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Tossing Pebbles in the Stream

This blog is my place to sit and toss pebbles into the stream. The stream of Life relentlessly passing before us. We can affect it little. For the most part I just watch it passing and follow the flow. Occasionally, I need to comment on its passing, tossing a pebble at it to enjoy the ripple affect upon Life's surface.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Refugees in Canada

I have not been without critics on my generosity of spirit toward refugees and my criticisms of the Canadian government's mean spirited attitude toward the recent boat loads of Tamil's asking for refuge, in my previous post. So be it. I make no apologies for being "a bleeding heart liberal."

Canada's refugee "problem" is very modest compared to other countries which are more easily reached by people fleeing social and political situations around the world. Those who do manage to reach Canada and make their case as legitimate refugees have my admiration. They often make significant contributions to Canada. Their stories, their gratitude to Canada and Canada's usual generous acceptance of them all make me proud to be a Canadian.

Recently, the CBC has been broadcasting a summer series of programs about the stories of refugees and immigrants who have found refuge in Canada. It is called Promised Land.

The individuals, whose stories are featured, are told in their own voices interviewed by the hostess Natasha Fatah. They are well worth listening to. I think I have heard them all. You can listen to the podcasts on the web site above.

The stories are from countries near and far, from the US to Vietnam to Honduras and beyond.
For several it took years to finally reach Canada, after escapes from their home country which are remarkable and frightening. Only through struggle and persistence did they succeed in reaching Canada.

Natasha Fatah has created a wonderful series of programs and is a very charming and skillfull interviewer. Her family were immigrants from Pakistan. Her father, Tarek Fatah is an interesting and controversial person for his opinions within the Muslim community and Canadian electorial politics.

If you have not heard this series of programs, I recommend you find the time and listen to some of them. You will not be disappointed.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Canadian Way

"With an open mind and an open heart."

Madeleine Meilleur, Ontario, Minister of Community and Social Services

I have been following with interest and dismay the events of the the 500 Tamil refugees who have reach our shores after a long voyage across the Pacific in a rather small vessel. They are just the latest people who have sought refuge in Canada after escaping very difficult circumstances in their home country. Canada under international law is required to have them land and have their request of refuge be duly considered according to rules well established. If they are deemed to be legitimate refugees, after being individually assessed, they are allowed to stay in Canada: live, work and get social services while waiting for a formal immigration hearing.

Canada has a long tradition of taking in refugees and immigrants. With the exception of First Nation's people, all Canadians can trace their roots to refugees or immigrants. We celebrate our ethic diversity in our multi-cultural society. Each group bringing their rich culture and adding to the cultural "mosaic" of Canada in which we all can share. This openness to newcomers and their culture differentiates Canada somewhat from our American neighbours where their are strong forces to have newcomers quickly cuturally dissolve into the "melting pot" of American culture.

I am very dismayed at the Federal Conservative Government's mean spirited comments and response to this current wave of Tamil refugee claimants. More of this later.

The Federal government is out of step with the Canadian atttitude to those who seek out our country for a new life for themselves and their family. The proper attitude is nicely expressed by Madeleine Meilleur, who I quoted above, "with and open mind and an open heart." We might also add, "an open hand."

Here are some of Canada's historic moments of acceptance of refugees and immigrants.

1. United Empire Loyalists who fled or were forced (property seized) out of the United States after their Revolution flooded into Canada, particularly into what is now Ontario. They were a major force in the development of Canada as a Nation as it strengthened itself against a southern Neighbour which had leaders who spoke of annexing British North America (Canada).

2. As I mentioned in a previous post, Canada welcomed fugitive slaves into Canada where slavery had been abolished. They were granted freedom and refuge as soon as they touched Canadian soil. They were granted citizen rights as British subjects and could make a life for themselves like everyone else. They were not seen as property that had to be returned to their owners, as was the case under the fugitive slave laws in the United States. at the time.

3. After the Irish Famine many Irish came into Canada. Unfortunately, many perished in the process. They left orphaned children at Canada's gate. French Canadian families adopted these Irish children on the understanding that they could keep their Irish names, and some of their customs. To this day there are French Canadians with Irish last names and in a few communities in Quebec Irish festivals are still held.

4. During the Vietnam War, Canada welcomed American Draft dodgers and AWOL American soldiers. If they could reach Canadian soil they could start with a clean slate with regard to their military service. They were not turned back.

5. We welcomed Vietmanese "boat people" refugees. Individual Canadians and groups sponsored and supported individuals and families for up to a year until they got established.

