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.