When 911 happened, 38 airplanes were diverted to Gander Airport in Newfoundland. The island of Newfoundland is the most easterly province in Canada and generally the poorest, with high unemployment and a mostly rural lifestyle, but Newfoundlanders are also known for their friendliness and down home hospitality and the small community of Gander took in 6500 stranded passengers, supplying meals, beds and entertainment for five days and spawning lifelong friendships in some cases. The musical “Come From Away”, which debuted on Broadway last year and is currently playing in Toronto, is based on this true event. The phrase Come From Away, is east coast slang for the fact that you are from someplace else, somewhere other than here.
It is human nature to want to help those in need, especially true if those in distress have a face and a name, but what if they come in the tens of thousands, and we had to help them indefinitely? Would we be quite as accommodating? Or what if they were a boat full of 500 Sri Lankan refugees, as happened on the west coast of British Columbia in 2010, people from a different country and language and background? Ah, it’s getting complicated.
A overloaded raft filled with refugees sinks and a dead toddler washes up on the beaches of the Mediterranean – tragic. Angela Merkel expresses sympathy for the drowned victims. Gangs of young men board trains in Germany and swarm European borders, not so tragic – maybe even scary, in the way that large unpredictable crowds can be. Now, it’s even more complicated.
They are all asylum-seekers, but are they “refugees” fleeing conflict and death in a war torn country, or “economic migrants” seeking a better, more prosperous life? Should people who follow the rules, fill out the required paperwork and wait their turn, be treated differently from those who just show up?
As a writer with an interest in history and genealogy I have been mulling over these questions lately, because immigration is a hot issue today. There’s a lot of anger and resentment. Many people are in search of a better life, whether it is planned immigration, like my Dutch grandparents (see Dutch Inheritance), or fleeing a crisis, like my Irish ancestors (see Irish Roots), during the potato famine when a third of Ireland’s population starved to death. But it’s also a much more complicated issue.
When my Irish and Dutch ancestors came here, the country welcomed immigrants – they were needed to settle the wide open spaces. The immigrants weren’t dependent on the government to support them, because there was no support system, or very little – unless you count that one pound note they received from the government for water transport to their new home. They lost three members of their party of twenty on the way over, and jumped ship while it was lined up waiting to dock at the quarantine station in the St. Lawrence River, thus arriving destitute but nevertheless alive, although they lost one fifteen year old son in the bush and never found him. I’m not sure how they traveled from Quebec to Toronto, where they were issued the loan, but as Quebec was swamped with the Irish, as were major US cities like Boston and New York, perhaps there were charities to give them a meal and help them disperse. Certainly they were penniless, as the record, for the three brothers and their families, referred to them as indigent emigrants – poor and needy. To put this cost of Great Lakes water transport into perspective, the ship fare from Ireland was 3 pounds per person to Canada, and 5 pounds to the US. In many cases the landlords paid for the passage, eviction being an established practice.
In 1846 much of Canada was forested, and it must have been a daunting task to clear the land of all those trees to be able to plant a small crop. They arrived in late October and wouldn’t have survived the first winter if the Indians hadn’t helped them build some kind of hut to provide shelter from the snow.
Their first years were so bad that they gladly would have returned to Ireland, but slowly they started to prosper. I can follow their prosperity through the agricultural census reports, so many acres farmed, bushels of wheat, livestock etc.
My mother’s Dutch parents planned their immigration in 1922. By then, immigrants had to pass a pre-medical and be sponsored by a Canadian farmer for a year. Harvesting sugar beets in the hot sun was hard work – which they continued to do even after the year was over, until my grandfather found carpentry work building houses, barely surviving during the lean years of the Depression. Both groups eventually adjusted and assimilated into society and their descendants considered themselves Canadian first.
Canada is a lucky country in that we tend to have a fair degree of cultural tolerance – yes people can retain their culture here, but they are also expected to become Canadian. But we have our limits too. Unfortunately, demands to accommodate customs and episodes of cultural extremism tend to breed intolerance and distrust of all immigrants. There’s a reason why America was called a melting pot – if people don’t wish to adapt and aren’t willing to abide by the laws of their new society, then perhaps they would be better not to come. Respect is a two way street – if a country is kind enough to welcome someone in, they should be respectful of that country’s customs too.
Being from a rural area as white as Wonder bread, I was in university in Toronto in the late 70’s, before I met anyone of a different race or color. Now I work with so many different nationalities I don’t even think about it, because they are all just Canadians. A few years ago during a playoff game I saw a TV clip of a group of fans cheering their hometown team in a sports bar in downtown Toronto, truly a multi-cultural city now, and there wasn’t a white Caucasian face among them. Mind you, they were most likely first generation descendants who grew up on hockey and baseball, but certainly the face of the nation is changing. (If you come here, you must love hockey – it is the law!)
