A response to Lillian Nakamura Maguire’s commentary Invest in Canada’s Future is long overdue.
It appeared in the News earlier this December and laid out, in such a personal and powerful way, how the current plight of Syrian refugees resonates with the shared experiences and past struggles of Japanese and other Canadian immigrants and their families.
We pride ourselves in our cultural diversity, on the mosaic of ethnic traditions and values that invigorate our communities. We can certainly look to some fine moments in our history when we undertook to meet the needs of refugees and immigrants without hesitation, drawing them into the fabric of Canadian life with caring and generosity.
As Lillian pointed out, we rose to the occasion in the case of the Hungarian refugees and the Vietnamese boat people. Many other groups have also benefited from Canadian compassion and concern.
But we shouldn’t forget the darker side of our history when we allowed fear and ethnic and political bias to hold sway over our higher natures.
There’s the sad story of residential schools and government directed mistreatment of Canada’s First Peoples. There’s the injustice visited on Japanese Canadians during the war which Lillian’s family lived first hand. There’s the general refusal to accept Jewish refugees during the 12 years of Nazi rule, including rejection of the St. Louis, a ship with almost 1000 Jewish asylum seekers, sent back to Europe to die in the holocaust.
So, despite the pride we take in our multicultural society, we need to remember that the displaced and persecuted have not always received a warm welcome here.
As recently as 1987, Bill C-84 was passed allowing immigration officials the power “to turn back ships in international waters suspected of carrying claimants.” This was a time when press reports portrayed would-be Indian refugees as Sikh extremists posing a threat to Canadian sovereignty. It was not our finest hour.
There are those who foment the same kind of fear and intolerance when it comes to the Syrian refugees, but happily, the vast majority of Canadians are again rising to meet an almost unprecedented humanitarian crisis with open hearts and a willingness to support refugees in whatever ways we can.
And this is certainly true of the people I’ve gotten to know through Yukon Cares.
This group was formed just prior to the federal election in response to the Syrian refugee crisis and concern over the lack of positive action on the part of Canada. Spearheaded by Rachel De Queiroz, it was soon apparent that there was huge support in the community to sponsor and assist Syrian refugees.
Over 100 people attended the initial meeting, and since that time dozens of volunteers have been involved with the planning and preparations to facilitate the settlement of a refugee family in our community.
As Lillian pointed out, when we come together to help refugee and immigrant groups to build a new life among us, we build social cohesion and help create a climate of giving and compassion that benefits us all.
With the first Syrian family soon to arrive, we have a marvellous opportunity to demonstrate our better selves, to dispel the myths that get in the way of our Canadian generosity of spirit, and to do our part to create a welcoming, supportive community. May we all rise to the occasion.