seth klein: what has happened to canada's compassion?

I hope you will read this excellent Op-Ed by Seth Klein, director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' BC office, writing in The Province:
What's happened to Canada's compassion?

If the 492 Tamil asylum-seekers who recently arrived by boat on B.C.'s shores are "queue-jumpers," then I guess my parents were too.

They came as Vietnam War draft dodgers from the U.S. in 1967. Like a couple of the Tamil women who just arrived, my mom was pregnant with me. My parents did not seek advance permission from Ottawa to immigrate. They did not fill out any paperwork before arriving. And they could no more seek permission to leave from their home government than these Tamils could, for what they were doing, as far as the U.S. was concerned, was illegal and would result in my father's arrest.

Of course that's the thing about being an asylum-seeker — you don't get into a queue. When you've got to go, you've got to go.

My folks didn't even know Montreal, where they landed, was a predominantly French-speaking city. They just showed up. A key difference, however, was that in those days, they got landed-immigrant status in 20 minutes at the airport. While estimates vary, over the course of the Vietnam War, as many as 100,000 American war resisters came to Canada. Yet here we are setting our hair on fire about 492 people.

But those aren't the only numeric comparisons I find curious.

Among the common reactions to the arrival of the MV Sun Sea is the proposition that Canada's alleged lax immigration laws make us a global sucker — a target for many of the world's migrants. This is absurd.

World conflicts, environmental disasters and a global economic system that keeps billions impoverished has resulted in millions upon millions of refugees and displaced people. In Pakistan alone, the current flooding has produced as many as 14 million internally displaced people. Globally, the United Nations says, there are more than 43 million "forcibly displaced people," of which some 15 million are refugees.

The vast majority of these globally displaced people are not being absorbed by wealthy countries, but rather internally or by neighbouring poor countries — the places least able to afford the costs and with the bleakest economic prospects. The number of refugees accepted by Canada has declined in recent years, and last year we accepted fewer than 20,000 — just over 0.1 per cent of global refugees. Surely, when a few hundred people arrive on our shores, we can afford to treat them with respect and grant them due process.

Here's another curious comparison: The real and much more significant Canadian immigration story of recent years, at least measured numerically, isn't about refugees or people arriving by boats. It's about the explosion in the number of temporary foreign workers. The number of those workers entering Canada each year now exceeds 200,000 and surpasses immigrants.

But the Harper government hasn't been sounding the alarm about this. On the contrary, the federal government has been promoting and facilitating the massive growth in this category of migrants. Why? Because unlike regular immigrants and refugees, these workers are being specifically requested by employers, their indentured status makes them unable to exercise key employment rights and leaves them highly vulnerable to exploitation and unsafe conditions, and they are unable to make the same claims to the social and economic rights that Canadians take for granted.

Immigration is central to the story of Canada. Waves of people came, mostly to meet a domestic need for labour, but sometimes fleeing harm and conflict. But historically, once people arrived, either as immigrants or refugees, they were upon landing met with a social contract: They could avail themselves of the social and economic rights Canadians enjoyed, and in a few years could be granted citizenship.

With the explosion of temporary workers and tightening of regular immigration, the government is effectively saying, "that deal is off — we're happy to have temporary indentured labour, but don't think you can be a Canadian."

When my parents arrived, some Canadians slapped unwelcome labels on the war resisters, but the government itself refrained from such labelling. By and large, the draft dodgers were welcomed, and went on to make valuable contributions to Canada. Much the same can be said of the Vietnamese boat people who arrived in the late 1970s. Why can't better receptions be the norm?

A key difference today is that the government itself immediately labelled the Tamil asylum-seekers as terrorists, criminals and queue-jumpers, before any due process. In doing so, they set the tone of the debate, and gave licence to a particularly nasty wave of xenophobia.

Here's what troubles me most. In a world still coming to terms with the reality of climate change, the truth is that the number of global climate migrants and displaced people will soon dwarf the UN numbers cited above. Will the recent ugliness mark each new unexpected arrival, or can we have a rational conversation about what our moral obligations and humanitarian response should be to the global realities ahead?

Supportive letters can be sent to provletters@theprovince.com. Wouldn't hurt to mention our current crop of war resisters, either.

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