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47th Annual International Conference of the Association Française d’Études Canadiennes (AFEC)

26*, 27, 28 June 2024

Examining Canada’s Approach to “Refugees” across Two and a Half Centuries (1770-2023)
Université catholique de l’Ouest, Angers



In 2018, Canada surpassed the United States in real numbers of refugees admitted. Although this result may not have been particularly surprising given the diametrically opposing perspectives on refugee admissions held by the Trump administration and the Trudeau government, it remained a source of pride for the Canadian government, public, and media and a source of contrition for some of their American counterparts. This was not the first time that Canada’s approach to refugee admission and resettlement had been compared favourably to that of the U.S., but in the past the spotlight had been shed on the number of admissions in comparison to each country’s population. Even without the comparison to the US, a positive narrative of Canada’s refugee reception and resettlement practices has tended to dominate government, public, and even academic discourses, at least since the admission of some 60,000 Indochinese refugees in 1979-1980. This is not to say that there have not been some bumps and detours along the way, but a general sense of Canadian generosity towards refugees has tended to prevail within and beyond Canada’s borders. The UN awarded the people of Canada with the Nansen Medal in 1986 “in recognition of the major and sustained contribution made to the cause of refugees in their country and throughout the world over the years.”

The Canadian state has played an active role in promoting this positive narrative. A government web page, “Canada: A History of Refuge,” vaunts Canada’s refugee receiving record over the span of 2.5 centuries, beginning with Quakers (1770-1779) and Black Loyalists (1780-1789) emigrating as a result of the American Revolution and ending with the 26,166 Syrian refugees admitted in 2015 and 2016. A second page, with the same title, provides a timeline of 29 different movements ranging in size from the 250,000 European displaced persons admitted after WWII to 228 Tibetans welcomed in 1971-1972. Although Nguyen and Phu (2021) note that an analysis of Canada’s refugee record should look back beyond the typical linear representation that begins in 1976 with the formal inclusion of “refugee” in the Immigration Act of Canada as a specific class of immigrants, one wonders if it is possible to categorize all of the migrations on the government site as refugee movements. Ten of those movements pre-date the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Canada did not sign until 1969), which provided a universal definition of a refugee and established standards of treatment. The term refugee was certainly in use prior to that time. After all, the International Refugee Organization (IRO) was created in 1946 to resettle almost 1 million “displaced persons” who refused repatriation to their countries of origin following WWII and the expansion of communist regimes in central and eastern European countries. The IRO worked with a functional definition, but the term displaced persons or rather “DPs” clung stubbornly to the refugees who resettled in countries like Canada.

One might still argue that some of the people who made up the movements listed on the government web site would have fit the convention definition of refugee had that definition existed at the time of their migration to Canada, for example Jews from the Pale of Settlement fleeing pogroms and harsh living conditions between 1881 and 1914. The real difference lies in the treatment of the pre-1970s groups by the Canadian government and public, in other words the basis on which they gained admission to Canada and the welcome, or lack thereof, they received upon arrival. If one contextualizes all these movements, it soon becomes clear that Canada’s history of refugee reception is hardly a long calm river from 1770 to 2023, but rather a long, winding, rocky road. That said, the long history of “refugee” resettlement in Canada is a road worth following due to what it can tell us about the construction of “refugeeness” in the Canadian context as well as the frank assessment of the narrative of Canadian generosity and a clearer understanding of the present as informed by the past that it provides.

