Maxime Bernier’s performance at the federal leaders debate Monday night may have been unimpressive, and at times badgering, but no doubt some ears pricked up at his assertion that he is the only party leader whose position on immigration stands apart. True enough. He calls for about 150,000 immigrants annually, half the number now admitted.
The People’s Party leader was challenged at the get-go by a debate moderator who raised Bernier’s past comments about “extreme multiculturalism” and his use of the words “ghettos” and “tribes” to describe new Canadians.
Bernier will be lucky to win his own seat in Quebec and his actions in the debate probably didn’t win him a groundswell of supporters anywhere else. But the emphasis on immigration was notable. Slashing immigration in half, which could have detrimental impacts on the economy and growth of the country, would represent a huge number of people refused entry to Canada. But it’s not really about the numbers. It was the underlying message. Bernier was signaling to potential supporters that immigration is generally undesirable, with all the attendant impulses that message is intended to convey.
Hours before the debate, an Angus Reid Institute poll indicated that Canadians are split on the issue – and leaning in the direction of less immigration and tougher treatment for asylum-seekers. Forty percent of respondents said Canada takes in too many refugees, while 13% said we accept too few.
Bernier may not be the best messenger for the anti-immigration idea, but it is clear that there is a constituency in Canada for a politics that is exclusionary and plays on discriminatory tropes. All the main political parties are admirably standing firm against this impulse, for now. But it is worth keeping a close eye on this trend and reminding ourselves regularly that Canada is not immune from xenophobia.
Bill 21, Quebec’s law that forbids most public employees from displaying any religious symbols like a turban, a Magen David or a hijab, may become an issue in the federal election. On CBC Radio’s political program The House last weekend, MPs representing the Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic parties all took effectively the same position: the law is discriminatory but provinces have the right to proclaim their own laws and, what’s more, the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause means Quebec can pretty much do whatever it wants.
There is a political calculation in all this, of course. Many Quebeckers support this law and any federal party needs to appeal to a chunk of these voters in order to succeed in the province during next month’s vote. As a result, party leaders are mostly making the right noises about this discriminatory law, while hoping to move on to the next topic ASAP.
With federal leaders basically throwing up their hands on the issue, which calls into question the most fundamental rights of Canadians of all religions, what can be done?
One individual interviewed on the program is a teacher who is Sikh. Her choice was to move from Quebec to British Columbia, where she could continue her chosen profession without diminishing her religious beliefs, which include wearing a turban.
If federal leaders will not act forcefully, perhaps leaders in the provinces outside Quebec can do something. Throughout history, Canada has been enriched by refugees and immigrants who sought freedom and opportunity – our gains roughly equating the loss to their places of origin. Why not apply the same principle to inter-provincial relations?
Perhaps provinces like British Columbia should roll out the welcome mat for teachers, school administrators, wildlife officers, Crown prosecutors and other civil servants from Quebec who no longer feel welcome there. Actively recruiting these experienced professional people of different cultures and religions would strengthen our communities and send a message to Quebec that cultural difference is an asset, not a liability.
In the absence of forceful federal leadership on this front, it would be encouraging to see provincial governments stepping up where they can.
Sui Khuu and her husband Dar, with their two children. (photo from Shirley Barnett)
In the last couple of years, Jewish congregations and groups in Vancouver have sponsored refugees from Syria, acts of humanitarianism that are inspired in part from ancient and recent history in which Jewish people were strangers in a new land. But this generosity is not new. Forty years ago, in 1979, a similar phenomenon occurred with Vietnamese refugees fleeing conflict in Southeast Asia.
The so-called “boat people” – about two million Vietnamese – fled their homeland in the years following the war there, which ended in 1975. Across Canada, churches, synagogues, service clubs and other groups came together to sponsor refugees. Among these were several B.C. Jewish groups.
Forty years later, one of the refugees sponsored by a group of Jewish friends reflected on the experience.
Sui Khuu was 5 years old when she arrived in Vancouver with her 4-year-old sister Ngoc Lien (informally called Ileen), her father Vinh and grandparents Namson Khuu and Kim Thi Kiu.
“My mom passed away in [a refugee camp in] Thailand,” Khuu told the Independent recently. “She was five months pregnant. She had malaria and she passed away.”
Khuu has no recollections of her life before Canada, but deeply embedded in her memory is the warm welcome she and her family received from the Jewish sponsors as soon as they arrived here.
Four couples joined together to guarantee to the government of Canada that they would ensure the sponsored family got a secure start in their new country: Peter and Shirley Barnett, Abe and Esther Nobleman, Buddy and Cherie Smith and Paul and Edwina Heller.