6. Many an individual from an eastern block country stepped off the airplane at Gander International airport when it landed for refueling on the way to Cuba, and asked for refuge, which was invariably granted, in those Cold War years.

7. Again with the events of 9/11 Canada allowed airplanes to land in Canada until the United States assessed their situation. Most landed at Gander, Newfoundland where families, readily and easily, took these stranger into their homes and showed them hospitality and a warm welcome.

So you see, Canada has a long history of being a refuge for people as they were welcomed with "an open mind and and open heart." It is the Canadian Way. I would add that most refugees and immigrant became great Canadian citizens and did well. So much of their effort went into creating a life and a future for their children, who often went on to be the next generation of doctors, lawyers, business people, teachers etc. This was as true for illiterate fugitive slaves as well as Vietmanese, "boat people", and others, who often first had to learn the English language.

Let me say, before someone comments of Canada's flaws, we have not always been the best we can be in accepting immigrants and refugees. Our record with First Nations people, who often accepted early settlers sharing their knowledge and territory, is not very good and we continue to make amends for our past history. We also treated the Canadian Japanese dreadfully during WWll for which Canada finally officially apologized, having given into racism and fear. And, we shamefully turned away Jews fleeing Nazi Europe. A more open heart could have saved the lives of tens of thousands of Jewish refugees. (a dreadful mark on our history, and the history of several other countries). There are no doubt other instances of failures of spirit and the "Canadian Way" but they slip my mind at the moment.

Now let me return to the Tamils currently being processed on the West Coast. Canada already has a sizeable Tamil population most are among the 250,000 in Toronto. They have been excellent immigrants readily blending into the Canadian mosaic.

Our Conservative Federal Government, has not been welcoming the Tamil refugees in the Canadian Way, rather they have been terribly mean spirited making comments that promote fear and suspicion. It is way out of step with our tradition. From the moment, they first heard that groups of Tamil refugees was sailing toward Canada, they have said nothing sympathetic or kind about them. They have labelled them terrorists, criminals. queue jumpers and what have you, on the basis of little or no evidence.

This mean spirited attitutde of this government is characteristic of it on many fronts. (The list is long and I will not go into it now). It seems they share the fear and zenophobia which has overtaken the United States. As a government they have copied many of the American programs of the Bush Administration, usually not as severe but just as mean spirited. Luckily our court system still speaks with Canadian values as almost every human rights issue the government has been taken to court over, the government has lost. A kind word, or welcome from the Prime Minister , would have gone a long way to setting an appropriate tone about meeting our international obligations toward the Tamils. Instead, the government has fanned the flames of prejudice and racism. It is no mistake the the Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews (an attack dog of the right wing) and not the Immigration and Citizenship Minister, Jason Kenny, has been the most prominant government spokesman. Lately, at least, twice a day he has publically stated that these Tamils have terrorists among them, they are a security risk, and the whole enterprise is a criminal organization (which may be true but the Tamils are the victims here and not the criminals.) The cry of queue jumpers has been heard heard when in fact, while there many be a queue for immigrants, there is not a queue for refugees. They just show up out of desperation. No queue. . .no queue jumping. It is very sad to hear comments on the radio against the Tamils, who are among some of the best of recent immigrants, echoing the government line coming from people who are recent immigrants themselves. Last year, over 70 Tamil refugees showed up and there were no terrorists among them and they are all currently freely living in Canada.

I do not understand why the Tamil refugees have to be treated in such a heavy handed way. There boat was escorted into a military base after they entered Canadian waters. The boat was boarded by heavily armed police and border officials who also wore medical face masked. The men and women have been split up and housed is two prison facilities. They are brought before an adjudicator in hand cuffs who records their dates and documents. All of this leaves the impression that they are criminials, terrorists, vermin, all before we learn anything of who they are and their plight. What if Canada had treated all the passengers of the planes diverted to Canada after 9/11 this way? We knew nothing of who they were. They might have been a security risk but we did not house them in prisons or keep them under armed guard in hand cuffs at times. We welcomed them as strangers who were in need of succour. Which is the case for all refugees.

I only hope the front line government workers who are professionals in this, and not political hacks, are treating the Tamils with dignity and respect. After they quickly process them may they then welcome them into Canada to the waiting arms of the Tamil community and Canadian society.

All we hear from the government is how Canada may have to strengthen it's laws on refugees when the law of smuggling refugees into Canada and making false claims are already severe. They are speaking of a problem where no problem exists. Refugees are not a big problem for Canada. This government's attitude is similar to the one they show over crime in Canada,when in the face of decades of decreasing crime in Canada they want to toughen the laws, limit alternatives to incarceration and build more prisons. (How American is that.) Their conservative ideology always trumps facts and common sense.

