This month marks the thirtieth anniversary (1985 Singh decision) of the Supreme Court of Canada's decision that recognized the rights of refugees to fundamental justice. It is a decision that we continue to celebrate. The anniversary, three decades later serves as a reminder of how collective activism can triumph and of the importance of supporting politically and financially, advocacy organizations like the Canadian Council for Refugees - who for over thirty-five years has led the national struggle for justice and fairness for those coming to our borders seeking protection and refuge.
A year later, in 1986, the Canadian people were recognized with the Nansen Award primarily for their role in resettling Indochinese refugees - the only time the award was granted to a nation. It was a proud moment for our country and set Canada on a path to develop the Globe's most progressive and responsive refugee determination system - a system held up as a model to the world.
For decades we also punched above our weight for the numbers of refugees and asylum seekers to whom we granted refuge. While the numbers did not reach the levels of the Indochinese migration period, we consistently brought in more refugees per capita than any other refugee receiving country. It was a truth we were proud of and that we got much mileage from in boasting nationally and internationally.
But things change - unfortunately for the worse. Worse for our reputation as a former world leader but more important, worse for the thousands of refugees hoping and praying for refuge in Canada only to experience uncertain delays or to be turned away from our shores, deported and sent back to uncertain lives: Some have been persecuted. Others killed.
The passing of Bill C-31 which disastrously amended our Immigration and Refugee Protection laws and the rhetoric that surrounded its passage – a public demonizing of asylum seekers, the false differentiation between those in camps who are ‘chosen' and those who make their way to our shores by whatever means; the implied (and at times explicit) claims that asylum seekers/refugees are taking ‘advantage of our generosity' and only come to Canada to benefit from our social welfare system including healthcare; and on and on, all have led to the current state of affairs. Asylum seekers from countries like Hungary and Romania who are primarily Romani are seeing acceptance rates of less than 20%. This isn't coincidental. It is directly linked to the government-developed narrative that stereotyped a whole community as ‘dishonest', ‘bogus', etc. This is a shame.
Intended or not, the rhetoric and the official government narrative of having to protect Canada and Canadians from the many who are only coming here to take advantage of our generosity, at the same time that the demographics of those arriving to Canada as immigrants, temporary workers and as asylum seekers are primarily Brown or Black bodies, has led to a rise in anti-immigrant sentiments and as disturbing an increase in negative attitudes towards racialized immigration. It is instructive that a recent poll (Ekos) shows that over 40% of those surveyed believe that our immigration numbers are too high, and a similar number believe that there are too many racialized (visible minority to use a federal government term) immigrants coming to Canada. This is a shame!
As we bear witness to increasing geo-political turmoil around the world, the number of refugees and displaced persons has reached historic levels. After much pressure from refugee advocates, the United Nation High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), progressive Canadian media, Faith communities and even our opposition political parties, the government finally announced that it would accept ten thousand Syrian refugees with the vast majority being sponsored by private groups. There is much that is wrong with this scenario (private groups were not consulted; and given the changes to refugee health access folks are hesitant to take on the financial liability; processes and timelines are unclear; etc, etc.) and many are questioning if the government will be able or even want to meet this moderate target.
In spite of all this negativity many remain optimistic, knowing that the spirit of generosity remains among many of us. There is strengthened commitment to protecting refugees, to advocating for changes to the law, calls for better education and training including in anti-discriminatory practices and anti-bias decision-making by adjudicators at the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). All bode well for the future.
2015 is the year to ask some difficult questions about ourselves as a nation – about whether we are living our commitment to refugees and our humanitarian ideals. Silence is consent.