The Paterson Mission
Within weeks of the internees’ arrival, Britain asked Canada to provide a “system of less rigid custodial treatment” for the refugees. When Canada requested assistance to distinguish between “Category A,” “B” and “C” internees, the British sent Alexander Paterson, His Majesty’s Commissioner of Prisons and a renowned social reformer.
Chaim Raphael, who joined Paterson on his mission after working with refugees in England, explained that the British did not expect Canadians to resist Paterson’s authority: “[We] assumed that once Paterson came, he was a very famous man, there would be no problem. We’ll send him out for a week or so just to appease the Canadians on the diplomatic level. No one dreamed that the Canadians would refuse.”
Paterson stayed in Canada for over eight months in order to clear the refugees individually. Hundreds seized the opportunity he offered to return to Britain by joining the Pioneer Corps, an unarmed unit of the British army largely assigned to public works. By 1943, fewer than one thousand of the refugees remained in Canada.
Infuriated by what he witnessed, Paterson unleashed a volley of criticism at the Canadian government. He recommended the creation of “Refugee Camps” removed from military control. On May 2, 1941, Cabinet approved Paterson’s proposal.
Paterson also worked with refugee advocates pursuing a program of release in Canada. If interned refugees were reluctantly released in Canada, it was largely through the spadework of Alexander Paterson.
Portrait of Alexander Paterson, © National Portrait Gallery, London