Letter to John Godfrey, MP

On March 12, 1996, the United States Congress passed the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act, better known as the Helms-Burton Act. This act provided, among other measures designed to intensify the US blockade of Cuba, for punitive actions to be taken against officers and stock-holders (and members of their families) of any company that does business in Cuba on property that was expropriated from American citizens at the time of the Cuban Revolution. These provisions were promptly applied to citizens of Canada, Mexico, Italy, the UK, and other countries trading with Cuba. Many countries protested against the act as a violation of basic principles of national sovereignty and international law, and passed laws to counter its effects. (These include Canada's Foreign Extraterritorial Measures Act and Mexico's Law of Protection of Commerce and Investments from Foreign Policies that Contravene International Law.)

Two Canadian MPs, John Godfrey and Peter Milliken, also prepared a private member's bill, the Godfrey-Milliken Bill (C-339):

An Act to permit descendants of United Empire Loyalists who fled the land that later became the United States of America after the 1776 American Revolution to establish a claim to the property they or their ancestors owned in the United States that was confiscated without compensation, and claim compensation for it in the Canadian courts, and to exclude from Canada any foreign person trafficking in such property.

Bill C-339 drew attention to the fact that Loyalists whose property had been confiscated during and after the American Revolution never received compensation—a direct violation of the Treaty of Paris (1783), ratified by the US Congress, which provided for “the restitution of all Estates, Rights, and Properties, which have been confiscated.” It need hardly be said that although the Godfrey-Milliken Bill received first reading in the House of Commons on 22 October 1996, it was never passed: parliamentarians were no doubt aware that the US government has a limited appetite for open mockery from subordinate powers.

I was acquainted with John Godfrey from his time as President of the University of King's College in Halifax (for whose Foundation Year Program I had given lectures), and wrote the following letter to him. It has not previously been published.


John Godfrey, MP, 
House of Commons, 
Ottawa. 27 July 1996.


Dear Dr. Godfrey,

Hearty congratulations on your response to the Helms-Burton Act.

I assume that your bill will very shortly become law, and that the government of Canada will soon begin amassing information about the properties confiscated by the revolutionary government of the United States from people who remained loyal to the British crown, and were forced after 1783 to immigrate to this country. I would be grateful if you could pass the following information on to the appropriate authorities.

My great-great-great-great grandfather George Kieffer, who enlisted in The Queen's Rangers in 1776 and served under General Sir William Howe, died while participating in the defence of the city of New York against the insurrectionaries. His property was confiscated by the revolutionary government, and his widow and her two sons sought refuge in Canada, settling in what is now Thorold, Ontario. (Once there, my great-great-great grandfather George changed the spelling of his name to “Keefer.”) No compensation was ever paid to the family either by the state of New Jersey or by the government of the United States.

The property in question consists of a farm and a distillery at Paulinskill, near Newtown (now Newton), in Sussex County, New Jersey. I cannot tell you how aggrieved I feel to think that—contrary both to natural justice and the provisions of the peace settlement of 1783—the profits and the produce of my family's farm (and, more importantly, our distillery) have for more than two centuries been enjoyed by lawless revolutionaries and their heirs.

It is my understanding that the farm has been subdivided, and that among the present inhabitants of my family's property there are officers of several American corporations which have dealings in Canada. I expect that, in addition to whatever legal action I myself might take under the provisions of your bill, prompt action will also be taken by the government of Canada against these people.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Keefer