “Stepping Stones Towards the New Canadian Immigration Act,” Jewish Immigrant Aid Society Information Bulletin no. 347, November 20, 1973.
3 Giovana Roma, “The Indochinese Refugee Movement: An Exploratory Case Study of the Windsor Experience,” Refuge 32, no. 2 (2016): 81–89.
4 For a far more detailed account, cf. Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen, and Robert J. Shalka, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975–1980 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).
5 Irving Abella and Harold Troper, “‘The line must be drawn somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees, 1938–1939,” Canadian Historical Review 60, no. 2 (June 1979): 178–209.