With the support of Canadian Jewish Congress and Jean Gerber, who worked there at the time, numerous groups banded together to sponsor Vietnamese immigrants, including Beth Israel, Temple Sholom, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and Emanu-El in Victoria, among others.
“Each group had a name and our group chose the name ‘Hope,’” Shirley Barnett recalled. She has kept in close touch with the family across the decades and remembers how Sui was just 7 or 8 years old when she served as translator for her father and grandparents at government meetings and with doctors, teachers and such.
“By the time she was 9, she was the head of the family, because the grandparents never learned to speak English,” Barnett said. The father worked for the Barnetts at their Elephant and Castle restaurant for years. He is now semi-retired. The grandparents have both passed away.
“They were incredibly resourceful, successful,” said Barnett about the family. The girls finished high school and Ileen became an accountant, while Sui is coming up on 29 years as a pharmacy assistant at London Drugs.
“How did they get the strength to turn out so great?” Barnett asked. “The answer came from their grandmother. I remember one day, as a little one, Sui forgot to take her lunch to school and Grandma packed her lunch and found her way to school without speaking English and Sui told me later she found her grandmother wandering in the hallway just trying to find out what classroom she was in to bring her lunch.”
While the grandparents never learned English, they found ways to communicate.
“In those years, my ex-husband, Peter, was still fluent in French and he was able to talk to Grandpa a bit in French,” said Barnett.
Khuu recalls something beyond verbal between her grandmother and Shirley Barnett.
“I can’t imagine how she and Shirley communicated at that time but they totally understood each other,” the daughter said. “That was a great memory. My grandmother was trying to tell Shirley [something] and Shirley totally understood what she wanted her to do.”
She also remembers the Barnetts and Nobelmans picking the family up to take them to dinner, delivering Christmas gifts and taking family members to doctors’ and dentists’ appointments.
“Cherie Smith was in charge of finding them clothes,” Barnett said. “I was in charge of getting them enrolled in a preschool.”
“Shirley got a house for us on East 12th Avenue in Vancouver,” Khuu said. Both girls, now in their 40s, are married and each has a son and a daughter of their own.
Seeing Syrians coming to Canada now evokes memories for Khuu.
“It’s hard when they have young families like what my grandparents and my dad went through,” she said. She is saddened when she hears comments that are unwelcoming toward new Canadians and sees the circle of life in the next generation of refugees finding a home here.
Barnett is effusive about how Sui and Ileen have turned out: “By luck or determination or resilience or whatever they had, they turned out really well. They are just lovely, responsible, charming, caring people.”
The deed is finally done. For years, Quebec politicians have been talking about secularism, or laïcité, proposing a range of actions to ban the presence of visible religious symbols among government employees. On Sunday, following a weekend of almost round-the-clock debate, the Coalition Avenir Québec majority in the National Assembly passed Bill 21. The law bans symbols such as the crucifix, turban, hijab and kippah for provincial employees in positions of authority, such as judges, police, prosecutors, court clerks and schoolteachers.
The bill was met with lamentations and anger from the opposition. Catherine Dorion, a member of the National Assembly representing the left-wing party Québec solidaire spoke powerfully in favour of individual liberty and the right to exhibit religious identity.
“Each person in this room who will vote for Bill 21 will bear the responsibility for this first great breach in the dike we had proudly erected to protect the fundamental rights of all Quebecers,” she said.
The vote came a day after a similarly contentious debate on another bill, which addresses the province’s agreement with the federal government over immigration to Quebec. On the one hand, the bill aims to ensure that immigration reflects the province’s labour requirements, which is justifiable. On the other hand, the bill also permits the creation of a “values test” that new Quebecers would have to pass before admission to permanent residency. A test of this nature is one thing in theory – extreme examples like female genital mutilation are raised as justifications – but it is something else in practice.
Government measures to adjudicate an individual’s beliefs is a recipe for disaster. Certainly we would like to see people with hateful or violent attitudes toward particular cultural groups prevented from entering the country, or rehabilitated if they are already here. There are programs and policies in Canada to address this problem and they should be strengthened. But applying what amounts to a form of prior restraint on the ideas and beliefs of new Canadians by a government with limited respect for civil liberties crosses a perilous line.
The religious symbols law parallels the immigration law in its flouting of civil liberties, but diverges importantly in a number of ways. It applies to people who are already Canadian (for the most part, at least), which is a more grievous affront than putting up barriers for non-citizens.
In responding to criticism, Quebec Premier François Legault declared: “Someone once said, beware of those who say they like the people but do not listen to what the people want.”
