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Understanding Refugees in Canada

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This title expires May 28th, 2022

Subject(s): Canadian History, Canadian Politics, Geography, History, Social Issues, Social Studies
Grade Level: 6 - 8, 9 - 12

Every day across the world people make the difficult decision to leave their home, families, possessions and connections with their local community and walk away to an uncertain and often frightening future elsewhere.

Refugees leave their homes and their country because they have no other choice. They are forced out by factors such as war, persecution, natural disasters, environmental crises and poverty. They may also leave because their government will not or cannot protect them from serious human rights abuses or meet their needs. Whatever the reason, refugees leave their homes because they fear for their own life or safety, or that of their family.

Many refugees leave their homes suddenly and are able to take very few if any of their possessions with them. Sometimes they face many days of travel, with little food and in fear of their lives. If they do get to safety, they then rely on the people living in the area they have fled to; these people often have few resources to share and may not welcome the new arrivals.

The issue of Human Rights is central to refugee status. People only become refugees because one or more of their basic human rights are abused.

Recently we have seen long lines of Syrian refugees trying to make their way to safer countries.  Tens of thousands of people are crossing borders searching for a new home.  Through these heart-breaking images, we have become much more aware of the difficulties of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries around the world. 

In this video, students will begin to understand refugees in a historical context. We trace the reasons why the Quakers left England; the Irish Potato Famine; World War II refugees escaping the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler; the “boat people” who escaped after the Vietnam War; the relocation of First Nations groups; and the recent Syrian refugee crisis. Students are also given information about basic human rights and the laws in place to ensure that all person’s human rights are fundamentally protected.

Running Time: 19:36
Country of Origin: Canada
Captions: CC
Producer: McIntyre Media Inc.
Copyright Date: 2016
Language: English

