This reflection was written by Cora Siebert, former advocacy research intern in the Ottawa Office. Cora completed her assignment in December.
The Syrian refugee crisis has flooded the news for months. And what Canadians should do about it has been debated among politicians through the federal election and within civil society. Yet with new government commitments to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, along with a surge in private sponsorship from civil society – we’re starting to see a united front on the issue. This is a humanitarian crisis and Canada has the capacity to help.
During my time as an advocacy research intern in Ottawa, I’ve tracked election promises from political parties on refugee resettlement, done research on the policies guiding Canada’s private sponsorship program, and read about the crisis for months in the newspaper. I’ve been trying to understand the complexities of the crisis from my desk.
Yet the reality of the situation really hit me on December 10th when I walked down Sparks Street and up to Parliament Hill to listen to Question Period. Amidst the obvious enthusiasm from one side of the room for a new era in government, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Honourable John McCallum stood up to announce a wonderful day for Canada. December 10th was the day the first plane full of 160 new landed immigrants arrived in Toronto.
The next day a unanimous motion was passed in the House of Commons, agreed upon by all parties even before it came to the floor. It was first introduced by the NDP critic for Immigration and refugees Jenny Kwan, and then jointly seconded by the Minister of International Development Marie-Claude Bibeau and Conservative Immigration and Refugees Critic Michelle Rempel. The motion read as follows:
That this House, on behalf of all Canadians, warmly welcome our new Syrian and Iraqi neighbours, and indeed all refugees who have escaped conflict around the world and arrived safely in Canada, a country with an unwavering commitment to pluralism, human rights and the rule of law.
The unanimous resolution demonstrates that no matter what our political stripes may be and no matter where we’ve stood in the past, we as Canadians have been able to stand together on an extremely pressing issue. And this cross-party support for welcoming Syrians and Iraqis within the political sphere has no doubt been reflected through civil society and displayed through social media. If you search #WelcometoCanada and #WelcomeRefugees on Twitter, you will see wonderful photos and videos of families being reunited, welcome performances by choirs and symphonies, and the help being provided in resettlement from non-profits such as the Red Cross.
Many of the recent arrivals have family members here in Canada, waiting years to be reunited. In September 2015, the government expedited the process in which Syrians and Iraqis could be privately sponsored through removing the requirement to provide proof of refugee status from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in order to be sponsored. With the momentum from the new government to bring in Syrian refugees as soon as possible, many of the first arrivals were therefore privately sponsored families and individuals, eager to join family in Canada.
Despite refusing welcome to some refugees (such as Jews) in its history, Canada has a strong tradition of effectively resettling refugees in times of crisis. Some examples include: 10,975 Czechoslovakian refugees coming to Canada after Soviet forces put down a pro-democracy movement in 1968; 7,000 Ugandan refugees fleeing Idi Amin in 1972; 1,188 Chilean refugees fleeing from Pinochet’s rule in 1973; and the arrival of over 100,000 Southeast Asian refugees starting in 1979 and into the 1980s, following the fall of Saigon in Vietnam. By the 1970s Canada was widely regarded as a haven for the oppressed. In 1986 the UNHCR awarded the people of Canada its Nansen Refugee Award for their significant and sustained contribution to helping refugees.
Refugee resettlement has always been an important issue for MCC as well. The very creation of MCC in 1920 was in response to fellow Mennonites suffering from persecution and famine in the Soviet Union. MCC supported thousands as they sought refuge in North, Central and South America in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. And in the late 1970s, some of those same people who had been helped by MCC in their journey to Canada, reached out to MCC Canada offices, wanting to assist some of the millions of Southeast Asian refugees fleeing their homes.
In January 1979 MCC Canada worked with the Canadian government to draft the first formal sponsorship agreement that would allow churches and other organizations to privately resettle refugees. This was an important development in Canada’s Private Sponsorship for Refugees Program, the program still guiding private sponsorship today, and the one responsible for bringing that first plane of 160 new permanent residents to Toronto on December 10.
I feel privileged to have witnessed this period in Canadian history while here in Ottawa. While politics may so often seem divisive and unproductive (especially during an election!), it is important to stop and acknowledge the important gains made through political processes. Politicians, non-governmental organizations (including MCC Canada) and Canadian citizens have worked hard to get the resettlement of Syrian refugees on the political agenda. Canadians also continue to commit to sponsoring refugees, not only from Syria but from all over the world.
We as a nation should be extremely proud.