This language reflects a populism we have seen in Europe as well as North America, but which has been thankfully rare in this country. The idea that governments should do whatever “the people” want invites a tyranny of the majority that is almost destined to trample on individual rights, especially the rights of members of minority communities. It bears stating that, in Quebec, in order to deliver the will of the people, the assembly had to clip the wings of democracy not once but twice, invoking closure on debate on both bills and, in the case of Bill 21, promising to use the Canadian Constitution’s Notwithstanding Clause to override what even the government of Quebec acknowledges is a unconstitutional infringement on individual rights.
We are seeing flare-ups elsewhere in Canada of how some of “the people” would like to see public policy progress. On the same busy weekend, a rally in downtown Vancouver against transgender rights and opposing the province’s progressive sexual education agenda turned nasty (if the mission of the event wasn’t nasty enough) when counter-protesters showed up to confront them. At the rally were the Soldiers of Odin, a far-right group, people wearing yellow vests, the symbol of an amorphous movement that began in France and has attracted extremists, and at least one leading member of the People’s Party of Canada, a new populist party that seems determined to stoke a range of fears and prejudices in the lead-up to the federal election this fall.
Violence also erupted last weekend at a pride parade in Hamilton, Ont., when protesters showed up at the celebration. A local politician laid blame for the violence, which included punching and choking, on “far-right evangelicals” who he said were “just there to sucker-punch people.”
All of this is to say that Canada is not immune to extremism or even politically motivated violence. There is, of course, an important line between the violence in Hamilton and the laws that were rammed through Quebec’s legislature. Violence deserves universal condemnation while passionate disagreements over politics – even laws we see as repressive and excessive – are justifiable and welcome. Still, these incidents all reflect different approaches to “othering” – the idea that “we” are under threat from “them.”
What is encouraging is hearing the voices of those forced to defend the values of inclusion and respect for diversity. There was eloquence on the opposition side of Quebec’s National Assembly last weekend and, in response to the altercations in Hamilton and Vancouver, admirable recommitment by many to the values that we genuinely hope will represent the Canada we hope to create. This is also a reminder to speak up, so that when politicians say they are doing what “the people” want, what they mean is the will of people who pursue inclusion, acceptance and diversity.
קנדה רוצה מיליון מהגרים נוספים בשלוש השנים הקרובות
קנדה מונה למעלה משלושים ושמונה תושבים החיים בשטח ענקי המשתרע על פני כעשרה מיליון קמ”ר. מדובר בשטח אף גדול מזה של ארצות הברית (רק רוסיה מחזיקה בשטח הגדול מזה של קנדה). קנדה מבקשת להכניס לשטחה מיליון מהגרים עד סוף שנת אלפים עשרים ואחד.
“במידה רבה, הודות לאזרחים חדשים שקיבלנו בברכה במהלך ההיסטוריה שלנו, קנדה התפתחה לכדי מדינה חזקה ותוססת שכולנו נהנים ממנה”, אומר שר ההגירה, הפליטים והאזרחות, אחמד חוסיין. זאת במסגרת דין וחשבון שנתי על ההגירה לקנדה, שהוגש בראשית השנה לפרלמנט. במדד הפיתוח האנושי (האיץ’. די.איי) קנדה מדורגת במקום השניים עשר והמכובד בעולם, מתוך מאה שמונים ותשעה מדינות.
הדו”ח השנתי בנושאי הגירה מבליט שלא במקרה את הצלחת המהגרים המגיעים לקנדה. כיום כעשרים אחוז מתושבי קנדה נחשבים למהגרים (נולדו בארץ אחרת המחוצה לה). זאת לעומת פחות מארבעה עשר אחוז של מהגרים בארה”ב השכנה. בשני העשורים האחרונים הגיעו לקנדה כשישה מיליון מהגרים. לדברי שר ההגירה, הפליטים והאזרחות הקנדי, המדינה אינה מפלה מהגרים על בסיס גזע, לאום, מוצא אתני, דת או כל מגדר אחר. הוא מציין כי קנדה כיום היא המדינה המובילה בעולם בניהול מהלך ההגירה המורכב. השר חוסיין אומר כי קנדה בהצלחה מרובה בוחרת את המהגרים שתורמים לה ביותר, לעומת אלה שלא יתרמו לה.
מערך ההגירה הקנדי מבוסס על שיטת ניקוד (הנקראת סי.אר.אס) לפי מספר קריטוריונים. בהם: גיל, השכלה, שפה, ניסיון בעבודה וקשרים בקנדה (בתחומי משפחה, עבודה או לימודים). בשל הביקוש הגדול להגר לקנדה הדירוג המינימלי של שיטת הניקוד עלה בראשית השנה מרמה של ארבע מאות ארבעים ותשעה לרמה של ארבע מאות ושבעים. בכל מקרה הניקוד המקסימלי למגישי הבקשה להגר מגיע לאלף ומאתיים.