Additional Resources


  • We often see distressing images in the media showing us disasters somewhere in the world.
  • Hurricanes can destroy homes with their deadly winds and drenching rain.
  • Tornadoes may tear the roof off one house, WHILE the home beside it is untouched. Tsunamis roll in from the ocean after an underwater earthquake and swallow up entire communities.
  • Recently, we have seen long lines of Syrian refugees trying to make their way to safer countries. Tens of thousands of people are crossing borders, searching for a new home. Refugees are people who flee their countries and seek safety from war, persecution, or other dangers.
  • We live in a globalized system. And whatever happens in one part of the world is going to affect other parts of the world. And we have in a sense been playing what I call drawbridge politics. The assumption is that we can kind of draw up a metaphorical bridge and then we're safe.
  • We're not safe. We need to be engaged. We need to be aware. And these problems have been going on for a large number of years, often unaddressed. And now we're seeing this on a very large scale, tens of thousands of refugees, who are absolutely desperate to find safe haven.
  • They look for safety, or asylum, in another country because they cannot return to their home country. A refugee is different from an immigrant. An immigrant is a person who chooses to permanently settle in another country. Refugees are forced to flee.
  • Through these heartbreaking images, we have become much more aware of the difficulties of refugees fleeing Syria and other countries around the world. But this is not something new. Refugees have been seeking safety throughout history. People have left their countries or communities for many reasons over the centuries.
  • If they are not allowed to practice their religion in peace, they may seek a better place to live.
  • Mennonites fled Russia after the Russian Revolution in 1919 and move to Canada in order to practice their religion in peace.
  • War has often cause people to flee to safer countries. People who have tried to make a change in how their country IS ruled may have to escape when their safety is threatened.
  • Racial discrimination can lead people searching for a more fair society. And natural disasters displaced more people than war in 2013.
  • 250 years ago, a religious group known as Quakers left England where they were being persecuted. They settled in Pennsylvania. But when the American War of Independence broke out, some of them FLED again to what is now southern Ontario.
  • We've had refugees fleeing racial discrimination in North America too. Between 1840 and 1860, slaves who were brought from Africa were forced to work for their American owners in the southern United States for incredibly long hours. It's hard to imagine that one person could believe they owned another person.
  • They were often punished harshly for disobedience, for trying to run away, or for even learning to read. They lived in shacks and were given pour food and no pay. Not surprisingly, they dreamed of freedom.
  • The Underground Railway was a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped people escape slavery in the southern United States and reach freedom in the north. More than 30,000 American slaves secretly made their way into Canada with the help of agents, like the great Harriet Tubman and Alexander Ross, who risked their own lives to help others.
  • Ireland is another country that had many refugees who came to North America. About 175 years ago, a plant disease destroyed potato crops in Ireland, leaving millions of people with little food.
  • The Irish people were angry at their British rulers for not providing enough help. More than 1.5 million desperately poor Irish people managed to get to North America. And here, they helped build the new countries of the United States and Canada.
  • Wars have created many refugees over the centuries. World War II sent millions of Europeans fleeing the rule of Adolph Hitler. German residents, especially Jews, escaped persecution and found safety in other countries. About 40,000 Holocaust survivors made a new life for themselves in Canada after the war. And some of their descendants are well known to us today.
  • One example is Jeannie Becker, fashion television personality and daughter of Polish-born Holocaust survivors. Albert Einstein, a very famous scientist, was also a Jewish refugees who found safety in the United States.
  • After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, hundreds of thousands of people from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos escaped their countries by boat because they feared punishment from the new communist government. When the news media showed how many of these boat people were drowning in attempts to escape, Canada agreed to take in 60,000 of these refugees.
  • Many of these people were sponsored by groups or churches in different parts of Canada. And today, Vietnamese people work and live in many parts of Canada.
  • Some First Nations people in parts of Canada have also been forced to relocate. In the 18th century, when settlers needed more land, the Canadian government forced some First Nations groups to agree to treaties that limited where they could hunt, fish, and live. The government force them onto reserves. They were promised jobs, new homes, schools, medical services, churches, and livestock for farms. But these promises were not often capped.
  • My name is Patrick Sharangabo. Hi. I'm from Rwanda.
  • When I'm sitting here with you, I can't tell if you can kill me, because you know you're smiling to me. You're nice person. You can't harm me. But the truth of what I saw is not that.
  • On April 7, 1994, Patrick's country exploded in violence. In the months that followed, close to a million Rwandans of the Tutsi minority group were slaughtered by their neighbors, the Hutu. This was the largest genocide since the Holocaust.
  • The world abandon the Tutsis. And they were left to die. Patrick and his family are Tutsi.
  • [INAUDIBLE] when I was 13. I saw soldiers in the streets or come [INAUDIBLE] like they're going to war. Or the militia people, everybody carrying machetes, anything that can kill people.
  • Patrick's dad told his family to hide, while he stayed in the family home.
  • He just say, run away. I don't want to see that in my eyes. Around that time, the operation was pretty crazy. You know, in the neighborhood the whole day they were killing people in the street. I can see the thousand and thousand of people carrying machetes.
  • Now the latest refugee story is happening in Europe. More than 2 million Syrian children and their families are escaping a war that has destroyed whole towns and made life there unsafe. They often are located in refugee camps, where they have no schools for the children, and they suffer from malnutrition and illness.
  • They may be hoping to go back to their homes when the war ends. But some of them have decided to try and find countries where they can make new homes.
  • It is not just who shares the refugee problem, but what do you do about what is happening in various countries which create this vast refugee problem. We have the situation in Syria where 250,000 people have been killed. They're desperate to get out. We have Congo, where over 5 million people have been killed.
  • Darfur, South Sudan, Iraq, Afghanistan-- so in all of these locations, people want to get out. They want to find a place where they can live in peace and dignity.
