I think it is safe to say that during the last provincial elections, Quebecers did not vote for the Liberal Party. Rather, I think they voted against Parti Quebecois. At the Federal level, however, while people tend to draw a parallel between the elections, the fact is that Canadians did not vote against the Conservatives. Instead, Canadians voted for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s enlightened vision for a better Canada, a vision that some may consider noble but utopic, while others may even consider naive.
Consider, for example, the promise to settle 25,000 Syrian refugees by year end in Canada. Before the electoral victory, many Canadians considered this a naïve promise. We only need to look at Op-Eds published in various newspapers across the country in the past few weeks to validate this argument.
On November 9th, however, this ephemeral election rhetoric crystallized into action when The Honourable John McCallum Minister for Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship named an Ad Hoc Committee on Refugees. The committee includes nine different Cabinet Ministers plus the Honourable John McCallum himself. The following day, he revealed that the government had already identified ten thousand possible refugees and laid out his plan to the media. Over the past dew days, we’ve been seeing multiple reports about how refugees will be screened, housed, and integrated. In fact, Toronto Star reported that Syrian refugees will face three levels of intense screening.
Then something interesting happened: Canada began to galvanize around this commitment. CTV reported that Air Canada would offer its full support to the government in airlifting Syrian refugees “to the fullest extent possible,” before the end of the year. Commercial carriers airlifting refugees is certainly not unprecedented. A close friend and pilot instructor for Pakistan International Airlines informed me that his airline was the first to airlift Syrian refugees and has performed several of these maneuvers in the past.
Then news came that Lester B. Pearson School Board would like to teach Syrian children when they come to Quebec in January, despite Bill 101 preventing them from doing so. For those that would like a refresher, Bill 101 restricts immigrants from enrolling in English schools. Despite political hurdles, the school board saw possibility and a desire to help.
On November 12th, CBC reported that McGill University Students are tutoring six young Syrians through Skype. The volunteer teacher training the students to write TOEFL exams was leaving. A group of fifteen McGill students decided to help the students continue where the previous teacher left off.
Last week, at Parliament Hill for the swearing-in ceremony of MP Marc Miller from the Ville-Marie-South West-Nun’s Island riding, I had the good fortune of speaking with an immigration lawyer. The gentlemen expressed frustration about how many of his clients did not even fluently speak their own language let alone English. How would 25000 Syrian refugees integrate?
The answer is with our help and with individual enterprise and initiatives such as the one undertaken by McGill students. Technology has enabled us to come closer together and while we are in a position to exchange knowledge and education, the fact is that cultural exchanges have been taking place for well over a decade, if not more. In all likelihood, Syrians and Iraqis watch our TV shows, read about Canadian news and FaceTime with their cousins in Canada. In fact, more than a decade ago, when I was in Pakistan, I was communicating with Canadians and learning about their day to day lives simply by observing conversations and engaging in some myself. I was perhaps twelve years old. To communicate, I used mIRC, an internet relay chat software. Since then, technology has advanced so much, that we may shrink the global village analogy and call it the local a community recreation center.
If anything, Syrians are more likely to easily integrate when compared to Afghan refugees of the late 1980s or the Ugandan refugees during the previous Trudeau era. Admittedly there are differences between Afghan, Ugandan and Syrian refugees. For one, several Afghans that I spoke to who migrated said they learned French in Afghanistan, so it was easier for them to integrate. The Ugandans – who Idi Amin expelled literally over night – brought with them business acumen and money. What will the Syrians bring? I frankly don’t know. What I do know that it’s too early to judge and it’ll never be too late to integrate them into Canadian society. I also know that the one thing all refugees have in common is that they were forced to flee. Their desire to establish themselves in Canada is sufficient enough for us to believe that they will make a spirited attempt to integrate.
Let us remember that Syrians have been looking to Canada as a new home long before the conflict brimmed, which have in fact been percolating for years. A Syrian student that Meg Rapp of the McGill group (mentioned above) teaches, said that he hopes to study IT at McGill. If this is not indicative of the spirit of hope and hard work that Syrians share – values that are undeniably Canadian – I am not sure what is.
As Canadians, we have a legacy. Not only have we done what we can to address social issues in our own backyard, we have always looked at those beyond our fences and borders to ensure that development and social issues are addressed across the world, even if it has no direct bearing on our lives. One may ask why this conversation is important in a political context. If it is not already evident, these anecdotes demonstrate how readily Canadian civil society has mobilized and their actions are direct manifestations of the Prime Minister’s vision which has inspired enlightened action in an otherwise bleak scenario.