Europe’s refugee epic reached as far as the frozen heights of the Rockies yesterday, in a gentle, very Canadian way. At an international economics conference in the grand old town of Banff – snow already dusting the slopes of Mount Rundle far above us – Dr Tom Thompson of Olds College, the largest agricultural school in Alberta, came up to ask me how he might bring Syrian refugees to his university.
“It is our Canadian tradition, to help refugee families,” he told me. “I’d love to help.” I put him in touch by phone with international agricultural advisers in the Arab world, including Beirut.
He meant what he said. Just as, on the other side of the mountains on squeaky-clean Vancouver Island, the leader of Canada’s Green Party – two MPs in Ottawa, perhaps another 10 after the 19 October national elections – wants to help the Arab refugees streaming up the landmass of Europe. Elizabeth May was herself once a refugee lawyer (she used to help ship-jumpers in Halifax port) and wants Canada to shine in its response to something her country has always cherished: helping the world’s poor and oppressed. Canada took in the huddled masses of Vietnamese boat people – 55,000 of them – in the 1970s. So why not the Syrians, and Iraqis, and Afghans, today?
But here, alas, we must report a sordid and bigoted tale deep within a country famous for its multiculturalism. Stephen Harper’s weird Conservative government – its security laws fear-mongering their way through a population normally famous for its generosity – is even more reluctant than our own beloved David Cameron’s Cabinet to take in the families fighting their way from the death-pits of the Middle East.
Harper’s been talking oddly of “old-stock Canadians” – effectively excluding hundreds of thousands of Canada’s new Muslim population from the country’s modern history, and virtually second-tiering their citizenship. His immigration minister, Chris Alexander – desperately trying to claw back any shred of the Canadian Conservative Party’s principals – has been talking these past few hours of taking in more than an earlier figure of 20,000. This was also an attempt to clean up his own reputation after scolding a television journalist and the media in general for not paying attention to the crisis – when he had himself been refusing all interviews on the subject.
Canada has made plenty of offers of help to Christian, Yazidi and other minority groups fleeing Isis territory over the past year, but precious few for the latest and far more formidable exodus, on grounds that are perfectly clear to millions of Canadians: they are Sunni Muslims.
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Right-wing newspapers and ministers have tried – without any evidence – to suggest that Isis has hidden its agents among the refugees, thus presenting the suffering of these people not as a humanitarian concern but as security problem. These snide attempts to smear hundreds of thousands of people as terrorists have reached proportions which would be comical if they were not so immoral.
Harper’s Defence Minister, Jason Kenney, has blathered on about meeting refugees in Middle East camps whose relatives were fighting a “jihad” against the Syrian regime – something the West has been encouraging Syrians to do for three years – and thus security must “take precedence” over receiving those fleeing the battlefields. His grotesque sympathy for the refugees makes cringing reading, for he damns them even as he claims to agree with their innocence. “I do not mean to suggest for a moment that all or most of the people in the camps are connected to terrorist organisations or contribute a security risk but it is plainly evident that some do. It would be imprudent in the extreme to pretend otherwise.” Not for a moment, indeed… And note the “all or most” bit: if all or most of the refugees are not “terrorists” then presumably an awful lot are: that’s the wretched man’s message!
As the Toronto Star columnist Haroun Siddiqui commented, Harper’s government is “pandering to the dangerous stereotype that all Muslims are potential terrorists”. And not only the government. In a particularly frightening article in the right-wing National Post, Father Raymond J De Souza, a Canadian university chaplain as well as a parish priest, says that refugee camps are home to “Sunni Muslims, not a few of which look kindly towards Isil [Isis]” and that “it would be foolish to bring to Canada extremist elements that may be useful in making trouble for Assad but would also be troublesome in Canada”. Individual church groups are trying to help, but somehow the good father’s message seems a little different from what Christ would have said.
Sure, a new opinion poll suggests that 38 per cent of Canadians still believe Harper’s lads and lassies would “make the best decision for Canada on the Syrian refugee situation”, but at least Canada’s ex-military men – usually the most flatulent of crusty old generals – have had the guts to walk a little taller than the politicians. The country’s former military commander Rick Hillier is suggesting that Canada’s armed forces themselves could bring in 50,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas. Roméo Dallaire, the UN’s commander in the Rwanda bloodbath, a fine man deeply troubled by what he was forced to witness in Africa, has talked of bringing up to 90,000 Syrian refugees to Canada who would be an “asset” to the country. Security is a smokescreen, he says. “I think Canada and its decision so far in regards to refugees is nothing less than atrocious and totally foreign to what and who we are.”
Back in the 1970s, Canadian politicians sowed the same “security” rubbish about the Vietnamese boat people – they might be “communist” was the tag-line then, though not one turned out to be. But the Harper gang probably haven’t read that far back in their country’s history. Be sure that Dr Thompson has.