מנסיוני האישי בהגירה מישראל לקנדה
עזבתי את תל אביב ועברתי לוונקובר לפני כארבע עשרה שנים. תמיד חלמתי לגור בחו”ל. במהלך השנים הבנתי שיהיה קל יותר להגר לקנדה. מה גם שחבר טוב שלי מישראל עבר לוונקובר כארבע שנים לפני.
בדקתי באתר רשות ההגירה הקנדי באם יש לי מספיק נקודות להתחיל בהליך ההגירה. בעזרת ההשכלה הגבוהה שרכשתי בישראל, ניסיוני הממושך בעבודה בעיתונות ושליטה בשפה האנגלית – התברר לי שאני עומד במכסת הנקודות הרצויה להגירה.
הגשתי את מסמכי ההגירה לקונסוליה הקנדית בתל אביב והמתנתי לבאות. לא שיערתי בנפשי כי אאלץ להמתין זמן רב עד קבלת האישור להגר. מתברר שבאותם ימים החליטה מחלקת ההגירה הקנדית להקשיח את תנאי ההגירה. לכן שונתה שיטת הניקוד והתווספו תנאים חדשים. אך כאן נוצרה בעייה קשה באשמת מחלקת ההגירה הקנדית: היא החליטה להטיל את התנאים החדשים גם על אלה שכבר פתחו בהליכי ההגירה. זה כלל כמובן גם אותי. בפועל מדובר בהחלטה שמנוגדת לחוק כיוון שאי אפשר להחיל תנאים חדשים על מי שכבר פועל לפי תנאים קודמים. אמר לי בזמנו עורך דין קנדי שאני יכול לתבוע את ממשלת קנדה בנושא. אני וויתרתי אך נדמה לי שיש אחרים שאכן תבעו את הממשלה.
מכל מקום בעקבות שינוי שיטת הניקוד נוצר בלגאן גדול במערכת ההגירה. אפילו בקונסוליה הקנדית בתל אביב לא ידעו מה להגיד בנושא. לבסוף לאור התנאים החדשים נאלצתי לעבור מבחן באנגלית, ברמה של מי שמתעד ללמוד באחת ממוסדות הלימוד בחו”ל. הליך ההגירה התעקב ונמשך בסופו של דבר כשלוש שנים, עד ליום המיוחל שבו קיבלתי את האישור להגר לכאן.
ישראלים המבקשים לברר פרטים על הליך קבלת תושבות קנדית, נתקלו בנציגי חברת פרו איי.סי.סי שניסו להונות אותם. כך נטען בכתבה במדור הכלכלי של עיתון הארץ – דה מארקר. עוד נטען בכתבה כי נציגי החברה טוענים שהם עוזרים בבקשות לתושבות מטעם שגרירות קנדה, ומוכנים לעזור לישראלים אם ישלמו חמש מאות ושמונים דולר, ויעבירו להם את פרטי כרטיס האשראי שלהם. משגרירות קנדה בתל אביב נמסר בתגובה כי לחברת פרו איי.סי. סי אין קשר למשרד ההגירה, פליטים ואזרחות, וממשלת קנדה רואה בחומרה כל ניסיון להונות בתחום האזרחות או ההגירה. אם מישהו מציג עצמו כנציג השגרירות או משרד ההגירה ומציע מעמד הגירה או אזרחות בטלפון זו הונאה. מחברת פרו איי.סי.סי לא נמסרה תגובה לעיתון הישראלי.
בשבועות האחרונים מופיעה מודעה בפייסבוק מטעם פרו איי.סי.סי ובה ההצעה לבדוק זכאות לאזרחות קנדית. ישראלים שנכנסים ללינק מקבלים לאחר זמן קצר שיחה טלפונית, המוצגת באפליקציות לזיהוי שיחה כשיחה משגרירות קנדה, ובה אדם המציג עצמו כעובד שם ומסביר את המשמעות של הגשת בקשה לתושבות. עיתונאית דה מארקר השאירה את פרטיה באתר החברה ונציגה התקשר אליה. הוא הציג עצמו בשם וויליאם סאנלי עובד פרו איי.סי.סי, מבלי לציין שהחברה אינה שייכת לשגרירות קנדה. סאנלי פירט את ההיתרונות בהגירה לקנדה, מערכת הבריאות המתקדמת, לימודים בחינם, עזרה בפתיחת עסק ועוד.
