"Might Be the Best of the Lot": Baltic Refugees, Canadian Immigration Policy and the Arrival of SS Walnut

by Jan Raska, PhD, Historian
(Updated October 14, 2020)


Since Confederation, Canadian immigration officials have considered many factors in determining whether an individual was ‘admissible’ and would be granted entry to Canada. The arrival in Canada of SS Walnut from Sweden in December 1948, illustrated that admitting and processing newcomers to Canada remained largely influenced by several factors including not only the 1910 Immigration Act, and regulations and procedures, but also the local discretion of immigration officials, and public opinion. Often there was a gap between Canadian immigration policy and procedure and what was enacted in practice at Canadian offices overseas and at various ports of entry across Canada. SS Walnut’s passengers helped to alter Canadian immigration policy and how Canadian officials processed new arrivals.

Canadian Postwar Immigration Policy and Preferential Immigrants

Shortly after the Second World War, Canadian officials had their preferences in terms of immigrants to Canada. High Commissioner to London, Vincent Massey, reported from Occupied Germany in 1945 that if Canada was to admit new immigrants from Europe, “…the Balts – especially the Latvians – might be the best of the lot.” Massey was impressed by the Latvians who he claimed were industrious, clean, resourceful, and well-mannered.[1] Historian Donald H. Avery asserts that Canadian immigration and labour officials had a “tendency…to equate certain types of jobs with certain types of immigrants.” Balts were seen as excellent lumber workers and domestics.[2]

Since they ranked high on Canada’s list of preferred immigrants, Balts were among the first displaced persons to be resettled in Canada. As a group, the Balts were comprised of Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians. Many of the individuals within this group found themselves in Austrian and German Displaced Persons (DPs) camps after fleeing the Soviet occupation of their homelands in 1940, the German invasion of 1944, and the Soviet advance in that same year. With the Soviet invasion towards the end of the Second World War, thousands of Balts fled their homelands to refugee camps in Western Europe or to neutral countries including Sweden.[3]

By mid-1946, Canada was in the midst of an economic boom. Public opinion largely opposed an increase in immigration from Europe, even as Canadian workers moved into better paying employment, and Canada suffered from a labour shortage. A 1946 opinion poll found that only 37 percent of respondents were willing to consider northern European immigrants and an overwhelming majority opposed Eastern and Southern European immigrants.[4] In spite of public opinion and with the federal Cabinet’s approval, the recruitment of European DPs from camps in Occupied Germany, Austria, and Italy began. Polish war veterans were among the first movements of postwar immigrants to enter Canada from war-ravaged Europe. In July 1946, the federal government passed an Order-in-Council permitting approximately 3,000 Polish Free Army veterans to enter Canada after refusing to be repatriated back to their homeland now occupied by Soviet forces. The Polish veterans arrived at Pier 21 in five successive contingents aboard the SS Sea Robin, SS Sea Snipe and HMT Aquitania.[5]

Implementation of the Displaced Person (DP) movement (1947-1952)

On 7 November 1946, Prime Minister Mackenzie King issued emergency orders to bring a more substantial number of displaced persons and political refugees to Canada. Under the Displaced Person (DP) movement 1947-1952, two labour programs were introduced. First, the bulk-labour scheme which allowed Canadian employers to specify the number of contracts and workers they required, and second, a close-relative plan which permitted Canadian residents to sponsor family members and individuals who were not relatives if employment and housing were guaranteed for them. The selection of DPs was ultimately guided by economic considerations. However, ethnic prejudices and political biases also existed as Jews were routinely rejected, and individuals with left-wing or communist sympathies were labelled as “undesirables.” If these restrictions were not enough, federal officials only sought out refugees who were in good health.[6] Similarly, Canadians wanted young, strong, and willing workers who would be content to stay in their jobs.

By 1947, Canada began to consider Europe’s displaced population as potential immigrants. This was a major shift from previous policies which had limited immigration to groups already prevalent in Canadian society – notably individuals of British and French background. On 1 May 1947, Mackenzie King famously stated in the House of Commons that "...the people of Canada do not wish, as a result of mass immigration, to 'make a fundamental alteration in the character of our population'.”[7] As a result, Asian immigration continued to be restricted, while immigrants from the United States and the old Commonwealth countries would continue to enjoy preferred treatment.[8] In January, a Canadian immigration officer was stationed in Occupied Germany, and two months later, two Canadian immigration teams were interviewing, selecting, and examining prospective refugees for immigration to Canada. The Canadian immigration mission was tasked with ensuring “…a reasonable division of nationalities,” mostly Balts.[9] On 4 April 1947, the first displaced persons and political refugees to be resettled in Canada sailed aboard HMT Aquitania. The federal government granted special authority for the admission of 10,000 DPs during 1947. By the summer of 1947, five Canadian immigration teams in Austria and Germany were selecting individuals for resettlement. In June, the federal Cabinet authorized – through an Order-in-Council – the entry of an initial wave of 5,000 non-sponsored DPs. Subsequent orders passed between July 1947 and October 1948, permitted over 45,000 DPs to enter Canada.