  • Children have lost parents, classrooms, brothers and sisters, and their homes. Refugees face many challenges when the country. First, the flight from a homeland is often a dangerous journey. Refugees often leave with few possessions.
  • Many have traveled across the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate attempt to reach Greece and Italy. They make these crossings in flimsy, overcrowded boats. And many have drowned.
  • Others cross mountains to get into Lebanon or stranded in the desert on the border of Jordan with little access to food and water. However, the push factor for these refugees is greater than the pull factor.
  • They are pushed out of their country by extreme poverty, violence, serious human rights violations, lack of food and health care. These are push factors.
  • Many of these people first escape to countries like Jordan or Lebanon or Turkey. Geography explains much of it.
  • Syria is bordered by the countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. So these are the first destinations for Syrian refugees. However, the situation in these countries has grown more desperate as more and more refugees enter.
  • It is difficult to find work. So many refugees are now being drawn to Europe to try and start over. The hope of employment, health, and safety are major pull factors.
  • Most refugee laws today are based on a 1951 United Nations document, the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. Most refugees were then from Europe. Today, most are from Africa and Asia. 80% of today's refugees are women and children.
  • When your voice is taken from you, which is what the terrorists have done to our daughters, when your voice is taken, [MUFFLED SPEECH] you can't speak.
  • Today, refugees can seek asylum in any of the 147 countries that have signed the Convention. Asylum is the protection from oppression or hardship offered by another country.
  • When a refugee is given approval to stay in a country, that country is expected to provide basic rights and protection for that person. In Europe, countries like Germany and Sweden have accepted many Syrian refugees. Other countries, like Hungary, have put up a massive fence along its border to stop Syrian refugees from entering without permission.
  • Refugees are often forced into small camps where they don't know the host country's language, have little to eat, and where children may have lost their parents or caregivers.
  • These camps are not orderly and offer no guarantee of protection. Many people end up living here for years. And some never resettle.
  • If accepted into a new country, they must learn a new language and a new way of life. Imagine going to a new school where you don't know the language, have no friends, and have been taken from all you grew up with.
  • There are many organizations around the world that try to provide aid to refugees. UNHCR, the refugee agency for the United Nations, the International Red Cross, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders are all charity organizations helping to provide shelter, food, clean water, and sanitation for refugees.
  • Here in Canada, we are very fortunate to be living in a safe country. We need to know what is happening in other parts of the world.
  • There are 196 countries in the world. But not of them are safe like ours. War, poverty, natural disasters, and even just having different ideas can threaten the lives of people in some countries. Sometimes it leaves people with no choice but to run.
  • As social media grows, it brings us together as a global community. With the Syrian crisis, we see how countries around the world have reacted in different ways. Some have been willing to take in a substantial number of refugees. Others have locked down their borders or crammed refugees into camps for various reasons.
  • International aid needs to increase significantly to take care of refugees in many parts of the world who are living in desperate conditions. All human beings should have the right to migrate to a place that is safe for their families.
  • Canada is a country that has been settled by many people who fled hostile and unsafe environments. These people have helped build our nation and made it a unique and safe place to live.
  • You want this charter, modified or otherwise, or do not want a charter. And the people of Canada will decide if they want a charter.
  • Our history as a peaceful and helpful nation is known worldwide. Our charter of rights and freedoms protects all people in Canada.
  • The Nansen Medal of World Comity, instituted by the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, recognizing the major and sustained contribution made by people of Canada to the cause of refugees hereby award the Nansen Medal for 1986 to the people of Canada.
  • In 1986, the people of Canada were awarded the Nansen Medal in recognition of our essential and constant contribution to the cause of refugees within Canada and around the world. On June 4, 1969, Canada signed the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, 18 years after it was adopted by the UN.
  • Since Canada signed the Refugee Convention it has gained the enviable reputation of being a world leader in protecting refugees. There are important successes to celebrate.
  • Canadians are also urging our new government to fulfill their campaign promises and do even more. They would like to see more relatives Syrian Canadians come to Canada, helping to build strong families. Groups are asking for more government funding for refugees and for increased help for them when they arrive.
  • Many individuals, organizations, and schools have taken action and are responding by raising funds to sponsor and settle a refugee family. Some schools and church groups are challenging others across Canada to do the same.
  • Many well known Canadians have come to this country as refugees. Former rapper and poet K'naan is a Somalian refugee who arrived in Toronto at the age of 13, fleeing the Civil War in his country. Former Governor General of Canada, Michaelle Jean fled Haiti to escape a corrupt government that severely tortured her father. She has since joined forces with Free the Children founders Craig and Mark Kielburger to support Haitian children.
  • In 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake, which killed and displaced thousands of people.
  • Canada has been a leader in welcoming refugees and other immigrants. Canadians are proud to be known as compassionate and caring citizens.
  • Our government made a promise to bring at least 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada and possibly more by the end of 2016. This process involved international medical exams and security checks, as well as being interviewed and selected by the United Nations Refugee Agency and Canada's security service, CSIS.
  • Priority was given to families with children and vulnerable women. Most of these people are government sponsored. Some are sponsored privately by people, churches, and various other groups in Canada. The Syrian refugees come from Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, the three countries that have taken in more than 4 million fleeing Syrians.
  • Communities need to welcome and respect newcomers and help them succeed in their new home. For a community to be great, it must be great for everyone. While this will be helping only a few of the millions of Syrian refugees, Canadians can make a better life for some of them. Many countries will be working together to solve this problem.

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