Transnational Christian Charity: The Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Hungarian Refugee Crisis, 1956-1957

By Thompson, Andrew S.; Bangarth, Stephanie | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview
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Transnational Christian Charity: The Canadian Council of Churches, the World Council of Churches, and the Hungarian Refugee Crisis, 1956-1957


Thompson, Andrew S., Bangarth, Stephanie, American Review of Canadian Studies


Canada's response to the 1956-1957 Hungarian refugee crisis has generally been treated by scholars as a highpoint in Canadian immigration history. In late October 1956, pro-democracy, anti-Soviet demonstrations directed at the Soviet-backed government of Erno Gero broke out in Budapest. Fearing that its control of the Warsaw Pact was unraveling, the Kremlin ordered the Red Army to put down the revolution. On 4 November, events turned violent. Soviet forces clashed with protestors, prompting hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to flee across the border into Austria and Yugoslavia. (2) For its part, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was unprepared to intervene militarily for fear of provoking a conflict with the USSR. (3) NATO members were, however, able to relieve the pressure placed on Austria. In the days and weeks after the invasion, Canadian immigration officials reinforced the number of immigration officers at the Canadian Embassy in Vienna, loosened the normal requirements concerning proper travel documentation, medical exams, and security clearances, and enlisted commercial airplanes to transport the refugees out of Austria. These initiatives produced impressive results: by the end of 1957 more than 37,000 Hungarians had been accepted into Canada. But government actors were not solely responsible for this shift in policy; indeed, the response was truly a national one and would not have been possible without the support and assistance of a whole host of voluntary organizations from a wide range of sectors of Canadian society, all of which contributed greatly to the resettlement effort. (4)

Most scholars of immigration, such as Gerald Dirks and Robert Key-serlingk, underline the importance of the reception of Hungarian refugees as having a liberalizing impact in the immigration policy arena in Canada, serving as a useful precedent for other refugee migrations during times of crisis. (5) The Hungarian situation also had an immediate impact on the operation of Canada's refugee program, as Freda Hawkins notes: ''Briefly, during the Hungarian crisis and refugee movement, there was a glimpse of what better leadership and a much more co-operative approach to immigration in Canada might achieve." (6) N. F. Dreisziger makes a crucial distinction, however, by detailing not only the cooperative efforts between the Canadian government and welfare agencies, but also the role of the Hungarian Canadian community in refugee reception. (7) Forgetting Canadian contributions to the resettlement of the displaced persons in Europe following the Second World War, Michael Lanphier describes the Canadian response to the Hungarian refugee crisis as "the first ever crisis to demand Canada's participation in the international resettlement effort." (8) It is also interesting to note that while some of the above-mentioned scholars claim that the decision to accept a significant number of refugees was reached only after pressure was exerted on policymakers from within and beyond the federal government, they do not indicate either the methods by which such pressure was applied or the international characteristics of the pressure itself

The Canadian Council of Churches (CCC) was one of a number of voluntary organizations in Canada that offered assistance to the refugees during the Hungarian refugee crisis. (9) Like other domestic groups, it both assisted with the material needs of the Hungarians once they arrived in Canada, and lobbied Ottawa to include not just the most able in its selection of refugees. But what separates the CCC from other groups in Canada is the larger transnational context in which that agency advocated on behalf of the Hungarian refugees. Throughout the period from 1956 to 1958, it worked closely with its sister council in Europe, the World Council of Churches (WCC), which had direct contact with the Hungarians. The WCC worked on an international level to achieve a more efficient and judicious handling of the refugee crisis by lobbying governments, non-governmental organizations, and particularly its member groups, such as the CCC.

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