Canada has international agreements, on refugees, which it shares with many countries. We are bound by these humanitarian agreements. The government, even if it ideologically disagrees with them, should honour them cheerfully with an "open mind and an open heart" instead of fomenting fear and discrimination.

"Welcome Tamils! We recognize your hardship and suffering. We admire your courage and sacrifice, that got you to our shore. May your life in Canada be rich and full; free of fear." This is what our government should have said.

Perhaps, The Honourable Michaele Jean, our Governor General, who does represent all of Canada, unlike the current government, should visit with the Tamils while there claims are processed, and officially welcome them. That would be nice and appropriate, as the Canadian Way, rather than let the mean spirited, divisive , minority Conservative government of Stephen Harper, speak for the people of Canada at this time.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Happy Birthday, Parker

It was a proud day, August 8, 1969 ,when you were born in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Your mother and I where thrilled. Your life continues to bring credit on yourself and your mother and I. This day will always be a day of pride and satisfaction for me.

Parker at two months.

Myself, Parker and Dylan

On that first birth date, I could not imagine our life together over the years. It seems to have turned out OK for you, for that I am relieved, and grateful that you were such an easy child to raise.
Now that you are on the down slope of life, at 41! I hope all continues to go well for you and your family.
Happy Birthday!
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Friday, August 06, 2010

Hiroshima Day August 6, 1945

This is the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima. It was the beginning of the Atomic Age. It was the day humanity came to live under the cloud of fear of the possibility of mass extinction of the human race by accident or design. It is to the shame of us all that these weapons, the only true weapons of mass destruction, exist today. The existing weapons are even far more destructive than the realitively modest bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I have always remembered this date. I am one of the generation that grew up the threat of thermonuclear war. The first issue I ever protested against was this issue of "Ban the Bomb".

The atomic cloud over Hiroshima

I grew up believing the public relations version of the historical explanation of this war crime. In short it is that the Japanese were different than westerners. They were fanatical and would never give up. There was no other option than to use the bomb in order to end the war and save hundred of thousand lives of American soldiers. This was a deliberate public relations lie.

The truth was that the Japanese were busy trying to arrange a surrender with only two conditions: to protect the Emperor as leader of the country from war crimes prosecutions
and to maintain the Japanese constitution to prevent chaos after the surrender. It was the US who insisted on unconditional surrender.

It was only a small group in the US government that wanted to use the atomic bomb. The vast majority of the intelligence community , the leadership of joint Chief of Staff and the scientific community did not want the atomic bomb to be used for various reasons from being morally outrageous to being militarily unnecessary. The reasons to use it seemed to be more diplomatic that scientific or military. It seem the US wanted to send a message to Russia that the US still had powerful leadership under Truman. Russia had joined the war against Japan and had defeated them in Manchuria. There was the possibility that Russia may have invaded Japan before the Americans could. Hence, a quick surrender by the Japanese was needed.

You do not have to read far on the Internet to read the scholarly literature that debunks the public relation myth about dropping the bombs developed after the war. Here is a scholarly 35 page historical analysis from the University of Wisconsin.

We need to remember and learn the true history of the the dropping of the bombs on Japan. Below is the series of videos of a film made in 1945 of the effect of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

This year the United States will be represented at the memorial in Hiroshima for the first time.
This is a small step in facing the American culpability in this war crime. What is needed is an apology and a plea for forgiveness. This will not happen as it is not in the American character to apologize for anything. One can only hope that President Barack Obama 's interest in reducing the number of nuclear weapons held by the US and Russia. It will not be enough but it will at least be a small step in the right direction.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Emancipation Day

This past weekend is what I always called the "August Bank Holiday", the long weekend in the middle of summer. In Toronto and area, it is also known as Simcoe Day after Lord John Graves Simcoe, the first lieutenant governor of Canada West, now Ontario. In other parts of Canada there are many other designations for the day.

In 2008, the Ontario government also recognized it as Emancipation Day. This holiday has been celebrated in south western Ontario for 175 years, particularly among the African Canadian community in that area. It is a celebration of the British Emancipation proclamation of 1833 when slavery was made illegal in Britain and all British colonies beginning in 1834. This laid the groundwork for the eventual escape of fugitive slaves from the United States along the Underground Railroad.

