Editorial: Canada should remember all refugees

Refugees arrive in WinnipegRepublished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 30, 2015. 

Syrian refugees arriving in Canada have been greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, provincial premiers, mayors and dignitaries of all types in a display of love and affection unprecedented in Canadian history.

Immigration Minister John McCallum even doubled down on Canada’s commitment to bring in 25,000 Syrians by the end of February, saying the government was now looking at accepting as many as 50,000 by the end of 2016.

Meanwhile, other refugees waiting in squalid camps in Africa or Asia, or recently arrived in Canada, can be forgiven for wondering what makes them different.

The stark contrast between the Syrians and the others was illustrated by the story of a man who was waiting for African refugees in a Toronto airport terminal on the same day Mr. Trudeau was there to greet the Syrians.

A reporter started to interview the man, only to walk away when he learned he wasn’t waiting for the celebrity refugees.

Canada has always had two personalities in the way it responds to refugees and immigrants.

We have opened our doors many times for people in need, including the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s and Hungarians fleeing the 1956 uprising against Communist rule, two examples of Canada at its best.

The warm embrace of the Syrians is part of that tradition of generosity and kindness, but there’s another, contradictory narrative.

Canada’s immigration policies in the past were often guided by racist attitudes, such as the rejection of many displaced peoples from the Second World War, particularly Jews who were less welcome than our erstwhile enemies, the Germans.

Nor is the un-Canadian story entirely historical.

The government of former prime minister Stephen Harper, for example, cut off health benefits for refugees (since restored by the Liberals), while curbing the number of desperate people allowed into the country.

A UN report on asylum trends in 2014 shows Canada was dead last on a list of developed countries accepting refugees.

Refugee advocates in Canada are aware of the over-the-top embrace of the Syrians, but they don’t care. In fact, they believe it’s actually a positive development that will help their cause in the future.

“It’s reinvigorating the entire private sponsorship program,” said Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, which has brought about 500 refugees to the city this year, none of them Syrians.

“It benefits everyone,” Mr. Denton said.

And while the plight of all refugees is urgent, the Syrian dilemma was particularly troublesome because of the way Europe is being swamped and overloaded.

By accepting 25,000 Syrians in a short period of time, Canada is not merely demonstrating its humanitarian impulse, it’s also being a good neighbour and ally to its European friends.

The spectacle of refugees fleeing in open boats across the Mediterranean Sea also helped fuel the cause of refugee settlement, as did the drowning death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose tragic story helped to humanize the calamity.

The arrival of the Syrians in Manitoba and the rest of Canada, then, is cause for rejoicing and celebrating.

The government, however, should also consider how it can speed up the process for some of the estimated 18 million other refugees who are equally in need of Canada’s love and support.

It’s the Canadian way — sometimes, at least.