When the death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi brought public attention into sharp focus on the global refugee crisis, support welled up for those who have been driven from their homes by violent conflict in the Middle East.
And yet, even as churches, NGOs and private citizens lobbied for Canada to take a larger role in resettling and providing aid to refugees, those who have been involved in long-term refugee work were acutely aware of how little even the most generous proposals were willing to do.
The Conservative government previously pledged to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next four years, but in September-amidst criticism from its political rivals- Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander announced new measures to speed up the processing of applications to bring Syrians “a full 15 months earlier than anticipated.” He did not indicate whether they would be government-sponsored or privately sponsored refugees. The Liberal Party promised that, if elected, it would accept 25,000 government-sponsored Syrian refugees by January 2016, and the New Democratic Party said it would bring in 10,000 refugees by the end of the year, and a total of 46,000 government-sponsored refugees by 2019.
These numbers may pale in comparison to the roughly 1.8 million refugees currently living in Turkey, the further 1.8 million in Lebanon and even the 117,161 refugees the United Kingdom has welcomed, but they also pale in comparison to what previous generations of Canadians have been willing to do.
In the decade following the fall of Saigon to Communist forces in 1975, Canada resettled a total of 110,000 Vietnamese refugees-the famous “boat people.” Of those refugees, 50,000 were accepted between 1978 and 1980, at a time when Canada’s population was only 24 million.
So what happened between 1978 and 2015?
“In the 1970s, there was a really quite remarkable confluence of different elements,” explained Michael Creal, a retired professor of religious studies at York University and scholar at the York University-based Centre for Refugee Studies. “The government was on side, the civil service was on side, the media was on side, the churches were on side…this is a very different situation from today.”
Despite the fact that Canada did not have an extensive infrastructure for quickly processing refugees, the broad support for the project allowed for creative and efficient solutions. “In the 1970s, we dispatched civil servants to Hong Kong, for instance, and they processed refugees right on the spot,” said Creal. “They accepted them, arranged to have them flown by military aircraft to Edmonton and Montreal.”
Tom Clark, former interchurch co-ordinator for refugees for the Canadian Council of Churches, agreed with Creal that political will played a vital role in refugee resettlement in the past. But he pointed out that refugee resettlement in the 1970s took place in the context of the Cold War, and therefore also served an ideological purpose.
“What happened in that time was the need for the U.S., and therefore for its allies, to do the traditional thing, which is you don’t leave your allies out to toast-so the friends of the U.S. in Vietnam needed to be brought out.”
What started out as careful politics, however, morphed into a massive humanitarian undertaking, thanks in large part to the work of individual parliamentarians, most notably Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Flora MacDonald.
“Flora was a little special,” said Clark. “She had NGO connections right up until her death, so she really was willing to gamble on pushing [refugee issues] out to the people.”
For Clark and Creal, the changes in Canadian refugee policy can partially be explained by changes in mindset among government leaders.
Both were quick to point out that it was Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservative Party, one of the precursors to the current Conservative Party of Canada, which pushed for broad acceptance of the Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. It was another Progressive Conservative, Brian Mulroney, who led refugee resettlement in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and instituted the formal refugee board that still hears refugee cases today.
These governments represented a brand of conservatism that saw Canada as having a responsibility to the international community to do its part in resettling displaced peoples, a role the current Conservative government under Stephen Harper has downplayed.
“I think this is something of an isolationist government, in many ways,” Clark said. “When I was active in refugee affairs, the Canadian government was-well, during the ending of the Cold War, Canada played the lead on refugee affairs.”
Creal did not mince words. “I think the record of the Conservative government with respect to refugees is, from my point of view, absolutely deplorable,” he said.
The Conservative government has created a climate within Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) and Canada Border Services that is hostile toward refugees, he said.
“CIC and the border services have been set up primarily to get rid of people,” he said. “The culture there is ‘how do we get people out of Canada as fast as possible when rejected?’ ”
But Creal did not think this was representative of a cultural shift among the Canadian people.
“I think there’s no question that large numbers of Canadians are open [to having more refugees]. The calls from people saying they want to sponsor a refugee family have far exceeded the capacity of various agencies to handle.”
Clark agreed that the majority of Canadians are inclined to help refugees, but stressed that they usually need a push. If the government doesn’t provide it, it has to come from somewhere else.
“With a bit of media, you can get a huge popular empathetic movement-usually around something that is not particularly rational, like a picture of a small child,” he said.