According to an Angus Reid online poll, 46 per cent of Canadians believe that immigration is having a negative effect on the country. The poll links this figure to the August arrival of the M.V. Sun Sea, carrying nearly 500 Tamil men, women, and children.
Negative attitudes toward the Tamil refugees, and the concomitant distrust of immigrants in general, are no accident. The Conservative government, from Prime Minister Harper on down, has been working hard to encourage public hostility toward the asylum seekers since they first heard the Sun Sea was on its way to Canadian waters.
As soon as the over-laden boat arrived in Canada Harper declared that he “would not hesitate to strengthen the laws” to prevent more such ships from landing in the future. “Canadians,” he announced, “are pretty concerned that a whole boat of people comes – not through any normal application process, not through any normal arrival channel – and just simply lands.”
According to the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality.” When such a person, or even 492 such persons, arrive in Canada, it is our duty and our obligation under international law to process their refugee claims, and if they check out as legitimate refugees, to give them shelter.
Before 1951, Canada’s record on letting boatloads of people “simply land” was varied. During the17th and 18th centuries, thousands of boats simply landed on these shores, not through any normal arrival channel, and brought with them all the ills and all the goods of colonialism. Nobody polled the original inhabitants to see what affect this mass migration had on their attitudes toward immigrants, but we can assume they were not whole-heartedly positive.
Then in the 1930s, when European Jews were trying to escape the Nazi persecutions that grew into the Holocaust, Canada’s policy was quite clear. As one immigration officer of the day put it, “none is too many.” Speaking of the Jewish refugees, then-prime minister Mackenzie King wrote in his diary, “This is no time for Canada to act on humanitarian grounds … Canada must be guided by realities and political considerations.”
Like Harper, King was both feeding on and feeding into popular sentiment; in the 1930s Canada was a profoundly anti-Semitic country, with some 60 per cent supporting restrictive immigration policies that made it all but impossible for Jews to enter the country.
Countless Jews who might have come to Canada if not for our vicious racist policies died in gas ovens, were worked and starved to death, shot in mass killings, or buried alive. In 1939 Canada turned back a ship carrying 900 Jewish refugees, sending them home to face the Holocaust.
The Sri Lankan government’s campaign against the Tamil Tigers has been a brutal one, characterized by mass killings of Tamil civilians and terrible persecution of the survivors. The Canadian government has long ago listed the Tigers as a terrorist organization for its violent campaign of resistance, while simultaneously condoning the Sri Lankan military’s use of brutal force. Working on a “tip” from the government of Sri Lanka, the Conservative government spread the rumour that there were Tamil Tigers on board the Sun Sea. One man remains in detention on those as yet unproven allegations.
Without a doubt, there would have been some among the many thousands of Jews who were prevented from coming to Canada who had fought some form of resistance against the Nazis, and would thereby meet today’s definition of a terrorist. Looking back, who will say we did the right thing on that account?
The Conservatives would like to begin turning boats like the Sun Sea back in international waters, so that we can say they never arrived in Canada, and we had no obligation to process them as refugees. When that day comes, we will have plunged this country back into the racist darkness of 1939. Worse yet, we will run the risk of sending genuine refugees back, in some cases, to torture, imprisonment, and death.
If the government does this against the people’s wishes, they will be criminals, in violation of international law and devoid of human decency. If they do it with the public’s support, we will all be guilty. In the 21st Century, when desperate asylum seekers approach our shores, will we still say, “none is too many”?
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.