A Second Chance to Get It Right

As Canadians debate our country’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis, Globe and Mail journalist Sean Fine recently recalled the pivotal decision taken in 1979 by the Conservative government of Joe Clark to accept 50,000 Vietnamese refugees, excavating a little-known backstory that lies behind it.

Fine recounts how then Deputy Minister of Immigration Jack Manion had access to the as-yet unpublished manuscript of Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s historical account None is Too Many which detailed Canada’s refusal to accept Jewish refugees during World War II. In advising Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration on the emerging humanitarian crisis of the so-called “Boat People,” Manion exhorted his superior: “This should not be you.”

Fine’s story intrigued me. As a student of public management, I was struck by its account of a high-ranking public servant acting as both moral advocate and shaper of public policy. But I also knew Jack Manion, and I decided to dig a little deeper. I discovered that None is Too Many was not published until 1983. Manion actually had access to Abella and Troper’s article in the 1979 Canadian Historical Review “The line must be drawn somewhere: Canada and Jewish refugees,” which was a precursor to the 1983 book. The chief villain in Abella and Troper’s story was a senior public servant, the Director of Immigration, Frederick Charles Blair. The article took its title from a phrase in one of Blair’s memos: “the line must be drawn somewhere.” Only later did the authors discover Blair’s much more damning recommendation which would become their book’s title: “None [no Jewish refugee immigrants at all] is too many.”

How did Manion discover the article? Harold Troper told me that he and Abella simply sent it to Minister Atkey’s office. It was passed down to Deputy Minister Manion, who read it himself, then passed it back to Minister Atkey to read. Like Manion, Atkey recognized the parallels. He saw that Canada was confronted by a clear moral test, a test his predecessor had failed four decades before at the cost of untold numbers of human lives. Like Manion, Atkey felt compelled to re-write that shameful chapter of our national history. At his urging 50, 000 desperate refugees were welcomed to Canada.

But this is not only a story of individual moral choice. A confluence of factors enabled our government to do the right thing at the right time. The first was the academic research that brought historical context and fine-grained insight to the policy process at precisely the right moment. Academic scholarship is often dismissed as having no “real-world” application. Abella and Troper not only recognized the present-day implications of their historical work, they ensured that it came to the attention of the decision makers who could act upon them. And far from seeking to discount or silence these scholars, a senior public servant and a cabinet minister responded to their challenge.

A second decisive force was that of narrative itself, a subject I have written about in many previous posts. Abella and Troper’s article details a shocking story of a public servant employing his professional stature and expertise in the service of a racist personal agenda and persuading his political masters to go along with him. Minister Atkey was a member of a newly-elected government seeking, as all newly-elected governments do, to establish its own narrative. What moral terrain would it claim for itself? What story would be told of its choices and actions forty years in the future?

The third factor was the human one. I had the privilege of working with Jack Manion later in his life, when he was the founding principal of the Canadian Centre for Management Development (now the Canada School of Public Service). He was, undoubtedly, a man of vision, decency, and courage. His advice to Minister Atkey was completely in character. Although I cannot be certain, I suspect he was haunted by the image of his racist predecessor, Blair, using red tape and bureaucratic barriers to deny desperate people sanctuary from a murderous regime.

Finally, we cannot discount the importance of a truly functional, collegial cabinet in which ministers clearly and forcefully articulated policy positions and the newly elected Prime Minister was willing to listen. We should recall that Minister Atkey was recommending a dramatic policy change: more than quadrupling the number of Vietnamese refugees Canada would admit, from 12,000 to 50,000. Joe Clark’s “Red Tory” minority government was short-lived and Atkey did not continue his political career after his defeat in the 1980 federal election.

As Canada faces another moment of moral choice in its policies towards desperate people seeking refuge from violence and persecution, we can only hope that Prime Minister Harper and Immigration Minister Alexander will find their Jack Manion to remind them of the history lessons they seem to have forgotten, or never learned.

Acknowledgment: My spouse, Beth Herst, normally copy-edits my work. In this case, her contributions went beyond copy-editing to co-authorship. I deeply appreciate her contribution.

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