Thursday, November 19, 2015

Refugees Against Refugees

I've been talking about the military side of the ISIL crisis for a few days now.  Grumpy contrarian that I am, and seeing the latest polls suggesting that a slim majority of my fellow Canadians have decided they'd rather let a thousand innocent Syrians die than accidentally admit one guilty one, I thought perhaps it would be time to talk about the refugee side.

Here's the thing about refugees and racism. During the election, Harper referred to "old-stock Canadians" as the people who were cautious about taking in refugees. Now, I'm definitely an old-stock Canadian. I am, through every line of descent, at least a fourth-generation immigrant. My guess is that most of the people burning mosques and beating up Muslim women (the women? Seriously? You're supposed to be defending them from niqabs!) are old-stock Canadians too. This post is for my fellow old-stock Canadians.

Here's the thing about us: we're descendants of refugees. Pretty much without exception. I'm a descendant of religious refugees who came to North America in the 1600s, ethnic refugees who came to Canada in the 1800s, and ethnic and religious refugees in the early 1900s. If you're part-Irish, you're a descendant of refugees.

We comfort ourselves with the myth that people came to Canada in search of a better life, and in a sense, that's true, they did. But does anyone seriously think that the northern prairie, before power or running water, was attractive? Really? People moved here to get out of the hells they were trying to escape from.

And the people who thought of themselves as "old-stock Canadians" back then were flatly opposed to it, too. The Irish were security risks for two reasons: they were Irish, and they were Catholic. God knows what a bunch of blacks (yes, the Irish were considered black by sophisticated folks as recently as the mid-19th century) answering to the Pope might get up to! Ditto the evil Italians.

Saskatchewan refused Mennonites in the 1920s because of the well-known security risks associated with that dangerous sect. Canada turned away a lot of Jews in the 1930s for the same reason. (They're Communists, after all, and if Nazi Germany didn't want them, why would we?)

Even the ones who weren't refugees weren't welcome, of course. Canada actively went out and recruited Ukrainian immigrants in the 1890s, but in World War I we thought they might be subversives so we arrested them just in case. Same with Japanese in World War II. And Italians, incidentally.

My point isn't just that we were mistaken then and we're likely to be mistaken now. My point is that nativism is a predictable and even understandable reaction -- but it's a reaction that's usually expressed by people who are themselves beneficiaries of lax refugee and immigration policies. If you think you're a credit to your country, you might give some thought to how, if you'd been there at the time, you'd have opposed your descendants' entry into the country in the first place.

And in this case, the risk isn't mythical: it exists. There is a risk that in opening our borders to refugees from the Syrian Civil War we will permit entry to a small number of people who wish to harm us. In fact, there are already people who wish to harm us, in Canada, with their citizenship papers. Some of them were even born here.

Learning to live with risk is part of being a grown-up, though. We chose to intervene in the Syrian Civil War to fight ISIL. We did so for valid reasons. I suspect that most of the people who are opposed to admitting refugees are eager to see us bomb ISIL into oblivion, further destabilizing Syria in the process and thus creating even more refugees.

Well, war is hell. It involves taking risks. Not all of those risks are borne by soldiers on the battlefront. We chose to fight ISIL, and when we did that, we accepted the risk that ISIL would attempt to retaliate by killing Canadians. We trusted that we could mitigate that risk by having competent police and security services. Personally, I think the risk is justified.

So you have to ask yourself: how much risk are you personally willing to accept in order to save 25,000 lives?

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