A co-worker of mine went through two years of paperwork and red tape to immigrate from an eastern European country. Neither she nor her husband could work here in their respected careers (engineering, translator), but they came anyway. They wanted a better life for their children. They started with modest jobs and a modest home, then got better jobs and a better home. Another colleague of mine was visiting her sister after graduation and got stranded here when the Croatian war broke out and the borders were closed back home. She taught herself English and obtained her Canadian license. Planned, not planned – both of them became excellent Canadian citizens, hard working, educated, the kind of people any country would want.
But are all educational degrees the same? Skills, knowledge? There are lots of taxi drivers with degrees. What about values, ethics? It would be naive to think all refugees share our moral standards. If a person comes from a country where violence, fraud and corruption is rampant, and sometimes the only way to get ahead, then they might think those practices are acceptable here? They’re not. There has been some talk of making an ethics test a requirement for immigration. But just how do you go about that? It’s about as impractical as a test for terrorists. I’ve often wondered why we letting so many international grads into the country when our own Canadian grads can’t get jobs. It seems unfair. Ordinary citizens may find their tolerance slipping away every time they read something negative in the newspaper or on social media or perhaps experience something themselves, because so many of our opinions are influenced by our personal experiences.
When our prime minister (polite, nice hair but politically inexperienced, champion of women’s rights until one disagreed with him), proudly but naively proclaimed that Canada welcomes immigrants, he also opened the floodgates to over 40,000 illegal immigrants walking across the Canadian-US border at unofficial entry points, most fleeing possible US deportation. What he actually meant was applying for it the usual way. But can the steady stream of people wheeling their over-sized suitcases across the fields near the Quebec and western borders be considered “refugees” fleeing a war torn country, or are they “economic migrants” who have heard Canada is a good place? The social services system in the big cities like Montreal and Toronto have run out of places to put them – they are housing them in hotels and calling on federal reimbursement for the millions spent accommodating them, as Ontario is already in a major-debt crisis, (346 billion and climbing, similar to California and Greece). The refugee claimants are entitled to free social assistance, education and medical care while awaiting their hearing before the Immigration Board, for up to one year but often longer, as there aren’t enough immigration officers to process them all. They are also allowed to apply for a temporary work permit after the claim is initiated but many have children to look after and who would hire them temporarily? And just how do you sort out which ones might be ‘undesirables” – perhaps criminals or drug dealers back home. It must be a difficult process doing background checks, if they can be done at all. Recently, in an effort to stem the tide, the government enacted legislation to try and deter the “asylum-shoppers” – if they have already claimed asylum in the US then they will be deported back to await a hearing there.
Years ago, borders between the nations were more fluid. People moved to where there was work and stayed there. Most of my grandfather’s siblings went to the US. In 1913, the big Detroit car factories (GM and Ford) were just starting their production lines and needed workers, so they advertised $5/day, enticing many Canadians to move across the river. But by the 1960’s, I remember my great Aunt Bea hesitating about visiting the farm in her old age, as she did not have any papers to show the border officer. Another of my grandfather’s siblings went to Seattle to work in the logging industry in the 1920’s. When he couldn’t get work the first year, the whole family picked apples. Now, nobody wants to do that kind of manual labor anymore, so our fruit and vegetable farmers must hire Mexican or Jamaican seasonal workers through a government sponsored program. My ancestors didn’t settle in the big city, they spread out to the rural areas where land was cheap and work available and settlers needed.
Both my Irish and Dutch ancestors faced some prejudice as foreigners. The Irish were universally hated, there were so many of them taking away all the jobs, but now 1/4 of North Americans can claim some Irish descent and no one thinks anything of it. My mother remembers the teachers not liking the Dutch and foreign kids as the parents couldn’t speak English, one of the reasons most of the new immigrants prefer to stay in the big overcrowded cities. Perhaps they feel more comfortable with their own kind, but often it is the opposite of what they might expect. The people in the smaller towns may be more welcoming and the churches who were sponsoring the Syrian refugees and had raised enough money for a year to qualify, were delighted to have a family to help out.
While Canada did take in it’s share of Syrian refugees, many are still unemployed. It’s hard to find work when they can’t speak English or their English is poor. The schoolkids always do better at picking it up. For some their sponsorship money has run out and others have expressed the wish to return to their own country once things settle down – the winters here are too cold. (Yes, Canada is a great country, except for the snow and the winters that drag on for six months and the high taxes). One poor Syrian family lost all seven of their kids in a tragic house fire in Nova Scotia – such beautiful children all perished. They may have wanted the promise of a better life, but sometimes that promise isn’t fulfilled.
