By Garth Lester
From February 14 to 16, 2019, I had the privilege of joining about thirty other university and college students from across Canada for MCC’s annual student seminar in Ottawa. The focus of this seminar was ‘People on the Move: Human Rights and Global Migration,’ and this was reflected by the diverse body of attendees. A major element of this conference was recognizing that besides Indigenous Canadians, each of us can trace our lineage to immigrant ancestors; students arrived from across our large country, but we each also brought heritages from even further away, including Eastern Europe, South East Asia, West Africa, and the Middle East.
Even before arriving in Ottawa, I was challenged to reflect on the incredible adversity faced by the millions of global refugees and migrants as they seek out peace for themselves and their families. Due to winter storms, I experienced several flight cancellations, re-bookings, and delays until I arrived at an unpleasantly early time in Ottawa. In the midst of my travelling difficulties, I knew that I had a network of resources to assist me if necessary; for many refugees and migrants, there is no safety net or alternative plan, but instead barriers and often unpredictable challenges.
Another major element of this conference was to develop a deep empathy for refugees and migrants, and to recognize that they are individual people with personal stories, dreams, fears and needs. It is important to listen to stories because that allows us to move beyond viewing people groups as statistics, and instead allows us to see others’ humanity and respond accordingly.
The seminar featured a number of incredible speakers who spoke about their personal involvement with global migration, as well as reflected on the needs that can be addressed by the average individual, like those of us attending. Nadia Williamson, from the UNHCR, explained the role and limitations of multilateral organizations like the United Nations, expressing that the private sector and civil society are needed to fully meet the needs of refugees and migrants. A panel of Canadian civil society actors further explained the importance of non-governmental organizations, especially to influence government. In addition, André Belzile, from Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada, presented the significant value in multi-state organizations and the state of Canada.
In collective, the speakers expressed the complex interconnectedness of the United Nations, the Canadian government, civil society, and the private sector—there is not one sector of society that will be able to independently generate positive change. In response to this reality, I see an obligation for me to be involved as an educated voting Canadian citizen, an advocate through civil society, and a compassionate and hospitable neighbour within my increasingly diverse neighbourhood.
As a democratic nation, Canadian citizens have the right and opportunity to have their voices heard and advocate for others. During this seminar, we heard several stories that stimulate hope, in which MCC and others successfully convinced the Canadian government and UN representatives to improve policies in response to the global refugee/forced migration crisis. When individuals come together, through petitions, letters to MPs, and meetings, we are able to actively influence our government.
A statement that stands out from the seminar is that as advocates, “we are not a voice for the voiceless, but we are lending our privilege as a megaphone” (Samantha Baker Evens). My Canadian citizenship and English heritage give me power and privilege, which I can use to empower others.
The role of being an advocate is dynamic as it involves listening to the individuals who are most affected by the crisis, educating myself on the issue, actively and tangibly caring for my newcomer neighbour, and pressuring those in power to change. This sounds like a tall order, and certainly not a task that can be handled alone. This seminar shed light on the importance of recognizing change, the obligation to respond, as well as showed me how groups and organizations, like MCC, can use their power to protect the human rights of refugees and migrants around the world.
– Garth Lester is a student at Trinity Western University in Langley, BC.