Arrival of “Viking Boats” at Pier 21

Throughout the late 1940s, many displaced persons and political refugees arrived at Pier 21 without money, sponsors, or documentation. What made matters worse was that many of these individuals had travelled in small wooden boats, powered by steam and canvas and as a result, grossly inadequate as a passenger transport. Many of these transports were small fishing vessels. In August 1948, the first of several boats carrying mostly Estonian – but also including Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Polish, and Ukrainian – refugees arrived on the east coast of Canada. Many of these same individuals used their savings to pay for their journey to Canada aboard one of the transport vessels.[10] The Baltic refugees sailed aboard SS Walnut, SS Gladstone, SS Sarabande, SS Pärnu, SS Östervåg, SS Capry,and the SS Amanda.[11] The Balts sailed from Sweden, where they were living under threat of forced repatriation to the Soviet Union. They had been trying to resettle in Canada, but had been frustrated by the long delays and barriers in Canadian immigration processing. They were detained on arrival and processed through an ad hoc arrangement. Almost all the refugees were accepted into Canada although twelve individuals were deported as security risks.[12]

The arrival of these small vessels commonly referred to as “Viking Boats” to Canada’s eastern coastline garnered lots of attention, but none more so than SS Walnut. The arrival of this small minesweeper would later push Canadian immigration officials to change Canada’s policies of immigration intervention and interception. With a retrofit, the vessel’s capacity increased to approximately 200 passengers. On 13 December 1948, the vessel carrying a load of 347 Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Finnish, Austrian, and Polish refugees arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax after a dangerous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean from Gothenburg, Sweden via Sligo, Ireland. Nearly 90 percent of the passengers were Estonians. The passengers had bought the ship outright on a share basis.

Processing the Passengers of SS Walnut

As one of several “Viking Boats” of various sizes and conditions with experienced crews of captains, seamen, and mechanics, the arrival of SS Walnut caught Canadian officials by surprise. Due in part to public pressure and widespread press attention, Canadian immigration officials investigated each passenger’s background. Ultimately, the federal government admitted all but two passengers from SS Walnut, waiving the immigration restrictions of the day by issuing Orders-in-Council naming each individual.[13] Two passengers were denied entry to Canada as ‘security risks’ and deported overseas. For the remaining passengers, immigration officials in Halifax informed the Department of Mines and Resources (which was responsible for the Immigration Branch) that they could only provide accommodations to approximately 125-150 newcomers in their detention facilities at Pier 21. As a result, the remaining refugees were housed at the Rockhead Quarantine Hospital in Halifax’s North End. Although Rockhead was not “completely equipped with kitchen utensils,” immigration officials in Ottawa requested that their counterparts in Halifax “…endeavour to organize those persons housed in the quarantine building so that they may look after their own cooking, we are to arrange for the purchase of the necessary food. You will also arrange to have guards placed in this building during their stay.”[14] In January 1949, the Balts who arrived in Canada aboard SS Walnut held a farewell party with local Canadian immigration officials before leaving for various regions of Canada where employment was secured for them.[15]


The arrival in Canada of SS Walnut from Sweden in December 1948 illustrated that the processing of newcomers to Canada remained largely influenced by several factors including the Immigration Act and relevant regulations, immigration procedures, local discretion of immigration officials, and public opinion. A combination of legislation, public opinion, and local discretion shaped the immigration experience of newcomers. As a result, an individual’s desire to immigrate is often but one of many factors which determine whether he or she will be permitted to permanently resettle in Canada. In the case of SS Walnut, its passengers helped to alter Canadian immigration policy and how Canadian officials processed new arrivals.