If a person is destitute they are glad of a safe haven anywhere, but is their new life what they expected? (My Dutch ancestors stepped off the train in Niagara Falls into a foot of snow, and the Irish crew had heard Canada was a temperate climate requiring nothing more than a straw hat!) Perhaps their lives are better overall, but are there regrets? I wonder about the caravans coming over the southern US – Mexican border – if they don’t speak English do they even know what they are facing, or are they just fleeing from a situation which is even worse? Are they aware they might be separated from their children (like my ancestors losing one son in the bush and never finding him). Or is the hope and promise of a better life for their children worth the chance?
In today’s era of entitlement, I have been reminded lately of the famous J.F. Kennedy quote “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” While each individual case may be different, the goal is the same for everyone – hopefully each immigrant will become a hard working, law abiding, contributing and tax-paying citizen of their new country.
Taxes – those necessary evils that help support our enviable social programs, and yes the taxes here (in our cradle to grave social state) can be as high as the snow. But people can’t pay taxes if they’re here illegally under the radar. If I wanted to move to Provence permanently as I hear the sun shines there 300 days of the year – and I’m there illegally and don’t pay taxes, eventually I would be sent right back to snowy Canada. And if I insisted on butter tarts from le patisserie instead of macrons I would be deported tout suite!
In addition to humanitarian concerns and human rights, each country also has the right to decide their own fate, to have a system in place which is fair and reasonable and not so costly that it deters the country from letting anyone in at all. Which is what might happen if this heated issue continues to build steam. The door will be closed to everyone. You can already see individual countries everywhere (Australia for example where immigrant boats are diverted to an island offshore), tightening up their immigration policies.
A recent UN survey states there are 227 million migrants in the world, people who have left their countries in search of work, to join their families or fleeing conflict. There are probably another billion or two who would like the opportunity to leave. 47 million migrants said they would most like to move to Canada, a nation of just 37 million. (I’m not sure how they arrived at this data other than through extrapolation). Any country with a good standard of living, offering free social services and health care is attractive, witness the desire for many of the Syrians to travel north to Denmark and Sweden. But Canada lets in just 300,000 immigrants per year. The dilemma is deciding who and how?
We may want to help everyone, but can we afford to? Canada is a big country land wise – maybe we could take in more people if we didn’t have to guarantee them so much, for so long? What if social assistance was limited to six months, could we take in twice as many? Three months, three times the amount? Or just vet the applicants and open up the border like centuries ago and let everyone fend for themselves? No, there are too many people now and the world has changed too much for that. And what about human rights?
Immigrants and asylum seekers have rights too, but sometimes a plea for help may seem like a demand, especially if there are large numbers involved, a mob of people versus an orderly process. “Let me in, support me financially while I’m waiting even if takes years, let me stay and let me appeal if you decide to deport me.” Is this a right, a plea, a hope or a demand? There’s everything good and decent and right about giving someone a helping hand, a start to a new life, and that’s what it should be, a start. Our ancestors did it, they had no other choice.
Fast forward a few decades to the future and the possible issue of mass migration and “climate refugees”. If climate change evolves, and droughts and flooding and food shortages occur all over the world, will hordes of people be leaving their counties seeking food and shelter elsewhere? If that happens more prosperous countries will simply shut their doors and take care of their own. It will be every country for themselves, and every man for themselves. Our face of humanity will be lost. It’s disappearing now. People are losing tolerance and empathy. The immigration systems are strained and overwhelmed. It’s something to think about and there are no easy answers, but we need to figure it out, sooner rather than later.
To sum up, we all came from away at some point, even those white Europeans who came over with Columbus on the Santa Maria, but surely there is some middle ground somewhere, and room for reasonable discussion and action. We need to learn to balance practicality with compassion, for the storm is coming.
PS. Your respectful thoughts and opinions are welcomed.
And because there’s always a book or two in my blogs, may I recommend some excellent reads on the refugee crisis.
A fictionalized account, the Canadian novel The Boat People by Sharon Bala explores the Sri Lanka refugee boat incident from all angles – the refugees, their history and the workers in the legal and immigration systems who have to decide who can stay.
Castaway: True Stories of Survival from Europe’s Refugee Crisis, by journalist Charlotte MacDonald-Gibson, first hand reporting mixed with personal stories, told from an observer point of view leaving you to draw your own conclusions.
Tears of Salt – by Dr. Pietro Bartolo – memoir by an Italian physician of his many years of treating the many Mediterranean refugees who washed up on his small Italian island.
They Poured Fire on Us From the Sky – The True Story of Three Lost Boys of Sudan – A heartbreaking memoir by three orphaned cousins, aged 5 to 7, who spent over ten years in a refugee camp before immigrating to the US in their teens.
First They Killed My Father – A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers – by Loung Ung – memoir of life as a child soldier in a work camp during the days of the Khmer Rouge.
(Next week I will return to my regularly scheduled non-political topics. Also, when The Tall Ships visit this summer, I hope to blog about the replica of the Santa Maria, of Christopher Columbus fame.)