When the 25,000th Syrian refugee arrived in Montreal last week, it wasn’t just a milestone achievement, it may have marked a sea change in Canada’s attitude towards people facing humanitarian crises.
We like to think of ourselves as the nice guys, admired by all of the word for the way we care about people in need.
And while it seems we Canadians like to go out of our way to provide aid, we truly prefer to do it out of our way – and the further out of our way, the better.
When it comes to offering help in our own house, our record has been less than stellar.
Forget the red-herring debate about taking care of our own citizens first — although we have an embarrassment of plenty when it comes to numbers of needy Canadians, from the homeless to impoverished First Nations communities that continue to labour under the suppression of institutional neglect.
The fact is that Canada has an abysmal performance record, when it comes to offering shelter from humanitarian storms – particularly when those storms rain on nations beyond those that have provided us with our preferred European stock.
There’s infamous case of the Komagata Maru, a boatload of refugees that sat in Vancouver’s harbour for two months in 1914 before being “escorted” back into international waters by Canadian warships, the sick and hungry passengers left with no choice but to return to India. There, British gunboats obligingly continued the story with gunfire and arrests that resulted in 19 deaths.
The refugees in that incident were British subjects who thought they would be welcomed in this preeminent Commonwealth country… but they weren’t white.
We like to look down our noses at the historical treatment of black and native citizens by our neighbours to the south, but we have blind spots for our Chinese head tax, the Japanese-Canadian internment, special health approvals for black Americans seeking to move north, the Asian Exclusion Act, and the wholesale refusal of Jewish refugees by Prime Minister MacKenzie King – our longest-sitting PM, whose manifold weirdnesses make Donald Trump look pretty darned steady, by comparison.
And then there are the horrors we inflicted – and continue to bury – on our own First Nations people. Especially repugnant are the realities of sexual abuse of children, of cultural torture of entire families, and the “scientific” starvation and nutrition experiments sanctioned by our government.
You’d think helping a few refugees now and then would be the least we could do towards atonement.
When desperate Vietnamese refugees started arriving in their old and leaky boats, Canada’s official response was to bitch and complain and demand they get back on their rusty tin cans and go somewhere – anywhere – else.
Eventually, the government struck a deal with churches and aid organizations to allow more than 100,000 refugee entries in the decade leading to 1985.
The arrival of Canada’s 25,000th Syrian refugee marked the completion of an election promise. It is Canada’s largest-ever uncompromised commitment to refugees from abroad, and accomplished without bending to protests by an infestation of compassionless self-righteousness.
In coming weeks we’ll learn whether Canada has finally grown an official heart, if the flow of refugees desperate for our help continues — or if 25,000 is just a magic political number.