All the “refugee” movements cited on the government pages have been the subject of extensive historiographies and other scholarly publications, as well as both documentary and fictional literary and audio-visual accounts that touch on every possible aspect of admission and resettlement from politico-legal considerations to the integration of refugee children into Canadian schools. The cumulative number of such documents reaches into the hundreds, with more recent movements, such as the Syrian refugees, generating dozens and dozens of publications and productions for each movement. The vast majority focus on a single group, a particular policy, or a specific challenge (e.g., health, education, employment, discrimination). A growing number of oral history collections add a very important dimension to the study of the refugee experience in Canada. What one does not readily find are publications and productions that take a long-term perspective on refugee reception and resettlement in Canada. The different movements and eras tend to be viewed in isolation from one other, thus limiting the fruitful reframing that could result from juxtaposing their commonalities and divergences. Few scholars have taken up where Gerald E. Dirks left off in 1977 with his seminal work, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism. Dirks offered a more comprehensive view of the uneven evolution of Canada’s – both government and civil society’s – response to refugees than is available in much of the contemporary analyses, with a few (mostly shorter) notable exceptions.

Call for Papers

The 2024 AFEC conference seeks to reintroduce a long-term perspective that compares and contrasts Canada’s approach to refugee admission, resettlement and integration during different periods of the country’s history. Panels will be organized thematically rather than chronologically to encourage the examination of the wide range of approaches to common issues at different points in time. Contributions of theoretical reflection as well as concrete case studies are welcome. Proposals may come from different disciplinary fields and adopt a variety of methodological approaches.

The following is a non-exhaustive list of some of the themes that might be considered:

  • Evolving definitions and (de)constructions of “refugeeness” and “refugee success”.
  • Evolving federal legislation regarding refugees, the evolution of “refugee policies” within Canadian political parties, the potential input of provinces into national discussions of refugee policy
  • Representations of refugees and asylum seekers in media, government information and public opinion, as well as in literary, cultural and artistic production.
  • The voices of refugees speaking out about their own situation or issues that affect them, either on or around the time of their arrival or later in their oral histories or other forms of expression.
  • The (de)mythification of Canadian generosity toward refugees.
  • The basis for admission of different groups or individuals and their concomitant politico-legal status as well as their informal status in the eyes of the Canadian public and state.
  • Tendencies in government and in the public to favour certain refugees or asylum seekers over others based on evolving ideas of “deservingness”.
  • The disinclination or outright refusal to consider certain groups or individuals as refugees; the basis and consequences of such refusal; mechanisms for and resistance to exclusion/ deportation.
  • Public mobilization in support of, or in opposition to, refugee admission and resettlement, including the role of religious groups, voluntary associations and ethnic groups.
  • The genesis and evolution of Canada’s private sponsorship program and the balance between government and private aid for refugee resettlement.
  • The uneven/unequal path to citizenship.
  • The complacency associated with Canada’s geographic removal from most refugee populations and movements that have troubled that complacency.
  • Refugees and asylum seekers viewed as posing potential threats to Canada: communists, terrorists, criminals, competitors for jobs, welfare profiteers, “extreme” cultural others.
  • Dark moments in Canada’s history of refugee treatment, including the “production” of refugees from Canada itself.
  • Gender and sexuality considerations in refugee admission and resettlement.
  • The treatment reserved for child or youth refugees who arrive as part of families or unaccompanied, including specific legislation, policy and support.
  • (Un)welcoming places and geographies related to refugee resettlement in cities, small towns, farms, remote areas.
  • The success, failure, or absence of measures to facilitate refugee integration, e.g., housing, health coverage, training and education, labour market integration.

Proposals for papers in French or English (15 to 20 lines) and biographical information (noting 3-5 publications) should be sent to Sheena Trimble strimble@uco.fr and Françoise Le Jeune Francoise.Le-Jeune@univ-nantes.fr before 31 October. Acceptance letters will be sent by the 15 December 2023 at the latest, to the colleagues who have responded to this call for papers.

*The first day of the conference is usually a half day of meetings of the Board of Directors and the General Assembly. The 2024 conference will also be held in conjunction with a one-day symposium scheduled for June 26th, that will consider similar themes, but dealing with a larger geographic area, as a part of a three-year project (MOBIL) examining the mobility and mobilization related to migration through the prism of ethics. A separate CFP will be published at a later date.