Captain Gustav Schroeder was a very courageous and righteous German.

In 1939, he was the captain of the MS St. Louis when it set sail from Hamburg to the Americas with 937 refugees aboard, all but seven of whom were Jews fleeing death at the hands of the Nazis.

Schroeder was committed to finding his desperate passengers safe haven in any country that would accept them.


Intense negotiations with the Cuban government failed to get the refugees asylum on Cuban shores, although 29 passengers did manage to disembark there.

As for the Americans, they had immigration quotas which precluded the landing of the ship off of Florida’s shores. To complicate matters, the Jews had no return addresses which were required by the U.S. of all tourists.

When the ship was repelled by the United States, Canada’s Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie was petitioned to let them land in Canada. On June 9, he bowed to public and political pressure and denied them landing.

Schroeder and his Jewish passengers were sent back across the Atlantic towards Nazi Germany where death would have awaited all of them, including, I am sure, Schroeder himself.

Rather than returning to Germany, Schroeder docked at Antwerp, Belgium. There the British agreed to take 288 of the passengers. 224 were accepted by France, 214 by Belgium, and 181 by the Netherlands.

Although the Jewish passengers appeared to have reached safety, in 1940 Germany invaded Belgium and France and began rounding up their Jewish populations, including the survivors of the St. Louis.

Historians estimate that about 250 of the 937 St. Louis refugees later perished in the Holocaust.
Had it not been for Schroeder’s actions, all 937 could have ended up in Nazi concentration camps.

To me, the son-in-law of two Holocaust survivors, Schroeder is a hero.

Regrettably, I don’t think Immigration Minister Jason Kenney sees this historical figure in quite the same light.

Last week, in response to the August arrival of the Sun Sea and its 492 Tamil refugees off the shores of British Columbia, Kenney announced the tabling of a bill he is marketing as an “anti-smuggling” bill. In reality, the bill dubbed the “Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act” is more about punishing refugees simply for seeking our protection in a very public way.

Under our current legislation, a person who knowingly organizes ten or more persons to enter Canada without proper documentation -- like Schroeder -- faces a fine of $1,000,000 and life imprisonment. Under the new bill, a judge will have to sentence such a person to jail for a minimum of five years if profit is found to be a motive or if people’s safety is found at stake.

As for the refugee claimants who arrive in groups designated by the minister as an “irregular arrival,” they and their children will be held in detention for at least one year after their arrival unless the minister agrees to shorten their internment. They will also end up being separated for about nine years or more from the spouses and children they may have left behind. This is because:

  • their refugee hearings can take one-two years to schedule

  • they will now have to wait another five years before they can apply for permanent residence, and they will have to wait another one-two years while their applications for permanent residence are processed

There is no doubt that, although 80-90 per cent of Sri Lankan Tamils are accepted here as refugees, their circumstances are not as dire as their Jewish counterparts of the Nazi era who were rounded up and thrown into concentration camps. Also, there is no doubt that modern day smugglers can be motivated by greed more than by the altruism demonstrated by Captain Schroeder. Nonetheless, the legislation proposed by Kenney makes little provision for the possibility of future genocides or allowances for heroism.

That is why this bill is so fundamentally flawed.

Kenney says that this is not the “the right way” for refugees to come to Canada. Interestingly, he never states exactly which is “the right way” for a person fleeing persecution to reach our shores in search of our protection.

History has been kind to Captain Gustav Schroeder. After the war, he was awarded Germany’s Order of Merit and, in 1993, he was posthumously named by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations.”

History will not be so kind to Kenney if these mean-spirited and ill-conceived measures are rushed into law under his watch.

Guidy Mamann, J.D. practices law in Toronto at Mamann, Sandaluk and is certified by the Law Society of Upper Canada as an immigration specialist. For more information, visit or email

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