The warm welcome for Syrian refugees is pitch perfect, the generosity genuine.
We Canadians can take a bow for putting on a great show. Yet we must also recognize much of it is for show.
As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged to jet-lagged refugees early Friday morning, “We get to show not just a planeload of new Canadians what Canada is all about, but we get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome people.”
There is much to be said for a nation-state self-consciously showcasing its treatment of stateless refugees. Far from being empty symbolism, it serves as a defiant testament of Canadians coming to the aid of people a world away.
When Trudeau and Premier Kathleen Wynne swept in for post-midnight photo-ops with arriving refugees, it was cause for optimism, not cynicism. Their appearances before the cameras might seem stage managed, but they serve a larger purpose — blending stagecraft with statecraft.
At a time when much of the world is stooping to new lows, Canadians are cheerfully rising to the occasion. Not because we are better than anyone else, but because our leaders — political, ecumenical and civil — are belatedly bringing out the best in us.
It would be wrong to get carried away by our latest performance, for it is precisely that — a deliberate display of controlled goodwill far removed from the uncontrollable chaos of migrant upheavals. We must admit that for all our earnest declarations and determined actions, Canada remains in a privileged position.
We have not been tested like Germany or Greece, both brimming with migrants of indeterminate origin. By virtue of our splendid geographic isolation, we are largely spared the waves of boat people who risk drowning at sea, or the stampedes at border crossings that wreak havoc with sovereignty.
We can afford to take our time, consider our options and select refugees with our own timelines linked to the latest headlines. We get to “cherry-pick” families in remote Middle Eastern camps, where families are pre-vetted by the United Nations as bona fide refugees.
Applicants wait patiently for text messages summoning them to interviews, followed by notifications of their scheduled airlifts. If people don’t make the Canadian cut, we don’t have to contend with anyone storming the borders or slicing through barbed wire. How very orderly.
Europe has no such margin of manoeuvre, nor the luxury of moral clarity that Canadian officials can count on in UN refugee camps — where everyone is on the run. European governments must grapple with economic migrants distorting the decision-making process in real time.
With five million Syrian refugees waiting for resettlement over these past five years, Canada’s eleventh-hour contribution of 25,000 spots represents a tiny fraction of the global need. There are many more millions of forgotten refugees across Africa and Asia.
But our dignified embrace of new arrivals still goes a long way. It is a well-timed counterpoint to the fear and frothing that has swept the U.S., a country 10 times larger than ours that is taking but 10,000 refugees (a mere 40 per cent of our target).
As the New York Times noted Saturday, “The Canadian public’s widespread embrace of a plan to accept thousands of Syrians stands in stark contrast to the controversy over the issue in the United States.”
Before we bask in any inherent Canadian moral superiority, however, we had best recall our own recent indecision and moral ambivalence. It took a jarring photo of a boy drowned on a beach to rouse Canadians from their indifference.
And while we mock the ravings of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering how our very own Rob Ford responded to the arrival of 500 Tamil boat people as a mayoral candidate in 2010: He insisted that we “take care of the (Canadian) people now before we start bringing in more.”
Ford’s xenophobia echoed an Angus Reid poll showing 55 per cent of Ontarians would deport the Tamils even if their refugee claims proved legitimate. Ford won the mayoralty, and we lost the moral high ground.
People will always be tempted into intolerance by politicians who appeal to their worst traits. We Canadians are not as impervious to prejudice as we presume. We just happen to live in a sparsely populated land, far from global hotspots, with fewer people clamouring to come here.
It has been said before that the world needs more Canada. Sometimes we Canadians do, too.