What Would You Do? Admit, Detain, or Deny Entry to Irregular Arrivals on Canada’s East Coast

by Jan Raska, PhD, Historian
(Updated October 9, 2020)

In May 2015, the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 opened a new exhibitions on the history of the Pier 21 National Historic Site of Canada and the history of immigration to Canada. This blog is based on research that informs new displays regarding the history of immigration to Canada.


There is often a gap between immigration policy and procedures and what is enacted in practice at Canadian ports of entry and overseas. Immigration officials have to consider many factors in choosing to admit, detain or deny entry to a prospective immigrant. Factors include policy, precedents, and public opinion. As a result, an individual’s desire to come to Canada is only one of many factors that determine immigration.

In the interactive exhibit What Would You Do?, visitors will have the opportunity to act as a Canadian immigration official and admit, detain or deny entry to passengers. Visitors will choose between two historical case studies: the arrival of Baltic refugees aboard SS Walnut to Pier 21 in December 1948 and the discovery of Tamil asylum seekers in lifeboats off the coast of Newfoundland in August 1986. The interactive exhibit will demonstrate the role of the state in the immigration process. As the immigration official in charge, the visitor will be presented with primary source materials: newspaper articles, immigration policies, reports, and refugee testimonies. The visitor will then have to consider the materials before them and decide what they would have done: admit, detain, or deny entry? Once a decision is made, the visitor is then shown the actual result from the historical record. What Would You Do? encourages visitor participation.

Below is the research conducted for one of the two historical case studies. It is framed around the question: How has the arrival of asylum seekers influenced Canadian immigration policy and local official discretion at Canadian points of entry?

Canadian immigration officials consider many factors in determining whether an individual is admissible and can be granted entry to Canada. The arrival of Tamil asylum seekers in Newfoundland in August 1986 is one case that illustrates how legislation and the processing of irregular arrivals to Canada is influenced by several factors, including the Immigration Act, regulations and procedures, local discretion of immigration officials, public opinion, and an individual’s desire to immigrate. This group of newcomers helped to shape Canadian immigration policy and how Canadian officials processed irregular arrivals.

Canada Faces a Growing Number of Claims for Refugee Status in the 1980s

In the 1980s, federal officials were faced with one of their most challenging immigration issues: the rising number of refugee status claims in Canada. The refugee question dominated the national debate on immigration and attracted widespread public attention and media coverage.[1] By the end of the decade, the world’s refugee population had grown to nearly 15 million people due to war, famine, natural disaster, political instability, interethnic strife, and persecution.[2] Coupled with this increase in refugees was the phenomenon of irregular or undocumented migrants. Improved transportation networks and communications, cheaper travel, and a growing disparity between richer and poorer nations forced many individuals to seek economic opportunity and personal security elsewhere. In many cases, these migrants lacked the education, skills, or family residing in their chosen country of resettlement – normally Western Europe, North America, Australia or New Zealand – to be officially granted entry. Claiming refugee status provided many migrants with their “best chance of becoming permanent residents.”[3] In the 1980s, Canada was swamped with claims for refugee status by asylum seekers – individuals who arrived in Canada (and whose claims had not yet been adjudicated), but many of them did not meet the requirements of the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. In 1986, for example, 18,000 claims were made for refugee status of which two-thirds were ruled to be “bogus” cases. Canadian officials suspected that commercial operators assisted individuals interested in claiming refugee status in Canada.[4]

Tamil Asylum Seekers Arrive in Newfoundland

A majority of the Tamil asylum seekers arrived in Canada without much attention. In a few cases, the arrival of individuals claiming refugee status brought widespread media coverage and public attention. On 11 August 1986, lifeboats cast adrift were spotted off the southeastern coast of Newfoundland. Local fisherman rescued the boats carrying 135 Tamils who once on shore claimed they had come directly from Sri Lanka after a thirty-five day journey in a ship’s hold. One asylum seeker claimed to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reporter that he was Chinese. A day later, rescuer Felix Dobbin told the Globe and Mail that one of the Tamils had asked him if he was near Montreal. Dobbin informed the newcomer: “I told them it was Newfoundland but I don’t think he had ever heard of it. He wanted to know if he was near Montreal.”[5] Canadian Coast Guard officials found the boats carried no identification which raised suspicions that the castaways were attempting to gain entry into Canada irregularly. Upon landing in St. John’s, the Tamils were housed in dormitories at Memorial University while they were interviewed by Canadian immigration officials.[6] The Tamil asylum seekers claimed to have paid between $4,200 and $7,000 to gain passage to Canada. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) Inspector, J.W. Lavers, remained skeptical of the Tamils’ claim that they had been on the lifeboats for five days: “it is remarkable that after five days of fog and rain their clothes would be dry.”[7]