לשאלת הכתבת מדוע נוקטת השגרירות הקנדית בגישה פרו-אקטיבית ומגייסת אנשים ממדינות אחרות לעבור אליה, טען סאנלי, כי קנדה מבקשת להגדיל את האוכלוסייה במדינה ומקבלת בכל חודש שבעה עשר אלף תושבים חדשים, העונים על דרישות מסוימות. בהן: גיל, רמת השכלה, ניסיון תעסוקתי ואנגלית ברמה גבוהה. לאחר שהכתבת ענתה על מספר שאלות סאנלי הודיע לה כי היא עומדת בדרישות, ועליה למלא טופס שישלח אליה דרך האימייל, ולשלם מייד חמש מאות ושמונים דולר. סאנלי הפעיל לחץ על הכתבת והודיע לה כי התחיל כבר בהליך הרישום שלה, ואם היא תעצור אותו, היא תאלץ להמתין כשנה, עד שתוכל להגיש בקשה חדשה. לדברי סאנלי אם הכתבת לא תפעל מייד להגשת הבקשה להגירה היא תסומן על ידי השגרירות, ולכן תאלץ להמתין שנה תמימה להגשת בקשה חדשה.
בשגרירות קנדה בתל אביב מסרו כי הם פתחו בבדיקה בנושא פעילות חברת פרו איי. סי.סי. בשגרירות ביקשו לציין כי אלה המבקשים להגר למדינה נוטים לעתים קרובות להסתמך על יועצי הגירה, שיעזרו להם לטפל בנושא. עם זאת הם עלולים ליפול לידי נוכלים. ממשלת קנדה החליטה להשקיע השנה מיליוני דולרים, כדי להגן על האזרחים והמועמדים להגירה, כדי שלא יפלו במלכודות של הנוכלים. עוד נמסר כי משרד ההגירה לא מעניק יחס מיוחד למי שפועל להגר באמצעות יועץ, וזה לא מבטיח להם דבר. כל הטפסים הנחוצים להגירה נמצאים באתר משרד ההגירה ואפשר להוריד אותם ללא תשלום. גם רשימת יועצי ההגירה החוקיים נמצאים באתר. אגב חברת פרו איי.סי.סי לא נמצאת ברשימת היועצים המוסמכים לטפל בהגירה לקנדה.
בדקתי את האתר של פרו איי.סי.סי ומצאתי שמשרדי החברה ממקומים ברחוב הייסטינג 1021 בוונקובר. פרו איי.סי.סי מציגה עצמה כחברה מובילה עם רקורד מוכח בתחום ההגירה, והבאת מהגרים לקנדה מכל העולם. מהגרים שהם אנשי מקצוע מיומנים, אנשי עסקים, סטודנטים וחברי משפחה. בחברה מציינים עוד כי הם ליוו כבר אלפים שהגרו לקנדה. בדף החברה בפייסבוק מפורסם כי יש לה כששת אלפים וחמש מאות “לייקס”.
Welcomers of the Alsedawe family at Vancouver International Airport Jan. 21. (Adele Lewin Photography)
More than three years ago, Hanan Alsedawe’s family story of survival began as a waiting game on both sides of the ocean. But, on Jan. 21, 2019, the wait became a welcome as Hanan and her children stepped foot on Canadian soil.
In early 2015, congregations Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah began the long process of sponsoring and reuniting a Syrian refugee family with family who already lived in Vancouver. We worked with the government-approved sponsorship agreement holder – the Anglican Diocese – to prepare and submit our private sponsorship application to the Canadian government. It was a journey requiring perseverance by our coordinating committee, and patience and understanding from the many donors of both synagogues who demonstrated belief in our efforts regardless of the length of time it was taking.
On the Jordanian-Saudi Arabian border, in the Azraq Refugee Camp, Hanan and her two children – Mahros and Safa – shared limited resources with more than 55,000 refugees. Their extended family had made their way to Canada under government sponsorship, but Hanan had stayed behind, in Duma, Syria, because her husband, Raslan Abdulmalik, had been taken away by Syrian government forces and she had no idea of what had happened to him. She waited, she hoped, she prayed, but, eventually, with no sign of Raslan being alive, yet with no confirmation that he was either in prison or dead, Hanan decided to escape from Duma. She made her way with her two young children to Amman, Jordan, and eventually was placed in the Azraq refugee camp. There, she waited for a miracle.
Sept. 2, 2015, was a watershed moment that captured the hearts of people around the world and galvanized Canada into accepting 25,000 Syrian refugees into the country. Hanan’s mother and five siblings came to our shores under those auspices. But it would take years of work and hope to bring the last of Fayzeh Alsedawe’s daughters, with her children, to join the family here.
More than three years after initiating the sponsorship, Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah fulfilled Hanan’s dreams of joining her mother and siblings in Vancouver. On Jan. 21, representatives of both synagogues were on hand at Vancouver International Airport to welcome their sponsored family.
