How Canada led the way in private refugee sponsorship

The United States has just launched a private sponsorship program that will enable Americans to sponsor refugees arriving through the US Refugee Admissions Program, directly supporting their resettlement in the USA. This is a new approach for the US, but in Canada, private sponsorship has been a part of our refugee admission process since 1978.

In that year, Canada’s Immigration Act was amended to allow private sponsorship. Joseph Kage of the Jewish Immigrant Aid Society first proposed the idea in commenting on the 1967 white paper on immigration, and a small paragraph in the 1976 Immigration Act permitted Canadian citizens in groups of at least five to privately sponsor refugees within a quota set by government. But it is clear, from Howard Adelman’s story, that the Canadian government really had no idea how dramatically this would turbocharge refugee sponsorship.

In 1979-80, as Vietnamese ‘boat people’ arrived on Canadian shores and the government proposed to welcome a few thousand, Canadians surprised most everyone by responding en masse to drive the welcome of 60,000 people over 18 months. Operation Lifeline started in Adelman’s living room on June 10, 1979 and by month’s end – even without social media – there were an astonishing 66 chapters across Canada.

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