Authenticating Their Journey to Canada: Processing and Resettling Tamil Asylum Seekers

Upon being interrogated and processed by Canadian officials, the Tamils confessed they had travelled to Canadian waters via West Germany where all but two of them had worked for up to two years. The vessel that carried them to Newfoundland did not originate in India as they had originally claimed, but rather the West German port of Brake. The Tamils had each paid $3,450 for passage to Canada on the freighter. The journey lasted eleven days and they had been in the lifeboats for two nights and three days. According to the Tamils, the German captain of the freighter collected approximately $500,000 from the Tamils to transport them to Canada. He loaded the Tamils onto the lifeboats and towed them for half a day before cutting them loose and pointing them towards Montreal. West German police later arrested two Tamils and a Turkish man in Hamburg on suspicion of orchestrating the human smuggling scheme. According to the Globe and Mail, no charges were ever filed.[8] The Tamils were granted one-year ministerial permits allowing them to work in Canada while their legal status was determined. They were all later allowed to stay in Canada as landed immigrants. The majority of the asylum seekers resettled in Montreal where an established Tamil community already existed. The rest left for Toronto and joined another existing community of compatriots in Canada.[9]


Scholars have paid much attention to documenting and assessing the role that Canadian immigration policy and practice has played on the arrival of newcomers to Canada. Conversely, Canadian immigration policies have been shaped by incoming immigrants. These individuals have also influenced how Canadian immigration officials at points of entry across Canada and at offices overseas used their local discretion to process persons seeking to permanently resettle in Canada. There was a gap between Canadian immigration policy and official procedure, and what was enacted in practice at Canadian offices overseas and at various ports of entry across Canada. The arrival of Tamil asylum seekers in Newfoundland in August 1986 and Sikh asylum seekers in Nova Scotia in July 1987, illustrates that legislation and the processing of newcomers to Canada remain heavily influenced by several factors including the Immigration Act and relevant regulations, immigration procedures, local discretion of immigration officials, and public opinion. How has the arrival of asylum seekers influenced Canadian immigration policy and local official discretion at Canadian points of entry? In many cases, a combination of legislation, public opinion, and local discretion shaped the immigration experience of newcomers. This clearly illustrates that an individual’s desire to immigrate is often but one of many factors which determine whether he or she is permitted to permanently resettle in Canada. In the aforementioned cases, these waves of newcomers helped to shape Canadian immigration policy and how Canadian officials processed irregular arrivals.

  1. Valerie Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2007 (Dundurn Press, 2007), 221; Victor Malarek, Haven’s Gate: Canada’s Immigration Fiasco (Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1987), 136-149.
  2. Knowles, 221.
  3. Knowles, 221.
  4. Knowles, 222.
  5. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (hereafter CBC) Digital Archives, “1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland,” accessed: 15 April 2014, http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/society/immigration/immigration-general/sri-lankan-migrants-rescued-off-newfoundland.html.
  6. Knowles, 222; CBC Digital Archives, “1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland.”
  7. CBC Digital Archives, “1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland.”
  8. CBC Digital Archives, “1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland.”
  9. CBC Digital Archives, “1986: Sri Lankan migrants rescued off Newfoundland.” For more context, see Malarek, 136-149; Leslie Plommer, “German reveals Palestinian link in Tamils’ trip,” Globe and Mail 15 August 1986, A1; Mark Kingwell, “Tamils get right to work while their status is considered,” Globe and Mail 15 August 1986, A4; Carey French and Leslie Plommer, “Tamils ‘key’ to ship’s name,” Globe and Mail, 15 August 1986, A4; W. Gunther Plaut, “Tamils rate same help as any other refugees,” Globe and Mail, 19 August 1986, A7; Graham Fraser, “Admitting Tamils regrettable, Tory MP says,” Globe and Mail, 21 August 1986, A5; “Leslie Plommer, “ Captain could get slap on wrist: Charge over Tamils called unlikely,” Globe and Mail, 30 August 1986, A1; Leslie Plommer, “Tamils rate Canada their first choice,” Globe and Mail, 6 September 1986, A7; Andrea Baillie, “Painful memories revived for Tamils: First ‘boat people’ still struggling to belong 13 years after arrival,” Globe and Mail, 30 August 1999, A2.

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).