On any given day, at any given time, the international arrivals hall at YVR is a kaleidoscope of colours. On that Monday in January, the full spectrum was visible, augmented by the cacophony of diverse languages and a blending of bodies. Clearly, Canada is at its most multicultural in an airport setting.
Also palpable was the range of emotions. There was the full gamut of human feelings on display among those awaiting families, friends and strangers to enter the hall. Contrasts abounded: joy competed with sadness, anticipation with angst, relief with uncertainty. Each person arriving searched for familiar faces, welcoming arms and handwritten signs, indicating that someone was there for them.
In this swirl of humanity were representatives of Beth Israel and Beth Tikvah, their dream to sponsor a refugee family from Syria finally reaching fruition. Sharing this moment – indeed, at the centre of this moment – was the local family: the mother, Fayzeh, and her five adult children, Hanadi, Huda, Maha, Hatem and Mohammed, who had arrived in Canada three years ago and had waited anxiously to be reunited with the remainder of their family.
There was something so surreal, yet so tangible and in the moment at that airport reunion. Words are inadequate to describe the outpouring of relief and love when Hanan and her children emerged in the arrivals hall. An invisible bubble enclosed the family, as they looked at each other for the first time in more than four years. And then, quickly, the bubble grew, as our delegation surrounded the family with our own contributions of hugs, gifts and welcome. One gift in particular seemed to unite the new family with our Canadian sponsors – a Whitecaps soccer ball given to 13-year-old Mahros. Soccer, a universal language for children and adults alike!
Every family has a history, a story that captures the essence of their character and experiences. The Alsedawes’ story is one of courage and hope. Their life in Syria was destroyed by war but their determination to escape, under circumstances almost impossible for us to comprehend, means that, today, their story is one of hope and gratefulness. In Hanan’s own words to the committee, “I thank God and I thank you.”
Settlement requires patience. Never has the Hebrew word savlanut meant so much to our small committee. Patience was required in the very lengthy process from application to arrival. Patience is required as we work to settle the children in school, the mother in English-as-a-second-language classes and the family into a way of life totally foreign to them. Within weeks of their arrival, the family had visited a family physician, dental appointments were booked, the children were enrolled in public school, bank accounts were set up and, important in this day and age, cellphones and tablets were provided to them.
Our year of sponsorship has only just begun, but this journey has been undertaken with the generosity of many people. Our donors have compassion and commitment, and understand that, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Rosalind Karbyis co-chair, with Miranda Burgess, of Beth Israel Congregation’s Committee for the Syrian Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.
Sometimes in complex or far-reaching events, a small, seemingly less significant factor can illuminate a larger understanding. Successive efforts by Quebec governments to enforce laïcité, a policy of compulsory secularism in the delivery of public services, have included a minor exception that really speaks to the inequality such efforts seek to create.
Since 1936, a not-at-all-subtle crucifix has hung above the speaker’s chair in the legislative chamber of the Quebec National Assembly. A week ago, the Quebec government voted to take down the crucifix as part of a much broader policy against religious symbolism in the province’s public life. Even as they proposed policies that would ban religiosity in the forms of Muslim, Sikh and Jewish head coverings and other items, such as pendants with stars of David or crucifixes, previous governments have contended that the legislature’s cross is exceptional. In the narrative advanced across a decade of this debate, the cross represents an indisputable aspect of Quebec history. Reading between the lines of this argument, the crucifix – the definitive symbol of Christianity – transcends its religious particularity, presumably on the idea that Christianity was an inherent part of Quebec’s history and development.
The message of this exceptionalism is clear as a bell: this place was founded on Christian principles and those of other religious traditions, despite whatever contemporary contributions they might make to Quebec society, rank below the founding religion even as we seek to erase all of them from the public eye. Christianity, in other words, is a first among unequals.
To their credit, the government of Premier François Legault is not excepting the crucifix from this latest bill aiming to impose secularism. The bill, which was introduced last week by the centre-right Coalition de l’avenir du Quebec government elected last year, has all the characteristics that have been discussed in recent years by various governments intent on erasing outward appearances of religious difference. In the provision of government services in which an employee has “coercive” influence – including police, prison guards, judges and teachers – kippot, chadors, turbans, kirpans, crucifixes and anything else that speaks to an individual’s religious affiliation will be banned.
The decision on the National Assembly’s crucifix at least pays lip service to the idea of equanimity in the crushing of religious identity. But it cannot erase the foolishness and inherent injustice of the move. The Quebec government makes absolutely no defence against the charge that the bill contravenes Canada’s and Quebec’s constitutional protections of individual and religious rights. In introducing the new law, the government stated it would use the notwithstanding clause, exempting the law from those constitutional safeguards.