It is appropriqate that this is the same day as Simcoe Day as Lord Simcoe was an abolitionist and one of the first laws passed in Canada West under his administration was a partial abolition of slavery, in 1793. He pressed for this law after learning of the sale of a Canadian slave, Chloe Cooley, back into the United States. Under this law, no new slaves could be brought into the country and the children of slaves would gain free status when they turned 25 years old. Freed slaves had to be finacially secured by their former owners. A few years later, in 1810, his attorney general abolished all slavery in Canada West prior to the British general emancipation, in 1833.

The British Emancipation Proclamation declared that a slave would be freed and given citizen rights under the law as soon as they stepped on British (Canadian) soil.

It is interesting to note this is the same period in history when the slaves of Haiti rose up in rebellion and defeated the French military of Napoleon and established the Republic of Haiti. One can imagine how nervous the Americans were with Canada to the North legally opposed to slavery and Haiti to the south with a recent successful slave revolt.

This was the time in the United States that the Fugitive Slave Laws , 1793 and 1850, were passed in the United States and the Supreme Court upheald them. Part of these laws required law enforcement in the free states to return slaves, who had run away to the North, to their "rightful owners". There were also bounty hunters that captured escaped slaves and killed them or returned them for a fee. Thus for slaves to just flee to a free state there was no security. They lived under a threat of being captured and returned to their master. As a result, fugitive slaves "looked to the North Star" and sought out freedom in Canada. Fugitive slaves found their way into British territories which are now part of Canada: Ontaro, Quebec, New Bruswick, Nova Scotia and British Columbia. The greatest number came to Ontario through Ohio crossing at Detroit and through New York state crossing at Lewiston, New York.

One of the most famous fugitive slaves was Josiah Henson who founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ontario. He became the inspiration for the book , Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was very influential in the United States in growing the abolishionist movement.

I love this new statue in Lewiston, New York. It was just officially opened last year. It shows a slave family being help to cross the Niagara River. The man handing the child to the woman is a depiction of Josiah Tyron the volunteer Lewsiton "station master" on the underground railroad. He under the cover of darkness rowed many former slaves to freedom. He was known as a quiet, humble and religious man. Like so many, he defied the law and risked himself to support the cause that so many Americans saw as just, the aiding of fugitive slaves in their flight into Canada.
The woman pointing to Canada is a depiction of Laura Eastman, a character in the novel "Freedom Crossing." which I have learned is read each year by many school children.

The far shore is Canada. One can only imagine the excitement and the hope with freedom so close, only a short row across the river.

As one who is fascinated with the similarities and differences between Canada and the United States, this bit of history is very telling. Canada was not always free of slavery. There were efforts to enslave the indians but they proved to be too valuable in the fur trade. Also Canada had few industries in which slaves would be useful . Most of settlers in Canada were small landowners, or fishermen. It would have been very expensive to keep slaves in our more challenging climate. Such were some of the reason why slavey did not get institutionalized here.

After the American Revolutionary war, United Empire Loyalists were encouraged to come to Canada and get re-established under the British crown. Some of these had slaves. Freedmen also were welcome as there was need for settlers. As many as 100,000 African Americans came. These earlier black immigrants were ready to assist the fugitive slaves that were to follow.

It is a quirk of history the John Graves Simcoe came to administer Canada West, the area being organized to accommodate the influx to Loyalists. He left a great legacy upon Canada including his opposition to slavery.

The fact that after 1833, Britain would not honour any extradition of former slaves to the US was a great legal milestone. It meant that a slave just had to reach Canadian territory and he was welcomed and protected by the law of the land. It is no wonder that slaves risked all to find freedom and a life in Canada.

Life was not always easy for African Canadians for prejudice and racism existed and still exists, in Canada . There have been times of great injustice against minorities in Canada but over the years, Canada has learned toleration of all ethnic group. It has now become part of our identity to enjoy and celebrate multiculturalism within our country sharing in the cultural gifts of all Canadians.

Canada need to relearn more of the story of African Americans coming to Canada. Their story is one of courage, hard work and remarkable success. In the early years, many young son's and daughter of former slaves went to to become doctors, clergymen, small business men. Many returned to fight in the civil war on the Union side and many after the civil war returned to the United States to find family and friends in the hope of a new life after the war.

I am amazed of the power of the mythic vision of what the United States can be that draws so many to it, even former slaves wanted to return. Some stayed in Canada and made a great contribution, in subsequent generations they were joined by others of African descent from the Caribbean, Africa, South American and more recently Haiti.

I hope this renewed and expanded holiday in Ontario, Emancipation Day, grows and finds acceptance, as a day to remember those early days when Canada was a refuge for fugitive slaves.