TABLE 1.0 Nationality of Passengers Aboard SS Walnut

Estonians 305
Latvians 10
Polish 9
Lithuanians 9
Finnish 8
Austrian 3
American (claimed) 2
Danish 1

TABLE 1.1 Gender of Passengers Aboard SS Walnut

Males 154
Females 123

TABLE 1.2 Marriage Status of Passengers Aboard SS Walnut

Married Persons 158
Unattached Persons 119
Children (under 16) 70

TABLE 1.3 Age Groups of Passengers Aboard SS Walnut

0-3 Years 9
3-16 Years 59
16-60 277
60 Years or More 2

TABLE 1.4 Majority/Minority Age Distribution Aboard SS Walnut

Adults (over 21) 254
Minors (under 21) 93

  1. Ben Shephard, The Long Road Home: The Aftermath of the Second World War (London: Bodley Head, 2010), 336.
  2. Donald H. Avery, Reluctant Host: Canada’s Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1995), 157.
  3. Valerie Knowles, Forging Our Legacy: Canadian Immigration & Citizenship, 1900-1977 (Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 2000), 69-70; Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007), 166.
  4. Shephard, 335-336.
  5. Knowles, Forging Our Legacy, 67. In total, 4,527 Polish veterans were admitted into Canada as non-immigrants. Upon the completion of one-year agricultural labour contracts, the Polish veterans were given landed immigrant status. Once eligible, a majority of these ex-servicemen applied for Canadian citizenship. See Library and Archives Canada (hereafter LAC), Department of Citizenship and Immigration fonds, RG 26, vol. 143, file 3-40-21 “Statistics Ten Years Post-War Immigration,” see Table 16 “Polish War Veterans” (p. 34).
  6. Canadian Council for Refugees (hereafter CCR), “A hundred Years of Immigration to Canada, 1900-1999,” accessed 6 February 2014, http://ccrweb.ca/en/hundred-years-immigration-canada-1900-1999.
  7. Canada, Parliament, House of Commons, House of Commons Debates: Official Report, Third Session – Twentieth Parliament, Volume 3 (Ottawa: King’s Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1947), 2646.
  8. Knowles, Forging Our Legacy, 68.
  9. Shephard, 341.
  10. Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic and J.P. Leblanc, Pier 21: The Gateway that Changed Canada (Hantsport: Lancelot Press, 1988), 93-94.
  11. Mitic and Leblanc, 94-95.
  12. CCR, “A hundred Years of Immigration to Canada, 1900-1999.”
  13. Karl Aun, The Political Refugees: A History of the Estonians in Canada (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Limited, 1985), 24-25. Aun lists 355 passengers, while the archival record indicates 347 refugees.
  14. LAC, Immigration Branch (hereafter IB) fonds, RG 76, vol. 668, file C19279 “Admission to Canada of the Corvette WALNUT with 261 refugee passengers (from Sweden) (Estonians) (Latvians) (Lithuanians) (Finns) (Austrians) (Poles) (lists),” microfilm reel C-10602, letter from C.E.S. Smith, Commissioner of Immigration, Department of Mines and Resources, Ottawa to Mr. McCrum, Halifax, 13 December 1948.
  15. “Refugees Hold Farewell Party,” Halifax Mail Star, 31 January 1949, 3.
  16. LAC, IB fonds, RG 76, vol. 668, file C19279 “Admission to Canada of the Corvette WALNUT with 261 refugee passengers (from Sweden) (Estonians) (Latvians) (Lithuanians) (Finns) (Austrians) (Poles) (lists),” microfilm reel C-10602, “Report on 347 Refugees from Sweden arriving on S.S. “Walnut” on the morning of December 13th, 1948, at the port of Halifax, N.S.”
  17. “Report on 347 Refugees from Sweden arriving on S.S. “Walnut” on the morning of December 13th, 1948, at the port of Halifax, N.S.”
  18. “Report on 347 Refugees from Sweden arriving on S.S. “Walnut” on the morning of December 13th, 1948, at the port of Halifax, N.S.”
  19. “Report on 347 Refugees from Sweden arriving on S.S. “Walnut” on the morning of December 13th, 1948, at the port of Halifax, N.S.”
  20. “Report on 347 Refugees from Sweden arriving on S.S. “Walnut” on the morning of December 13th, 1948, at the port of Halifax, N.S.”

Jan Raska, PhD

A man stands in front of floor to ceiling bookshelves.

Dr. Jan Raska is a historian with the Canadian Museum of Immigration. He holds a PhD in History from the University of Waterloo. He is curator of the museum’s past temporary exhibitions, Safe Haven: Canada and the 1956 Hungarian Refugees and 1968: Canada and the Prague Spring Refugees. He is the author of Czech Refugees in Cold War Canada: 1945-1989 (University of Manitoba Press, 2018) and co-author of Pier 21: A History (University of Ottawa Press, 2020).