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Remembering Cairine Wilson, Canada’s Mother of Refugees on Holocaust Remembrance DayRemembering Cairine Wilson, Canada’s Mother of Refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Remembering Cairine Wilson, Canada’s Mother of Refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day

In time for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Susan Korah writes a commemorative piece on Canada’s first female Senator—Cairine Wilson— a “firm but gentle voice” who advocated for refugees entering Canada after WWII.

Susan Korah
5 minute read

As Jews and human rights advocates all over the world mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, Canadians have a special reason to honour the memory of Cairine Wilson, Canada’s first female Senator, who was appointed to the Red Chamber in 1930.

Wilson’s trailblazing career—marked by outstanding services to Jewish (and other) refugees fleeing the Nazi juggernaut as it steamrollered its way across Europe— earned her the accolade “Mother of Refugees.”

 It also placed her firmly in the ranks of Holocaust heroes of the stature of Raoul Wallenberg, and prepared the ground for a less restrictive and more humane immigration policy that eventually put Canada on the world map as a humanitarian, refugee-welcoming country.

Daughter of Senator Robert Mackay, and wife of Norman Wilson, a prosperous businessman and one-time MP, she came from an elite Montreal family that travelled in the same social circles as the movers and shakers of Canadian society. She could have easily led a luxurious but unremarkable life of debutante balls, fashionable tea parties, and exclusive receptions reported in minute detail in the social columns of newspapers of the day.

But the values of her faith, her sense of noblesse oblige (privilege entails responsibility) and her dedication to the cause of the vulnerable, particularly women and children, guided her to a very different path.

“She was naturally a very compassionate person and grew up in a family with staunch Presbyterian values,” Valerie Knowles, author of First Person, a biography of Wilson told Convivium. “These included a robust work ethic, a sense of stewardship which translated into the responsibility to use all one’s personal resources to fulfill God’s will and benefit all of humankind.”

“She was also possibly influenced by family stories of their Scottish forebears being evicted from their crofts (small farms) during the highland clearances of 1818-19,” Knowles added.

Wilson’s campaign to open Canada’s doors to Jewish and other refugees facing persecution was fought in the face of stubborn opposition from dominant political and bureaucratic figures of the day.

Exemplifying the typical attitudes of the time (1930s) was an unidentified immigration officer who snapped: “None is too many” when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada would accept.

A contrast to this callous response was the firm but gentle voice of Cairine Wilson, who insisted that nobody could follow the heartrending course of events without wishing to help, and that as a country Canada was obliged morally to protect these people from external aggression.

She encountered powerful opposition, including from her own party leader, Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie King, and other stalwarts of the anti-refugee camp such as Frederick Blair, a top immigration official, not to mention large segments of the Canadian population who saw increased immigration as a threat to their livelihoods and cultural homogeneity.

Wilson’s view of the world, however, transcended their narrow nationalism, and her compassion knew no borders.

Outspoken in her opposition to the Munich Agreement— which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain signed with Hitler in 1938 in an effort to appease him and prevent further Nazi aggression—Wilson displayed an independence of mind and a firm grasp of international affairs that was exceptional among Canadian and world leaders of the time.

By her own account, this fateful event spurred her to action on behalf of the refugees whose ranks would swell immeasurably in the next few years. She saw the Munich Agreement as nothing less than a trigger for a perilous descent into full-scale war rather than as an instrument of peace.

Having for years, championed the cause of disadvantaged women, and children with disabilities of various kinds, Wilson embarked on a vigorous campaign on behalf of refugees fleeing a bloodthirsty Nazi machine.

Despite the powerful opposition she encountered, her endeavors were not wholly unsupported. Joining their voices to hers were prominent leaders of Canada’s Jewish community, newspaper editors in the English language press, leaders of Protestant churches, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation.

In 1938, she established a non-sectarian organization the Canadian National Committee on Refugees and Victims of Political Persecution (CNCR) and for the next ten years, led a two-pronged campaign— an educational one to combat anti-Semitism— and an epic political battle for the liberalization of Canada’s immigration policy.

For the next ten years, the work of this committee was gruelling. It ranged from meeting cabinet ministers and bureaucrats to speaking engagements across the country to raise awareness, and hosting fundraising events. It demanded countless hours of time and all the organizational skills that she and her colleagues could muster.

Biographer Knowles recalls that the Wilsons’ home, Manor House in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park (which is currently the official residence of the Papal Nuncio) was the scene of countless garden parties and other fundraising events. “It’s a beautiful home and lent itself well to such events,” she says.

Despite repeated setbacks on the political front, the CNCR’s efforts gradually began to pay off. Demands for a more humane immigration policy based on simple human decency became more insistent as an increasing number of Canadians, moved by the desperate circumstances of refugees called on the government to act.

A lapsed Senate committee on immigration and labour was revived in 1946, and Cairine Wilson became a leading member and later its Chair. In a widely circulated report, the Committee recommended a new Act in parliament to meet Canada’s post-war immigration requirements.

Although the liberalization of Canadian immigration policy that Wilson hoped for did not take place until the 1960s, the doors were slowly creaking open. Three orders-in-council in 1947 allowed the admission of 20,000 displaced persons, not including those with close relatives in Canada.

More immediately successful were her lobbying on behalf of individual refugees. Appeals for assistance from friends and family members of asylum seekers poured in from all quarters. The Senator spent countless hours writing letters, making phone calls, meeting with immigration officials and using her personal connections to secure the necessary permission for desperate refugees to enter Canada.

Typical of these cases was that of Dr. Rudolph Gottlieb, a member of the faculty of medicine at Montreal’s McGill University, whose brother and sister-in-law made it to Canada through Wilson’s influence and her ability to pull strings on their behalf.

Cairine Wilson died on March 3, 1962.

Saul Hayes, then Vice President of the Canadian Jewish Congress wrote to Wilson's daughter: "The Canadian Jewish community has cause to mourn the death of your esteemed mother whose actions on fundamental freedoms and rights has illuminated the pages of recent Canadian history.”

Cairine Wilson followed her own star—the values of her faith and heritage—and the star lit the way to a new life for countless refugees fleeing the darkness of the brutal genocide that the world remembers as the Holocaust.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash.com


Convivium publishes texts that do not necessarily reflect the views held by Cardus, the Convivium team, or its editors. In the spirit of discussion, dialogue, and debate, we ask readers to bear in mind that publication does not equal endorsement. Thanks for reading. Join the conversation!

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