People & Culture

50th anniversary: Ugandan resettlement in Canada

Senator Mobina Jaffer on the expulsion of Ugandan Asians and their new life in Canada

  • Sep 23, 2022
  • 933 words
  • 4 minutes
Senator Mobina Jaffer getting married to Nuralla Jeraj in Uganda in 1971. Just one year later, the family would be ordered out of the country. (Photo courtesy Senator Mobina Jaffer)
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On August 4, 1972, the Ugandan Asian population of over 80,000 individuals was ordered to leave the African nation by President Idi Amin. Over 7,000 Ugandan Asians were granted refuge in Canada. They began arriving on Canadian shores exactly 50 years ago — in September 1972. On the 50th anniversary of the resettlement, Canadian Geographic interviews Senator Mobina Jaffer, who arrived from Uganda as a young woman. 

The series forms part of Commemorate Canada, a Canadian Heritage program to highlight significant Canadian anniversaries. It gives Canadian Geographic a chance to look at these points of history with a sometimes celebratory, sometimes critical, eye.

Mobina Jaffer’s father, Sherali Bandali Jaffer, and mother, Gulbanu Sherali Bandali Jaffer, at a school in Wandegeya, Uganda, in 1986. Like many South Asians who were resettled, the Jaffer family always maintained ties with Uganda and when it was safe to return in the 1980s, Mobina Jaffer's parents made multiple trips. Her father was buried in Uganda after his death in 2014. (Photo courtesy Senator Mobina Jaffer)
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In August 1972, Idi Amin, military dictator of Uganda, stunned the world when he announced that the South Asian population of Uganda, numbering some 80,000 people, had 90 days to get out of the country or else. The world was in disbelief.

Lives, families and businesses that were established in Uganda for generations were torn apart in a matter of weeks.

South Asians first arrived in Uganda in the late 1800s, brought in by the British to build the railway from the Kenyan coast to central Africa. They went on to establish themselves as merchants and entrepreneurs, a central part of Uganda’s economy when it achieved independence from Britain in 1963.

Mobina Jaffer and her sister Zenobia with his Highness the Aga Khan at the Muslim Club in Kampala, Uganda, in 1957. The Aga Khan enjoyed a personal friendship with the prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, which contributed to the Canadian government paying close attention to events in Uganda 1972. (Photo courtesy Senator Mobina Jaffer)
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More than 7,000 Asians expelled by Amin came to Canada, restarting their lives here beginning in September 1972. Families would continue arriving for the next few years — the five largest resettlement cities were, in order, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Ottawa.

Senator Mobina Jaffer is just one of the 7,000-plus stories. In 1972, she and her young family escaped to England then moved again to re-establish themselves in Canada. Here she began a successful career as a lawyer and politician, working closely especially with Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, and dedicating a large part of her career and time, unsurprisingly, to the plight of refugees.

This article is an excerpted and condensed from an Explore Podcast by host David McGuffin. The full Explore Podcast interview is available here and wherever you download your favourite podcasts.

Mobina Jaffer and her father, Sherali Bandali Jaffer, in Port Bell, Uganda, in 1951. A former Ugandan politician, her father fled to London, England, in 1972, where he helped to organize the resettlement of thousands of fellow refugees before relocating to British Columbia in 1975. (Photo courtesy Senator Mobina Jaffer)
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On the lead-up to the expulsions

At the beginning [after Idi Amin came to power] we weren’t worried that we would be expelled. That was never, ever in our in our psyche. We thought we would go through a difficult period. And then in 1972, in June, before everything else happened, the army, whom my Dad was very connected to, warned him that he had better disappear. And a lot of my Dad’s friends had started disappearing. And so my Dad — he’s never really told us [about the circumstances] — but he escaped. He escaped and came to England [where her mother was staying and Jaffer and a sister were studying]. So our problems started in June 1972. But then life was usual. Yes, my Dad had to run away, but none of us really believed we would be expelled [from the country]. I returned to Uganda in August for my brother-in-law’s wedding — that’s when we heard an announcement that the government had asked all Asians to leave. The army turned up looking for me and my husband. He would not let them take me. So they took him. 

On luck and connections

For years I had nightmares. Two army men at [my husband’s] head with rifles and two pointing at his stomach. And they forcibly took him in a jeep. We thought that was the end of my husband but happily the police turned up — they were very close to my father-in-law and they insisted on taking him to the police barracks. At the end of the day, happily, my husband came home. We were so fortunate. When a person was taken away, they disappeared. 

On choosing Canada

My Dad said he had decided to come to Canada because he believed that Canada is a place where his grandchildren will not be deported; that the same fate will not happen to them. And, you know, he had opportunities to go to many other countries, but he chose Canada. He came [via England] in 1974. And in 1975, my husband and I came to Canada. 

Newly appointed Senator Mobina Jaffer leaves the Senate after being sworn in during a ceremony on Parliament Hill in 2001. (CP PHOTO/Jonathan Hayward)
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On returning to Uganda

At the beginning, we were so sure we would be back in a year or so. But sadly, the reality wasn’t that. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that we could return. As soon as we were able to go back, my Dad went back [to visit]. He went back right away. We were very unhappy about him going back but he said, ‘This is my homeland’. He went back and he started building schools and mosques.

Fifty years later

We settled well because we were allowed to settle. Ugandans arrived in Canada and we had the right to work. We may have had challenges, but we had a right to work. Today, I know so many people [from Yemen and Afghanistan] waiting for a work permit. How does that person survive now? How does that person survive and what do we do to that person’s psyche? We really need to examine that. What are we doing to a person when we don’t give a simple work permit? They cannot go to work even though we’ve accepted them as a refugee. And so the lesson to learn is that once we welcome people to Canada, we have to give them an opportunity to flourish with us and become part of our community. 

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