Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Canada's recurring refugee debate ignores our historical experience

With the recent increase in refugee claimants crossing unannounced into our country from the U.S., Canada’s approach to refugees is once again being hotly debated.

While there is a commonly held view amongst Canadians that we have been, and continue to be, a very welcoming country when it comes to refugees and other immigrants, the reality is that over the last 150 years nearly every large wave of immigration has faced significant resistance. And, in pretty much every case, the arguments against allowing in whichever group it is at the time have largely been the same.

Our lack of historical memory concerning our often-conflicted attitude toward immigration prevents us from learning from the past and leads us to keep repeating the same tired debate over and over again.

When a boatload of desperate Tamils arrived off of Vancouver’s shores in 2010, the Harper government declared it a national emergency, recalled parliament from summer recess, passed new laws and argued that the 400 or so bedraggled people posed a significant threat to our security.

Canada had virtually the same reaction in 1939 when a boatload of Jews fleeing Nazi persecution on the MS St. Louis tried unsuccessfully to land in Nova Scotia, and in 1914 when the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver waters carrying Sikhs.

Sikhs on-board the Komagata Maru
Like many Canadians, I have always been proud of the role that Canada played in providing sanctuary to African Americans fleeing slavery via the Underground Railway. However, at the time, many of our ancestors viewed the fleeing slaves as “illegals” who, because they were not properly screened, represented a potential security threat and integration challenge. Sound familiar?

Exactly the same arguments are now being used against the few hundred poor souls that are currently crossing our borders each month fleeing persecution in the hope of finding a better life.

What is interesting is that over the years, the reasons cited by those opposed to each major wave of immigration and refugee resettlement have almost always been the same. They have argued that immigration from this particular group should be minimized because these people have a different culture, a different system of values and beliefs; that they won’t be able to integrate; that they will be a drag on our economic resources; that there are too many and as a result that they will swamp our society and change our national identity. That they are a security threat.

In the early 1900s immigration from China was resisted since there was a fear that numerically they would swamp us and that our security was threatened by the Asian diseases they would bring with them.

Chinese labourers detraining camp, Petawawa, ON.Credit: Meredith, C.P./Library and Archives Canada
From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s there was considerable hostility to Irish Catholic immigration. For many, the Irish represented an undesirable cultural group whose allegiance was more to Rome and the Catholic Church than to Canadian laws and values.

Leading up to and during the Second World War practically no Jewish refugees were allowed into the country because, it was argued, they had different religious and cultural beliefs and practices, which would make it hard for them to integrate. And once again, the security concerns were raised — how could we be sure that no German agents were hiding amongst the valid Jewish refugees, ready to attack our country once they were resettled into Canada?

Given that the same alarmist, anti-newcomer arguments have proven, in every case, to be invalid over the last 150 years, perhaps it’s time that we acknowledge there is nothing to fear from these waves of immigration. Instead, let’s recognize that, as in the past, each new wave does in fact end up integrating into our society and contributing to making this country the vital, culturally rich and economically strong mosaic that it is.

Canadians should have greater faith in the overarching strength and resilience of our Canadian identity and the universal appeal of our values when concerns about newcomer integration are raised. We have a wealth of historical experience to show that this faith would be well-founded.

This opinion article by RRP chair Andrew FitzGerald was first published in the Toronto Star, May 16, 2017

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