You are Stephen Harper. Your government spends years demonizing asylum seekers as “bogus refugees.” It denies them health care. It takes pride in detaining and deporting many of them.
In tandem with pandering to nativists, you cater to Islamophobes by conflating law-abiding Muslims with Muslim terrorists. Your Conservative Party runs a fundraising campaign based on the warfare waged by your government on a single niqab-wearing woman who’s keen on becoming a Canadian citizen but not on you telling her what to wear.
You bend Canadian foreign policy out of shape to hunt for votes among Christian minorities from Egypt, Iraq and Pakistan. You exploit and exacerbate their “old country” fault lines, rather than following the Canadian tradition of bringing old warring factions together.
You woo those Hindu bigots who want to continue their ancestral animosity toward Muslims. You court right-wing Zionists who equate supporting Israel with demonizing those who speak up for Palestinian rights.
You fan fears of terrorism to justify yet another war in the Middle East. You build an election campaign not so much against the Liberal or New Democratic opposition as against “jihadists,” “jihadism,” “violent jihadism,” “jihadi terrorism,” “the international jihadist movement,” “jihadist monsters.”
For four years, you callously ignore the cold-blooded killing of about 300,000 Syrians by the evil Bashar Assad (a far bigger toll than during the 1990s ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia). But you swing into action to try and rescue Iraqi and Syrian Christians, Yezidis and other minorities from the evil Islamic State. You infect long-standing non-discriminatory Canadian refugee policy with sectarianism of your own (like Slovakia that wants only Christian refugees). You ignore the warnings of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and a coalition of immigrant settlement and faith groups, including the Canadian Council of Refugees, Canadian Council of Churches and Jewish Refugee Action Network.
Given that record, how do you now welcome with open arms Muslim Syrian refugees, who having waited years to be rescued have crashed into Europe and moved the world, including Canadians who are demanding urgent action from Ottawa?
You try and emote sympathy, talking about little Alan Kurdi. You even sacrifice your well-guarded family privacy and bring wife Laureen and son Ben into the conversation. But you can’t go too far without upsetting the constituencies you have so systematically cultivated over the years.
You say: Look, there are “tens of thousands of people in these desperate circumstances. There are millions more in exactly the same situation ... We could drive ourselves crazy with grief.” So, don’t.
Rescuing refugees “alone is not remotely a solution to this problem.” We must attack “the root cause of this problem” — “the jihadist movement,” “the violent campaign being led against millions of people by ISIS.”
In the context of Syria, “this is blatantly wrong,” Alex Neve of Amnesty International tells me. “Huge numbers of refugees were already fleeing long before ISIS became part of the equation.”
Of the more than 2,000 children killed this year, nearly 1,900 were victims of Assad’s war, about 100 of the Islamic State’s atrocities and 58 of the bombs dropped by the international coalition, including Canada.
The Kurdi family were Damascenes who escaped Assad’s war to Aleppo, which they fled when he began carpet-bombing it. They moved to Kobani, from where, following an attack by ISIS, they made their ill-fated trek to Europe.
Left unsaid and not all that unsaid is the suggestion that Muslim terrorists would creep into Canada with Muslim refugees. Security is the watchword, as it was during earlier shameful episodes when the ethnicity and religion of Sikhs and Jews and others led to suspicions that they were extremists.
Neve: “Security should be assessed, of course, but it shouldn’t become an excuse for months and months and years of delay. People should be screened but expeditiously.”
The government’s game of divide and conquer stands exposed, as do its excuses and obfuscations.
But the national clamour for action continues, as premiers, mayors, churches, NGOs and also some Conservatives, such as Joe Clark and Barbara McDougall, press for action.
Don’t be surprised if he announces some special measures — dispatching special teams to the region to expedite refugee selection and arranging refugee airlifts. But that’s not going to be easy, either. There are bureaucratic bottlenecks at every turn, the government having turned the federal machinery into a barrier rather than a facilitator of immigration and refugees. That, too, is a bind of Harper’s own making.
- Former Star columnist and editorial page editor emeritus Haroon Siddiqui returns for the federal election