The Tamils’ Gift: Some Needed National Values Exploration

I think one of the key issues in all my questions about the Tamil ship the other day is what kind of Canada do we want. Are we really open to visitors, immigrants, refugees? If there is a federal election this fall, the G20, the long-form census and how we ought to treat “visitors” like the Tamils should define our debates.

What kind of people do we want to join our country?

Should we take no refugees, some, more, less, all?

Do we believe in the moral of providing asylum for those who are persecuted? I sure do.

Canada’s involvement in the abandonment of Rwanda in 1994 contributed something to the debate about our identity and integrity as a people, as did how we treated the Jews aboard the St. Louis in 1939 when Canada sent a ship of Jews away from asylum.

One useful analogy, I think, is how Canada commits to the international moral norm of responding when a plane crashes in our territory. Canada spent $57 million on the investigation alone of Swissair 111 because there is this notion that it’s the right thing to do. And if you have any connections to people of or near Peggy’s Cove, you’ll know that that plane crash has forever altered our identity, largely for the better, I’d conclude.

I remember TV documentaries exploring the lives of the people of Peggy’s Cove and the relationships they formed with the families and friends of those who died on the crash. How such profound human connections can come from such tragedy is at once not at all surprising, but also very moving.

What about refugees?

“Since the Conservatives came into in power, the number of approved asylum claims has dropped by 56%.”

Personally? This is not my Canada.

I do not agree with what I would call a kind of xenophobia with Australia’s approach to uninvited guests. The Church of England in Australia has strongly opposed it on humanitarian grounds. Whether theirs  is a racist policy, I couldn’t say, not being familiar enough with it. But from what I know of it, I don’t want my Canada to continue to be less and less of a safe haven for the vulnerable of the world.

But then again, judging from how Canada suspended its constitution and mistreated its own citizens in Toronto six weeks ago, and considering how Canada has been a serious anti-social threat to global climate change activism and hopes for a more egalitarian global economy, Canada is becoming a bad guy in many sectors.

I remember during the 1995 Quebec referendum, “My Canada Includes Quebec.” I think now, “My Canada Includes…lots of morals that we happen to be abandoning.”

I hate what Canada is becoming.

We are one of the richest places in the world. Our population density is crazy low. Our country is not so full of people that we’re bursting. We have quite a bit of fresh water and arable land. 100 years ago we were madly trying to fill up the place. But now we’re all largely prosperous [and insanely rich compared to the poorest 4 billion people] and we’re locking the doors behind us.

Not me.

We have this increasingly undeserved reputation for coming to the aid of people around the world, yet our nation seems to be turning its back on the idea that we can and should help make people’s lives better.

If there is a federal election in the fall, I would hope the most significant election issue is the Canadian identity. Who do we actually want to be?

The G20 moral crisis and the government’s rejection of tracking accurate data about ourselves in the long-form census in favour of faith-based policy-making are important issues that contribute to the discourse about who we actually are as a nation and who we are really becoming.

Similarly, if we don’t want people risking death, economic disparity and horrible exploitation to smuggle themselves into Canada, we should create a more welcoming refugee and immigration regime. Maybe then the ships and the coyotes/snakeheads will be out of commission.

If we don’t want any refugees, let’s close our doors and deport everyone who lands illegally.

But most importantly, let’s at least have a national debate about it because what I’ve seen in the last few decades in terms of quietly eroding humanitarian citizenship policy is unacceptable to me.

And really, if Canada gets together this fall to debate our identity in the context of an election, I’ll hope we remember that we’re all immigrants. I’ll also hope that we have a full debate and that people will vote robustly for what they actually want. It’s not comfortable sometimes talking about things that evoke race and culture, but if we don’t talk about it, it festers in the kind of distasteful dialogue we’re seeing in the comment section of web news reports of the Tamil ship. This is not how a mature country debates critical policy.

And if Canada turns into a place that is even less welcoming of people than it has been becoming, at least I’ll know I’ll have a new hobby for the next generation or so: to fix what is increasingly a country that I am embarrassed to call my own.

Or I’ll just leave because I can’t take much more of this.

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Stephen Elliott-Buckley

Post-partisan eco-socialist.
Stephen Elliott-Buckley is a husband, father, former suburban Vancouver high school English and Social Studies teacher who changed careers because the BC Liberal Party has been working hard to ruin public education. He has various English and Political Science degrees and has been writing political, social and economic editorials since November 2002. Stephen is in Twitter, Miro and iTunes, and the email thing, and at his website, dgiVista.org.

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