Refugees are us.


It’s interesting how opinions are so polarized over the issue of accepting refugees into Canada. Not surprising, just interesting. Generally the more conservative among us are overwhelmingly dead set against accepting refugees and sometimes even legitimate immigrants. They fear that their cherished institutions will be undermined and  that their neighbourhoods will become unsafe or at least unwelcoming because of all ‘those people’ speaking a foreign language, wearing different clothes and putting up weird ‘churches’. The more liberal among us see the value of accepting refugees often arguing that refugees tend to enrich their chosen country and not endanger it. No matter what political stripe you paint yourself with, there is no doubt that accepting refugees is always a challenge. 

From a liberal perspective, Canada has a very spotty record when it comes to refugees and conservatives often have a blind spot when it comes to the history of migrations into this country. There have been a number of more or less major refugee/migrant movements into this country over the centuries, others that required people to leave Canada and some that required movement within the country but still qualify as refugee crises in my opinion. 

One of the first was the internal refugee crisis perpetrated by the French colonial government pre-1763 in this part of the world when they created refugee camps for indigenous people, forcing them out of the Québec forests and into camps that were eventually called reservations and bribing them to adopt Christianity. 

In the mid-18th Century, the British forced many thousands of Acadians into exile to Louisiana eventually creating the Cajun culture there. Of course Louisiana was a French colony at the time and probably welcomed their brothers and sisters from the north. Nevertheless, the Acadians were refugees. 

The United Empire Loyalists during the war of independence in the United States in the late 18th Century were essentially refugees from the conflict down south. Many Ontarians today are the descendants of the Loyalists. They may want to forget that they are descendants of refugees. 

The Irish famine in the mid-19th Century created a huge refugee problem for the colony that was eventually to become 
Canada. The Irish were thought to be crude and illiterate and entirely unacceptable as future residents of Canada. The Americans looked on with horror at the influx of Irish refugees into the U.S. citing their crudity, their brutishness and their loose sexual mores. Many of the descendants of the Irish refugee/migrants of that time are now fully integrated into Québec society, many speaking only French. In Boston, the Irish came to have a lot of influence, many becoming police officers. Still, a dangerous, unsightly lot by all accounts. 

Before the advent of the 20th Century, indigenous people all over North America were forced into refugee camps and marched all over the place to ensure that they would be out of the way of settlement and the exploitation of resources. 

In my next post I tackle Canada’s shameful record in the 20th Century with regard to the acceptance of refugees and migrants from Asia and Europe. It seems we react out of fear of people we don’t know and with whom we don’t share language and culture. Instead of seeing the power and potential of population diversity we have often reacted with anger and fear at the influx of ‘strangers.’  However, the truth is that many of us are the descendants of refugees, whether we know it or not, like it or not.

3 thoughts on “Refugees are us.

  1. Oddly, despite all our modern enlightenments, we have never given up the age-old practice of identification with ancestors. Although intriguing to refer to the reservation lands as “refugee camps,” which indeed started out more or less that way. And that the Acadians went all the way down to New Orleans, presumably by sailing along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Yet would more than some fraction of them have actually left on this trip? When we speak of the Babylonian exile after the fall of Jerusalem ca. 587 BC, we forget that 95% of the population of Judea stayed where it was; with only the city residents and a few others evacuated. Migration becomes a complex business. Conservatives as well haven’t always insisted on exclusion of immigrants, at least in the USA. During some periods when they were happy to welcome newcomers, they favored rapid assimilation instead. Perhaps importation of novel cultures is what they fear.

    1. On your last point, in the early 20th Century, Canada saw its greatest wave of immigration ever with millions of people coming into the country. The conservative government of the time understood that to displace the Indians and to kickstart settlement they would have to bring in people. They rejected the Chinese who had been brought here to build the railway and instead brought in people from Eastern Europe. At least they were white. No, they couldn’t speak English but who cared because they would be used to settle the west. The fact that they couldn’t speak French was a bonus too. Now we have lots of the descendants of the Eastern European immigrants in the prairies. They are still called bohunks by the racists among us and Edmonton is sometimes derisively called Edmonchuk. We tend to want migrants who are the closest to us as we can get.

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