On May 13th, 1939, 907 Jewish people, mostly women, and children, boarded the luxury watercraft, the St. Louis from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba. Each of these passengers held an entrance visa to the Latin American country where they would be granted sanctuary from the religious persecution they were facing in Europe. Fifteen days later, when the passengers arrived in Havana, the Cuban government refused to recognize their visas ,ultimately denying them entrance. Docked in Havana for three days, and facing rejection from all Latin American countries, the passengers of the St. Louis publicly threatened mass suicide. On 1 June,popular Canadian newspaper, Globe and Mail brought the fate of the 907 refugees to the attention of the Canadian nation. “Refugee Liner Ignores Order to Leave Cuba” made the front page of the paper, sparking an outcry among several Jewish and non-Jewish advocates who then began petitioning the refugees’admission to Canada. On 7 June 1939, George Wrong, a priest and historian at the University of Toronto sent a telegram to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King begging him to show “true Christian charity.” The following day,a telegram was delivered to Prime Minister King which featured the signatures of 41 Canadian Christian leaders urging King to offer sanctuary to the refugees. King, however, was occupied in Washington at the time and the fate of the St. Louis’ passengers at the bottom of his list of priorities. On June 8th, King wrote in his diary that the President of the United States, Franklin Roosevelt criticized him for having too many immigration laws which placed certain restrictions on Jewish people fleeing Europe. Roosevelt was correct,with no quota system or official policy on refugees, government officials were able to hold Jewish refugees to the same regulations of any potential immigrant seeking a new life in Canada.
Oscar Skeleton, Canada’s undersecretary of state for foreign affairs consulted the matter of the St.Louis with antisemitic and unsympathetic government figures such as Ernest Lapointe, an MP from Quebec City who was the top adviser to King during the 1930s and early 1940s and Frederick Blair, the director of the Immigration Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources. They quickly stated that the Jewish people aboard the ship did not qualify under Canada’s immigration restrictions, and that the nation already had done enough for Jewish people, it just was not publicised. In mid-June, Skeleton wrote a disingenuous response to Wrong’s petition which restated his sympathy for the fate of the Jewish people aboard the St. Louis.
As the boat turned back to Germany, and the fate of the Jewish people aboard was sealed, King wrote in his diary that he was going to stay quiet about the situation and that this was not a Canadian problem. His reluctance to comment on the situation did not go unnoticed. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, King was often criticized in the Globe and Mail for his inability to take a definitive stance on the Jewish question. The actions made by King and his government continued to reflect conceptions of who he believed was the ideal Canadian citizen. Frequently reflected within his private correspondence, and public speeches, King was aware of the antisemitic sentiment found within the nation, and he knew he had to respond. Rather than allowing Jewish people to settle within the nation’s borders, King stated that the government needed to take care of those who were in Canada facing the realities of the depression before opening its doors to refugees. While King believed that his actions were not controversial and would be in the favour of the Canadian nation, his negligence towards the Jewish refugee crisis is inexcusable. King and his government made it clear that those living in Canada at the time were of priority, and that nation did not have the means or responsibility to become a haven for Jewish refugees.