The injustice is a matter of principle. The government – backed, according to public opinion polls, by most Quebecers – is fully prepared to infringe on the rights of people who heed obligations to display certain outward evidence of religiosity. Depending on interpretation and levels of observance, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other people are required to wear identifiably religious objects. Lay Christians, by contrast, are not. A crucifix necklace is a choice, not a requirement. For observant Jewish men, a kippah is not optional.
On a related front, it is illuminating to hear non-Muslims discuss whether a chador, hijab or niqab is a cultural or a religious requirement. Over the years, some who have justified banning head coverings have contended that Muslim law does not require them. The fact that many or most of those making this case are non-Muslims adds insult to injury: not only will we argue that we don’t want you wearing your religious garb, we will go so far as to argue that you can’t even interpret your religion correctly.
Aside from the principle of the matter, the nuts and bolts of the proposed law guarantee confusion and offence. The bill grandfathers existing employees, meaning that a currently employed teacher who wears some form of religious accoutrement will be free to continue doing so, but a new hire would not. More bizarre is that, if they were to receive a promotion – from teacher to vice-principal, say – the grandfather clause would be removed, and so would the religious article. The opportunities for mayhem abound.
Ostensibly, the bill, which is really the culmination of years of discussion around “reasonable accommodation” and similar concepts in Quebec society, is intended to preserve the importance of Quebec culture. Understandably, as an undeniably distinct cultural and linguistic minority vastly outnumbered by anglophone North Americans, Quebecers are vigilant in preserving their uniqueness. But it is tough to discern any substantive advantages this bill will grant to Quebec’s distinct culture other than to underscore assumptions of intolerance and insularity. The genuine intent of the law – and the larger ideology that drives it – is to encourage assimilation into a dominant (French, nominally Christian) population. In a visit to France last year, Legault didn’t mince words. He wants a Quebec that is more “European.”
Many Canadians outside Quebec accept that some accommodations are necessary to save what makes Quebec unique. We see this as something apart from the xenophobic nationalisms sweeping Europe. But what is inherent in Quebec society that would not also be found in Swiss or Finnish or Hungarian society to justify banning symbols of different cultures? If Quebecers have a right to “protect” their cultural identity through admittedly discriminatory laws, why wouldn’t Polish and Ukrainian people?
Ultimately, a law preventing religiously observant people from displaying the evidence of their faith will not strengthen or save pur laine Quebec society, unless by doing so it discourages such people from coming to Quebec in the first place. And there’s the key to understanding this bill.
One of the first steps Legault took as premier was to reduce Quebec’s share of immigrants by 20%. This was about the same time he went to Paris and declared he wanted more migrants who are European. With this in mind, the secularism bill is probably less about the people who are already in Quebec than about sending a message to those considering a move there. The bill says stay away, Quebec does not welcome you.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, an 18-year-old Saudi
woman, was publicly welcomed to Canada Saturday. She had spent a week in a
hotel in Thailand, asking for asylum in a Western country, saying that she did
not want to return to her allegedly abusive family, whom she says have
threatened to kill her.
Whether her family is indeed abusive has not
been proven. But two factors make that issue somewhat moot. First, guardianship
laws in Saudi Arabia require women to get permission from a father, husband,
brother, son or other male relative in order to work, travel, marry, receive
certain medical treatments and even to leave the house. This is codified
inequality and abuse against about half the population of the country. In
principle, that law alone should make all Saudi women eligible for refugee
claims in democratic countries. Additionally, al-Qunun renounced Islam, which
is an offence punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
The teen’s arrival was a bit of a media
festival, with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland embracing al-Qunun at
The ostentatious greeting was extra-weighted
because Canada is in an ongoing diplomatic spat with the Saudis. After Freeland
tweeted a criticism of Saudi arrests of civil and women’s rights activists last
year, the Saudis threw Canada’s ambassador out of the country and threatened to
withdraw thousands of Saudi medical students from Canada, among other
responses. The public greeting of a now-prominent Saudi dissident by a senior
Canadian government official will be seen as a provocation, and perhaps it was
intended as such.
Some commentators note that al-Qunun jumped the
queue, not only flown to Canada to make a refugee claim, but accepted
immediately as a refugee. The global visibility of her case resulted in a
country – ours – leaping to accept her, even while one percent of refugees are
resettled in a given year.
Also, some diplomats with Saudi experience are
warning that the young woman should not be used as a political football – both
because that could put her safety at risk and because it could unnecessarily
enflame existing tensions.
David Chatterson, a former Canadian ambassador
to Saudi Arabia, told the CBC that he worried about precedents.
