I spent Sunday afternoon attending a fund-raising concert for Syrian immigrants. Lovely concert, but the cause was most important. The plight of refugees from the Middle East, especially Syria, has been well-documented in the media and Canada has opened its heart and its homes to those fleeing war.
This is not new in my country. From 1979 to 1980, Canada accepted 50,000 Boat People, so desperate to escape Viet Nam they took to flimsy boats, paying outrageous fees to exploiters who promised them passage to the West. Then, as now, refugees were sponsored by church groups, community groups, clubs, office groups and government. As a nation, we were proud of our compassion.
It was not always so. There are black marks in our history, like when we turned away German Jews in 1939. They were forced to return to Europe, where most ended in concentration camps.
But, by and large, Canada, and all of North America for that matter, is the story of immigration. My own Irish ancestors arrived here in the wake of the potato famine of the 1840’s. On my German side, there is a tale of a wicked stepmother. The story is that she managed to disinherit the oldest son of her husband by his first wife so that their land would go to her son. The disinherited man, my forebear, emigrated rather than be a tenant on what he considered his own land. They came to Canada and the promise of free land.
Each wave of immigrants has been met with a mixed welcome. Irish, Polish, Hungarians, Chinese have all experienced discrimination. Remember the pictures of “Irish Need Not Apply” in our history books? At the same time, prairie women set up welcoming centres to help the flood of European immigrants pouring into Canada’s west in the late nineteenth century.
I tend to think of North America as the destination for immigrants, but history shows that people have migrated all over the world since earliest times. Our own First Nations probably came to this part of the world from Asia at the time when it was possible to walk across the Bering Sea from Asia to present-day Alaska. Pre-historic migration out of Africa populated continental Europe and the British Isles.
While it is common for an established population to fear immigrants, “the other,” those others bring huge benefits. Migrants to Ireland and Cornwall brought their knowledge of tin and copper, signalling the beginning of the Bronze Age in Britain. Modern migrants in Canada settled the Prairies, joined the army, contributed to our universities, ran for parliament, raised families, paid taxes, trained as doctors and nurses and teachers and cooks. Those Boat People? They are in the forefront of sponsorship drives for Syrian refugees.
There will be clashes as Canadian society tries to absorb 25,000 refugees in a short time, refugees from a different culture, a different religion and a different clime. But the goodwill exemplified by S.P.R.I.G. and thousands of similar groups across the country is reason for hope.
My immigrant ancestors helped make this country. Today’s immigrants will do likewise.