Remembering Uganda

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Laura Madokoro with Mike Molloy (President, Canadian Immigration Historical Society)

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Ugandan Asian refugee resettlement movement to Canada. It is an event that not many people remember, or have even heard about. We believe it is something we should all know about – especially in the current climate when contentious debates over refugee policy are the stuff of daily headlines. At the same time, commemorating mass resettlement efforts raises important and complicated questions about how we understand the history of refugee policy in Canada. We look at the significance of the Ugandan Asian refugee movement and then give some thought to how the event should be commemorated this year.

On August 4, 1972, then President of Uganda, Idi Amin (made famous most recently by Forrest Whitaker’s portrayal of him in The Last King of Scotland) ordered the expulsion of the country’s Asian (mainly Indian) population. Claiming he had received the order from God, Amin gave the community ninety days to leave. At the time of the order, there were more than 80,000 Asians in Uganda. More than 27,000 of the expellees went to Great Britain and importantly, 6,000 came to Canada. Their resettlement was a significant milestone in the history of refugee resettlement in Canada. Resettlement refers to programs whereby refugees are selected overseas and their travel to Canada is financially supported by a government in Canada. Most of the refugees who were resettled in Canada after the Second World War were European. The first non-Europeans were only resettled in 1962 when one hundred Chinese families were resettled from Hong Kong. The Ugandan crisis, along with the Chilean crisis of 1973 hot on its heels, convinced Canadian policy makers that they were moving into an era where there would be a need for ongoing and often simultaneous resettlement programs. The resettlement of Ugandan Asians paved the way for later resettlement initiatives including the historic resettlement of Indochinese refugees in the late 1970s.

Mike Molloy was an immigration officer at the Embassy in Beirut, which was responsible for immigration from East Africa, at the time Amin issued his edict. Mike ended up in Uganda during the crisis, running the selection section. He recalls:

When news of the August 4th expulsion order reached Ottawa, Prime Minister Trudeau took a personal interest. His office immediately established a task force to coordinate the government’s response. By the time the British High Commission delivered an appeal for assistance on 18 August, the Canadian Cabinet had already discussed the crisis. Cabinet documents reveal that while the government expected many expellees to meet normal selection criteria under the points system, it understood this would not be sufficient. Announcing an initial commitment to admit 3000 persons and the dispatch of a team to Kampala, Trudeau noted that: “This step will enable us to form a clearer impression of the numbers involved and of the extent to which exceptional measures may have to be taken to deal urgently with those who would not normally qualify for admission.” With an election and growing concern about high unemployment, the Finance Minister pushed Immigration Minister Bryce Mackasey to limit the number of people resettled. Makasey argued for a soft upper limit of 8000. He later compromised on 6000.

Canada had no facilities in Kampala but within 6 days of our arrival a fully equipped office and a team of immigration officers, visa typing specialists and Health Canada doctors was in place. On opening day morning, 6 September, we were shocked to encounter a 10-block lineup at our front door. Our team handed out 2588 application for families amounting to 7764 people that day. Progress was delayed by the late arrival of a team of military medical technicians to conduct medical tests. As a result, the initial airlift flight had to be postponed until September 27.

In late September, there were two occurrences that shaped the character of the rest of the program. Followers of deposed Uganda President Milton Obote staged an invasion that was bloodily repulsed. Security throughout the country deteriorated as army discipline broke down. Second, the Uganda government ordered Asians with Ugandan citizenship to report to have their citizenship confirmed. The army showed up and confiscated the documents of those waiting in line rendering thousands effectively stateless. The Ismaili community which, on the advice of the Agha Khan, had largely opted to become Ugandans rather than retaining British status at independence, was heavily hit by the sudden revocation of their nationality.

While refugees were formally selected under the ‘point system,’ by the end of September every communication and visitor from Manpower and Immigration Headquarters carried the same message: humanitarian considerations were to be paramount in the selection process. As the expulsion deadline of November 6 approached the pace of selection and processing accelerated: seven fully loaded DC10’s departed the week of October 22nd, 10 charters the final week of the 29th. Before November 6, 6175 visas had been handed out to 2,116 families.  Thirty-one chartered flights carried 4,420 people to Canada and another 1725 elected to make their way on commercial flights. Three days after the deadline the office was empty and we were gone.

The resettlement of Ugandan Asians was an important moment in the history of refugee policy in Canada. As Mike’s summary reveals, it was an event that galvanized politicians in Canada at the highest levels. Citizens organized support committees to meet the refugees, continuing a long history of citizen engagement and assistance. As we look to mark the fortieth anniversary of this important level, the question emerges of how best we should commemorate resettlement efforts.

Over the past two months there has been a series of meetings and communications regarding the possibilities offered by assembling several remarkable collections of documents relating to the Ugandan Asian refugee movement. These include Canadian and British Cabinet and other documents and several volumes of newspaper clippings from Ugandan and Canadian newspapers that capture the intimate details of the crisis as it unfolded. Together with Canadian Kampala Team leader Roger St. Vincent’s daily memoir of the team’s operations, these documents constitute a rare and comprehensive record of an important movement of refugees to Canada. Patti Harper, Head of Carleton University’s Archive and Research Collection Department, has provided a project description which sees a two stage process for conserving the documents and then making them accessible over the Internet to scholars, the communities who came to Canada and the interested public. The challenge as always is raising funds and making the project known. As Mike says, “suggestions and contributions welcome.”

Commemorating the Ugandan resettlement through the building of an archive offers a wonderful opportunity to build a virtual legacy and to commemorate refugee resettlement in a meaningful, ongoing manner. Creating an accessible on-line archive is the first step in what could, and should be, a broader and more comprehensive history of refugee resettlement in Canada that includes the history of the individuals who moved and the communities that supported them.

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