Foundation Book on Refugees

By Hannah Arseneau – Danielis

John Peters Humphrey’s speech “Foundation Book on Refugees” remains relevant today. Delivered sometime after 1976, Humphrey’s speech states that, while originally conceived as temporary in nature following WWI, the problem of refugees has only persisted. Events from Humphrey’s era until the present further discredit this initial perception. Canada’s current refugee debate stems partially from the country’s ratification of the UN Convention and Protocol on refugees and their incorporation into national law. Humphrey’s speech foreshadows discussions that have yet to achieve formal results at the international, national or local levels, which may decide the future of refugees in Canada.

Of the various developments that Humphrey discusses, two of them in particular persist: the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees (which provides the definition of a refugee, still in use by Canada)[1] and the 1967 Protocol (which removes any geographic limitations on who may be considered a refugee). The 1951 UN Convention’s defines a refugee as “any person who is seeking refuge, that is to say, shelter from pursuit or dangers…And the danger from which he is fleeing can be of many kinds, including famine or poverty.” Humphrey justified this narrow definition because many states, including Canada, had incorporated it into national law.

Humphrey acknowledged that at the international level complete freedom of movement between state borders did not exist. Treaties such as the 1951 Convention only prevent refoulement, which is to expel or return a refugee to the place of persecution they have fled. Humphrey notes that Article 14 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights gives more protection to asylum seekers than the 1951 Convention by ensuring that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution.” While people allegedly have the right to move freely between borders, according to the UN Declaration of Human Rights, states still retain the right to grant entry and decide what rights refugees receive. Humphrey believed the controversy in Canada at the time was deciding who was a real refugee, and while he knew there were other potentially related issues, he believed they could be dealt with under immigration rather than refugee law. Questions of whether the country needed more immigrants, employment, a desire to maintain a certain demographic character, among others, were distinguished from refugee law based on the 1951 Convention.

The current ‘refugee problem’ shows that the debates Humphrey discussed are still ongoing, begging the question of whether it is time to redefine refugees, immigration, state borders or some combination of these understandings. While the government claims to differentiate refugees from other types of immigrants, trends in Canadian history blur this distinction. Walker (2009, 82) believes the notion of a racial liberal order has shaped Canada’s immigration policies and the state has prerogative in determining who may enter the nation. Choudry (2009) also believes that Canada has a history of engineering a racialized underclass. A similar phenomenon can be found in Canada’s history of accepting refugees. Harold Troper (2009) states that “By the 1970’s it was widely held that Canada was then and always had been a haven for the oppressed. In retrospect the public imagination turned a select series of economically beneficial refugee resettlement programs into a massive and longstanding Canadian humanitarian resolve on behalf of refugees.”[2] Thus, while the Canadian government claims to distinguish between these two groups, the racialized rationale underlying their entry to the nation appear quite similar. Humphrey’s speech envisions a world functioning as a single state. Despite the utopian overtones, Humphrey also stated “the Canadian parliament and the provincial legislatures…theoretically could decide that all asylum seekers, whether political, economic or other, have a right to enter the country.” Carens (1987, 270) contends that current immigration policies protect unjust privilege and a movement towards open borders is both compatible with the idea of moral worth and desirable. Current debates within Canadian society and government have resulted in discrimination against refugees whose claims to citizenship  satisfy the requirements of the 1951 Convention – further indicating that a reimagining of these policies is necessary to fulfill Canada’s human rights obligations as decreed by the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the 1951 Convention. In light of recent events, such as those surrounding the controversy over Canada’s acceptance of Syrian refugees, it is important to consider how open borders might reaffirm (or perhaps initiate) our nation’s communal character rather than destroy it.


Carens, Joseph H.. 1987. “Aliens and Citizens: The Case for Open Borders”. The Review of Politics 49 (2). [University of Notre Dame du lac on behalf of Review of Politics, Cambridge University Press]: 251–73.

Choudry, A., Hanley, J. Jordon, S. Shragge, E., And Stiegman, M. “Context.” In Fight Back: Workplace Justice for Immigrants, 15-32. Blacks Point, N.S:Fernwood, 2009.

Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch. “Determine Your Eligibility – Refugee Status from inside Canada.”  Last modified December 12, 2012.

Walker, Barrington. “Finding Jim Crow in Canada, 1789-1967.” In A History of Human Rights in Canada, edited by Janet Miron, 81-98. Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press Inc, 2009.

[1] “Determine Your Eligibility – Refugee Status from inside Canada,” Government of Canada, Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Communications Branch, Last modified December 12, 2012,

[2] “Brief History of Canada’s Responses to Refugees,” Canadian Council for Refugees, Accessed February 24, 2016.


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