Olly, olly oxen free

Long summer evenings and kids, there is something universal in that combination. They carry together across the generations remarkably similar images of carefree play.

Long summer evenings and kids, there is something universal in that combination. They carry together across the generations remarkably similar images of carefree play. Even after a day’s work alongside a parent a warm evening breeze would hold the sounds of laughter and games.

One of the images I vividly recall of a long ago after supper gathering was playing hide and seek. Our neighbourhood had nearly a dozen boys and girls that could be counted on to join in the fun. It started off when someone volunteered to be the first ‘it’. Likely a older, faster kid took on that role, confident of not having to repeat it.

On the night I remember, I must have been frustrated by being caught too many times. In a later round I resolved, just plain and simple, not to be tagged out. Our well-treed backyards sloped up the gradual side of a hill. I chose a big old tree a couple of houses up from ours to shield me from view but with a clear vantage of the homebase in our yard. It was probably an American elm back in the days before the Dutch Elm disease wiped their majestic canopies from most the urban North American landscape.

The game progressed with excited dashes towards the designated ‘home free’ fence pole. Finally when everyone but me was in the cry went up, “olly, olly oxen free” signalling that the round was over. I didn’t budge. They called again. I didn’t move. Then as a mass they spread out in a determined, collective search for me leaving home unguarded. I ran for it.

Touching the pole, being ‘home free’ provided momentary satisfaction at least until the next round of hide and seek began. Being safe, home free, isn’t a game for many people who come to Canada though. Half again as many people as there are in the whole of Canada are at any time refugees in our world today according to some sources. A still larger number are refugees if you count internally displaced people as well.

We know that the acceptance rate for refugees in Canada has been steadily declining for almost three decades now. At approximately 40 per cent we see around the 30,000 refugees being annually admitted. What happens to the rest? There is no home free for them.

A very few failed refuge seekers with no alternatives and desperate not to be sent home, seek sanctuary. By as early as the 6th century, Christian churches had come to provide protection to people fleeing persecution. The Canadian Council of Churches reaffirmed this practice in the 1990s when it stated that “sanctuary is a place recognized as holy, a place of refuge. It is a sacred place where fugitives from the law have traditionally been secured by the church against arrest or violence.”

The ‘right of asylum’ has been utilized only rarely in Canada. According to a paper providing guidelines for Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Canada on giving sanctuary “from 1983 to 2003 there were 36 cases of refugees in sanctuaries in Canadian churches.” However it was in the news earlier this month when a former Soviet era security officer took sanctuary in the First Lutheran Church in East Vancouver in a last ditch effort to avoid deportation.

The failure of the federal government to enact its refugee appeal process has meant for the Evangelical Lutheran Churches in Canada that “because the government is not living up to its obligations, the sanctuary issue has been used as a means to fill the gap.”

The long tradition of sanctuary continues in Canada. So far this custom has been respected by organizations like the Canadian Border Services Agency which is charged with the removal of people who have been denied refugee status.

What is truly needed is a just refugee determination system with an effective appeal process for a start. This would provide desperate people with a sense that indeed they can make it home free.

Michael Dougherty is co-chair of the social justice committee of Sacred Heart Cathedral of Whitehorse. Contact pazypan@yukon.net.

Namaste notes

Sunday, June 28—13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. A suggested reading is Mark 5: 21-43.

Monday, June 29—Saints Peter and Paul’s feast day commemorates the martyrdom in Rome of these two Apostles traditionally believed to be on the same day in the year 67.

Wednesday, July 1—Canada Day is the 142nd anniversary of the enactment of the British North America Act which united four of the original provinces of Canada into a single country.