Lessons from our past – stop hating on immigrants and refugees

Lessons from our past – stop hating on immigrants and refugees

Column first published in the Northern Sentinel, Kitimat, B.C.

I’m pretty much fed up with the whole anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment in Canada today, a sentiment born out of intolerance, fed by propaganda and ignorance.

To put it succinctly, we do not have an immigration or refugee problem in this country – point in fact our immigration policies are not particularly generous and have never been particularly generous. Correction, they were pretty generous when the British and French were establishing themselves as the Lords of the Land without a by-your-leave to the indigenous populations. Since then, not so much.

An example is William Lyon Mackenzie King who held power at different periods between 1921 and 1945. Although a favourite of many historians, King was a cold and decidedly unsocial individual and no friend to immigrants and refugees.

In 1923 his government passed the Chinese Immigration/Exclusion Act, a blatantly racist policy that specifically banned Chinese immigration to Canada, a policy that was in force until 1947. During that period his government refused the franchise to Chinese citizens, prohibited them from holding public office, limited their ownership of land and restricted their access to housing.

Labour unions actively discriminated against them and hampered their ability to earn a living. Their sin? They were Chinese – good people, hard-working and with a sophisticated culture that was flourishing when Western European cultures were still scrabbling in the mud.

Of course, not to be outdone, during the 12 years of Nazi rule in Germany between 1933 and 1945 the King government saw fit to turn away Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Europe.

Other Western Nations took in tens of thousands of refugees, but over the 12 years of Nazi rule the Canadian government only admitted about 5,000 Jewish refugees, and notoriously, in 1939 turned away the MV St. Louis which was carrying some 900 refugees.

Of those 900 refugees, 254 were murdered in concentration camps, principally Auschwitz and Sobibór (Scott Miller and Sarah Ogilvie, 2010, Refuge Denied: The St. Louis Passengers and the Holocaust). The bureaucrat in charge of immigration at the time, F. C. Blair, opined of Jewish refugees – “none is too many.” Add to that the internment of Japanese Canadians and the Komagata Maru and our history suddenly doesn’t look so good.

“Yeah, but,” you say, “that was a long time ago. Things are different now. You are being revisionist.” Hmmm … maybe, but perhaps we should be a bit skeptical of how much of that change is real.

In 2019 it is not at all difficult to witness immigrants and refugees defined as different, people who do not ‘share our values,’ who ‘do not look like us’, infiltrators who will destroy ‘our way of life and take our jobs.’

These are exactly the same arguments made in 1923 and 1939. The current antipathy to immigrants and refugees plays over and over the same tired propaganda of hate as at any other period of Canadian history. Perhaps the recipients of social disdain are different but the moral vacuum that underlies that disdain is the same.

The sad thing is that Canada desperately needs immigrants and refugees. The Financial Post’s Gabriel Friedman highlighted the pragmatic side of immigration in an October 3 column pointing out the simple fact that the Canadian population is aging and is not reproducing itself.

In fact, Friedman notes that Canada hasn’t had a replacement fertility rate since 1971. Much is made of the ‘baby boom,’ but the ‘fertility bust’ is a much more pressing issue. Without immigration, Canada will be in serious financial distress.

We need immigrants to fill jobs, pay taxes, contribute to pensions and keep our health-care system running. Anti-immigrant sentiments are simply attacks on our own wellbeing.

We also benefit from refugees – despite the fact that they are fleeing oppression, persecution and often crushing poverty, they aren’t just getting a free pass in. They are vetted and reviewed with a very jaundiced eye. Despite what some individuals claim they are not a drain on our society, but work against formidable odds to improve their lot, often taking jobs that Canadians will not.

By any measure they make excellent citizens – in 2015 Hamida Ghafour (then a foreign affairs journalist for the Toronto Star) wrote, “…. on Sept. 6, 1985, I came to Canada with my parents and younger brother. We were Afghan refugees. I was seven years old.”

She continues to provide an accounting of the contributions to Canada made by her family. Needless to say they are no less impressive than is she.

Look up the article she wrote – September 14, 2015 – When Canada welcomed refugees — and paid their way. If you buy into the lie that refugees are a drain then it’s worth a read – heck, it’s worth a read for anyone.

Finally, without cultural diversity we as a society become moribund and socially inbred and that phenomenon is no less destructive than biological inbreeding. The mix of ideas and understandings makes us better and stronger, not weaker.

In fact, it is doubtful that any culture can survive if it walls itself off from the influences and insights of other people. To do so is the height of hubris – the story Icarus illustrates the danger of hubris.

So, enough with the calls to wall off our border, to restrict immigration and discourage refugees. Such voices are those of denial and defeat.

– Doug Thomson is a columnist for the Northern Sentinel in Kitimat, B.C.

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