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The moral distance between Syrian refugees and Canada evaporated with the revelation that Aylan Kurdi’s Canadian aunt made an urgent and futile application to sponsor family members to Canada.
Canadian history contains two narratives about our treatment of refugees. The first is captured by the response of Frederick Blair, the Canadian director of immigration, during World War II. Canada, like the United States, denied refuge to the doomed Jewish passengers aboard the S.S. St. Louis. When asked how many Jews Canada should admit, Blair responded “none is too many.” Legal and bureaucratic obstacles erected to exclude Jews did the job. Even in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Canada admitted only a trickle of survivors. Today, Canadians recognize the expression "none is too many" as short-hand for the shameful treatment of Jewish refugees.
The second narrative recounts Canada’s resettlement of 37,000 Hungarians fleeing the Soviet invasion in 1956; 11,000 Czechs following Prague Spring in 1968; 7,000 South Asians expelled from Uganda in 1972; a similar numberfleeing Pinochet’s Chile after 1973 and, most famously, the private and government-sponsored resettlement of about 60,000 Vietnamese from 1978 to 1980. Since then, Canada has sustained a system of private and public refugee resettlement. In 1986, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees honored these efforts by awarding the Canadian people the Nansen Medal. In 1999, Canada resettled about 5,000 Kosovars in less than two months.
Amid a drawn-out Canadian election campaign, refugees are suddenly a front-page issue. Critics are clamoring for the government to facilitate the entry of Syrians who have Canadian relatives, and to expand privately and publicly sponsored resettlement. The Conservative government’s recurrent talking point, that Canada is the most generous refugee receiving country in the world, is beliedin myriad ways : A pledge to resettle 10,000 Syrians turns out to be a gambit to fill an existing resettlement quota with Syrians, at the expense of refugees from elsewhere. Security and military experts rebut the government’s attempt to blame"security concerns" for falling drastically short of its own quota to date. The declared intent to prioritize "ethnic and religious minorities," is easy-to-read code for Christians and "good" (non-mainstream Sunni) Muslims. When asked to provide data about arrivals, the government produces random numbers that conflate immigrants and refugees, asylum seekers and resettled refugees, Syrians and Iraqis, this year and the last five years, and so on.
Since acquiring a parliamentary majority in 2011, the present government has moved toward dismantling Canada’s in-land asylum system, constricting the private refugee sponsorship regime and minimizing resettlement numbers. The arbitrary bureaucratic hurdles, the extraordinary delays, the refusal to commit resources, the rejection of airlifts and the preference for military action against ISIS over Syrian refugee resettlement is not a departure for Canada under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, but the continuation of a pattern. The government would never dare utter the words "none is too many," but the fact is that barely a trickle of Syrians are arriving, and hasty election promises by the government to expand and/or expedite resettlement cannot be trusted.
Over the past couple of weeks, thousands of Canadians have lined up all over the country to privately sponsor Syrian refugees, but they are joining a line that isn’t moving. The present government lacks the political will to make the system work. Canada’s reputation as a welcoming nation withers when measured against the current response of Germany and a few other western nations — not to mention Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. But most crucially, Canada is failing when measured against what it has the demonstrated capacity to do.