Except for First Nations, we are a country made up of immigrants. That’s why it matters how we treat refugees. Whether we came to Canada as victims of war or seekers of a better life, we have a vested interest in whom the country does and doesn’t accept.
As the refugee crisis has made painfully clear, Canada, or at least its Prime Minister, remain untouched by the migrant onslaught. We have a plan, Stephen Harper tells us, and we’re sticking to it.
To do otherwise, he says, is to succumb to emotion. Yes, of course, he has seen the pictures of dead children washing up on a beach, and his heart bled, too. But that’s no reason to change immigration policy. If anything, the PM argues, the crisis is a reason to intensify the war against ISIS.
As Harper likes to tell us, you've got to be tough to be the prime minister. In fact, according to him, you’ve got to be one nasty SOB. Even the leaders of this middling nation must be willing to make hard choices.
Mostly, though, the PM has to be willing to say no to Canadians. Whether the issue is pensions, the environment, healthcare or refugees, responsible leaders must have the strength to say no when necessary, which in Harper’s case is most of the time. To do anything but “stay the course” would be weakness, and there's no place in this world for weakness.
As much as anything, Harper’s Olympian perspective is another sign of how removed Ottawa has become from real life. The mayor of even the most out-of-the-way burg couldn’t speak so callously about such suffering without paying a price. For Canadian mayors, refugees are not some abstract concept; they are an ever-present reality. Cities, towns and villages are where migrants make their lives. And though the resettlement process isn’t easy, the benefits are potentially huge — for all involved.
Toronto has seen waves of refugees. In the 1950s, it was Hungarians escaping Communism. In the ’70s, it was Ismaili Muslims fleeing Idi Amin’s Uganda. Then came the Boat People.
Each group has enriched the city. The opening of the extraordinary Ismaili Centre/Aga Khan Museum complex last year was a powerful reminder of how much these communities have contributed.
Little wonder, then, that some of the most effective responses to the federal government’s reluctance to deal with the refugee crisis come from municipal leaders, most notably Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi. His criticism of the thoroughly odious response by Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Chris Alexander resounded across the country.
Others point out that the response of some countries, including a handful of Persian Gulf states, has been even worse than Canada’s. After all, we’re not building barbed-wire fences or refugee camps yet.
As the Prime Minister has made clear, though he recognizes the powerful emotions unleashed by images of dead children washed up on a beach, they are no basis for public policy — not his, in any case. Besides, the Conservatives’ immigration narrative is one of parasitical foreigners here to take advantage of our oh-so-generous social programs.
Harper’s insistence that, like him and his regime, we should dry our tears, suspend our humanity and carry on may be acceptable in the airless centre of the Ottawa bubble, but it doesn’t play so well in the world the rest of us inhabit.
The emotional and very human impulse to lend a helping hand is one on which some leaders could build a national immigration strategy. But no, it's better to stick to Harper’s invisible plan than rush off half-cocked to save the world.
Yet for a nation of immigrants, to save the world is to save ourselves.