At the Intersection of Security and Discrimination: Canadian Immigration and the Case of Irene Rebrin

Within academic circles, terms such as “nation” and “Canada” are highly contested. They are loaded with historical, cultural and linguistic meaning, and thus welcome deep investigation which often produces heated debate. The history of Canadian immigration policy is a particularly interesting and contested subject that challenges scholars to investigate the meaning of citizenship and national identity. This is perhaps most evident when examining a unique period in the immediate postwar years, when the proverbial gates to Canada became “vulnerable” to Cold War Communism.

During the 1957 Canadian federal election campaign, John Diefenbaker famously remarked, “Canada must populate or perish.” He made these remarks en route to a surprise electoral victory over Louis St. Laurent’s Liberals. Shortly after Diefenbaker took office, the Department of Citizenship and Immigration began to draft a comprehensive policy memorandum on the state of Canadian immigration which was eventually submitted to Cabinet in 1959. The memorandum suggested government take initiative by removing the stigma of racial discrimination from its immigration policy, by stressing quality migration to meet the growing need for skilled labour, and addressing the sponsorship question to create a more stable immigration system. These recommendations were reviewed and considered by a newly established Cabinet committee on immigration, and became the basis for new regulations implemented by Diefenbaker’s government. Yet despite a formal commitment to expand due process for non-citizens, Diefenbaker’s immigration policy remained cloaked in Cold War discrimination.

Anti-communist sentiment permeated Diefenbaker’s foreign and domestic policy, and impacted immigration to Canada as a result. A string of deportation cases revealed that his overhauled immigration policy was in practice as inherently discriminatory as it had been prior to change, under the Liberal government of St. Laurent or Mackenzie King. The most publicized case of deportation during the Diefenbaker years was that of Irene Rebrin, who was born of Russian parents in Peking, China and fled to Canada from Brazil on a six-month non-immigrant visa. Branded a “security risk” by Diefenbaker’s government and order deported, Rebrin fought in court for permanent citizenship and garnered the public support of a nation.

Shortly after arriving in Canada, Rebrin was offered a lecturing position to teach Slavonic languages at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Hopeful to secure this position, she applied for landed status but was branded a “security risk” and ordered deported in 1959. The government refused to divulge the particulars of the security information allegedly held against her, a decision which Diefenbaker privately justified to his ministers by stating that, if revealed to the public, the particulars of the case may lead to the drying up of sources of information and might endanger security agents. Outraged by the government’s silence, the faculty of UBC joined a growing tide of public support enthusiastically in Rebrin’s corner. Under increasing pressure, Cabinet discussed the case on a number of occasions and officially made a statement in May 1960, stating that it would be contrary to the interests of Canadian security to interfere with the execution of the deportation order. Yet the details remained secret.

The ambiguity of government officials' description of Rebrin’s case raised the ire of an increasingly suspicious public, and questions of injustice intensified when Immigration Minister Ellen Fairclough refused to produce documentation after Rebrin herself specifically requested the release of all case-related information. The case became extremely volatile for Diefenbaker’s government when it was leaked that Immigration Department had given clinical approval for a psychiatrist to put Rebrin under a truth serum. It remains unclear if Rebrin was sedated during her initial detainment, but the possibility of such government action prompted a legal consortium to ask the Vancouver Bar Association to come the her assistance. Responding to this alleged incident, federal authorities in Ottawa denied cloak-and-dagger spy work had anything to do with the deportation order. Rebrin took the government to court in what turned out to be a two-year battle. She eventually lost but was allowed to remain in Canada pending the outcome of libel suit she had taken out against the Toronto Telegram, a right-winged newspaper that had likened her to a Communist spy based on information that had allegedly been obtained from Diefenbaker himself.

Rebrin’s case highlights a questionable episode in Canadian history when government priorities impeded the forward progress of a national immigration policy, at the intersection of security and discrimination. She was originally ordered deported because she could not comply with Regulation No. 20 of the Canadian Immigration Act, which defined the qualifiers of persons who may be landed in Canada as immigrants. If she had come to Canada from Europe rather than China, her case would not so easily have been dismissed by the immigration authorities. At the time, Diefenbaker’s immigration policy was criticized for not adopting a similar declaration towards human rights and equality that was contained in the newly established Bill of Rights. Upon entering office, his government introduced a more liberal internationalist approach that reduced ethno-racial discrimination in the immigrant selection process. Skill was introduced as the main criterion in the selection of unsponsored immigrants but discrimination partially remained in the selection of sponsored immigrants, as is evident from Rebrin’s case. By 1967, the government had institutionalized a formal commitment to non-discrimination and increased protection for non-citizens by expanding due process. Yet the 1952 Immigration Act stood until the passing of its successor in 1976, and it was in the interim that Canada’s Cold War national security apparatus had its most significant impact.

Many historians today call for the construction of a new and complex Canadian identity, in which cultural differences are recognized without risk to civic individuality. For this to happen, political debate throughout Canada needs to address deficiencies in existing language and discussion. Yet the polarizing nature of much civic-government discussion often prevents constitutional arrangements, and Canadians are left to foster some version of common individual identity rather than the national one. In order to welcome constructive growth and accommodate the differences that create division, excuses of cultural and linguistic barriers must be removed. No one group of peoples, including government representatives, should be studied as a monolith, but rather as departments and individuals with overlapping mandates and varying interests dependent on time and circumstance. These are lessons that should be embraced, because they are lessons for which many before us paid a heavy price.