“What happens the next time a teenage girl or
adult woman from Saudi Arabia flees her family and declares herself to no
longer be a Muslim, does that mean automatic sanctuary?” he asked.
Of course, diplomatic idealism is always
tempered by economic and other realities. The CBC obtained, through an Access
to Information request, evidence that the federal government heard concerns
from Canadian businesses about their interests being jeopardized when
Freeland’s tweets to the Saudis raised the ire of the kingdom’s rulers. On the
flip side, Canada does not have as many economic ties to the Saudis as many
European and other democratic countries, and this might give us a little more
freedom to criticize. The U.S. president has already stated explicitly that he
will not endanger American economic interests by contesting Saudi treatment of
dissidents – including the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post
writer Jamal Khashoggi.
Of 149 countries rated by the World Economic
Forum in its annual report on gender equality, Saudi Arabia came 141st. Canada
cannot free every one of the 16 million or so Saudi women, but we can ensure
freedom for this one.
Yes, al-Qunun did effectively “jump the queue.”
But, at the moment when the whole world was watching, that queue-jumping
allowed Canada to take a principled stand for gender equality and for the
freedom of – and from – religion.
Maxime Bernier quit the Conservative party last week, at the precise moment that Conservatives from across the country were gathering in Halifax for their national convention, preparing for the federal election that is 13 months away.
Canadian political history would suggest that the former cabinet minister’s departure and his promise to form a new federal political party will be little more than a footnote in the history books when all is written.
The ostensible point of division between Bernier, who came a very close second to Andrew Scheer in last year’s Conservative leadership contest, is supply management. Supply management is an agricultural policy that limits supply in an attempt to stabilize prices so that Canadian farmers can make a decent living. It’s the reason we pay what we do for cheese, milk and poultry and it is prefaced on the understanding that the few extra dollars we pay weekly keeps the agricultural sector viable.
Bernier, who lambasted his former party over the issue, is correct. Support for such meddling in the economy is antithetical to conservative economic values. But it is an oddly Canadian consensus by which parties across the spectrum essentially accede to the status quo for political, if not policy, reasons. Opponents of Bernier in last year’s leadership race expressed fears that his opposition to supply management would undermine the Conservatives precisely where they are most popular: in rural Canada.
If less interventionist economic policies become the basis for Bernier’s new political party, it is hard to imagine how it will catch fire among Canadian voters. From a political standpoint, such a platform seems like a loser from the gate.
But there is a potential wild card in this scenario. Though he skirted the subject during his news conference last week, Bernier’s recent social media statements play to xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiments. This, far more than economics, has the potential to get the attention of Canadian voters.
The Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to be associated with openness and a welcoming diversity, which contrasts nicely with developments to the south. But a recent poll suggests Canadians may not be as settled on this approach as some of us would like to believe.
The poll asked whether Canadians believed that there are too few, too many or the right number of immigrants to Canada. Overall, 18% of Canadians said there are too few immigrants coming to Canada, while 38% said there were too many and another 38% said the numbers were about right. The poll’s breakdown by party label indicates just how divisive this discussion could become. Only 12% of self-declared Liberals said that Canada has too many immigrants, while 73% of Conservatives hold that position.
Canadians, to an extent, have avoided opening a Pandora’s box in the form of a national discussion about immigration, perhaps happy in our complacency and self-image as a welcoming place. If Bernier’s new party – or, indeed, if the Conservatives – see an opening, we may be about to lift the lid somewhat on this issue.
If Bernier decides that he has nothing to lose and something to gain from upsetting accepted wisdom, it won’t necessarily prove a winning formula for his new party. However, if, by raising these topics, he forces other parties to articulate more specifically the generalized approach to multiculturalism and diversity that we take for granted, we may be headed for a reckoning on immigration, diversity and openness.
The election of Doug Ford as premier of Ontario suggests that populist messages are not anathema to Canadian voters. The Quebec provincial election, now underway, may very well provide a test case for some of these ideas that challenge our cherished notions of diversity.
When voter turnout hovers around the 50% mark, mobilizing one’s political base can be as crucial as convincing the undecided. If suspicion of outsiders appears likely to excite an identifiable core of the electorate, ambitious politicians will certainly consider how they might benefit by exploiting it.
Confronted by a heckler in Quebec last week, the prime minister shut her down by dismissing her as racist. It turns out, she may well be. But she also may not be the voice in the wilderness that some, including the prime minister, would like to believe. These people, too, will demand to be represented in Parliament and in the national discussion.
The rest of us, then, will need to have more than happy axioms and comforting self-satisfaction if we are to successfully defend diversity, inclusiveness and the social and economic value of new Canadians.