Has Canada Become Less Open to Refugees?

By Forget, Andre | Anglican Journal, November 2015 | Go to article overview

Has Canada Become Less Open to Refugees?


Forget, Andre, Anglican Journal


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."

Alexander did not indicate whether they would be government- or privately sponsored refugees.

These numbers may pale in comparison to the roughly 1.8 million refugees currently living in Turkey, the additional 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. 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 Creai, 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."

Canada did not have an extensive infrastructure for quickly processing refugees, but the broad support for the project allowed for creative and efficient solutions. Civil servants were dispatched to Hong Kong, for instance, and they processed refugees on the spot, said Creai. "They accepted them, arranged to have them flown by military aircraft to Edmonton and Montreal."

Tom Clark, former interchurch coordinator for refugees for the Canadian Council of Churches, agreed with Creai that political will played a vital role in refugee resettlement in the past. But, he added, 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 US. in Vietnam needed to be brought out."

What started out as careful politics morphed into a massive humanitarian undertaking, thanks in large part to the work of individual parliamentarians, most notably Progressive Conservative cabinet minister Flora MacDonald, said Clark.

"Flora was a little special," he said. "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 Creai, the changes in Canadian refugee policy can partially be explained by changes in mindset among government leaders. …

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