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Escape to Canada: living up to our international image


By Michael Dougherty


The recently released movie Logan is set in a dystopian future. The title character and his young charge faced with malevolent government forces in the USA make a dash for the Canadian border. They hope to reach peace and safety in a cross-border sanctuary community interestingly called Eden. How many times over the last 241 years, since the very beginning of that great republic to the south, has Canada been a real rather than just a fictional haven for people fleeing one form of oppression or injustice there?

Almost immediately after its birth refugees began coming north. Black and White loyalists, who fought for the British during the Revolutionary War, were among the first arrivals in the 1780s. The loyal Tories fled north faced with violent retribution and confiscation of their property if they remained. Afro-Americans who had joined the British cause faced even more dire consequences, re-enslavement. This scenario was repeated in the War of 1812 when the trade war and expansion of American settlers into native-held lands turned rough. The promise of freedom and land in Canada drew more than 4,000 slaves to the British cause in the largest emancipation to take place in the U.S. prior to the Civil War. They sought refuge on British territorial soil after the fighting ground to a halt.

From the early 1800s right up to the Civil War, slavery drew a growing stream of freedom seekers north. Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 made a permanent haven for escaped slaves in northern free states precarious. The Underground Railway linked safe houses and abolitionist supporters together in a network that allowed possibly as many as 100,000 slaves to trek north toward freedom mainly in Ontario.

Following the War of 1812, the Dakota wars of the 1860s, and many other attacks on their traditional lands and cultures, many native Americans saw their escape across the Medicine Line as a necessity.

Post Civil War American expansionism, increased tension in the west. Western native peoples felt the crush of land and resource-hungry settlers like their eastern cousins had experienced for several generations.

Resistance mounted at sites like the Battle of Greasy Grass or the Little Bighorn in 1876. This provided the rationale for increased military repression. Troops forced Sitting Bull and others to seek sanctuary in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan and elsewhere on the Canadian prairies. Some like Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce tried but failed to make it. He surrendered just 60 kilometers shy of the Saskatchewan border though some of his followers did escape the U.S. Calvary and found their way to safety in Canada.

Mormons in 1880s saw the Canadian West as suitable for colonization and as a refuge from what they regarded as repressive anti-Mormon legislation. This was initially a draw for fugitive polygamists as well. Other religious minorities have sought shelter in Canada since the days of the Huguenots.

In the early 1900s approximately 1,000 black settlers, particularly from Oklahoma, homesteaded lands in the borderlands of Alberta and Saskatchewan. Many of them had been forced to sell their farms in the south because of discrimination and Jim Crow laws there. Farming relatives of mine of German stock migrated from Illinois to the Lloydminister area then as well. The availability of land attracted them to the north, not the need to find a haven from racist policies.

We can all recall other major movements like the flight of Vietnam draft evaders or AWOL soldiers fleeing from U.S. military adventures overseas. But do you remember the Overground Railway? Central American civil wars, or rather military dictatorship-led wars on their own populations and the notorious U.S. surrogate Contra War against Nicaragua in the 1980s, sparked a refugee wave. The U.S. refused to recognize their complicity in backing military regimes during those bloody, vicious conflicts. Any Central American attempting to claim refugee status because of this repression faced deportation right back into those troubled lands with an even larger target on their backs. American church and civil society groups provided safe houses from the Mexican border to the Canadian line.

The Prince Albert Sanctuary Committee was certainly one of the most northerly terminuses in Canada on the Overground Railway. We were linked via the Quaker House and the famous Nancy Pocock in Toronto. They welcomed the refugees assigned to us as they crossed the border at Niagara Falls. A co-ordinating committee at Kent State University in Ohio had made the selection of who would be coming to us. They in turn plugged into the network stretching south to the Mexican border.

The story continues now as “Trumpscapees,” those African, Muslim and Middle Eastern refugees who no longer feel safe and secure in the USA, find their way across the border. Though bureaucratically convoluted with our response to the Syrian refugee crisis and now the stream of refugees crossing illegally from the U.S. has allowed a very positive global humanitarian image of us to evolve.

Is it warranted? A little closer look at our history shows that racism and prejudices here have afflicted our refugees, from ex-slaves to modern asylum-seekers. A conscious policy of government neglect under John A MacDonald forced Sitting Bull and many of his starving, desperate Sioux followers back over the border. Why did many of the draft evaders return south once an amnesty was offered, or refugees return to their home countries once peace had been restored? How come our celebrated effort to welcome today’s refugees has slowed to a trickle?

Often our story of welcoming refugees has been more myth than reality. Seeing ourselves how others see us, however, can inspire us to live up to our own international image. How can we create, as Pope Francis urges, a “culture of acceptance and solidarity, in which no one is seen as useless, out of place, or disposable?” We can always aspire to be more than we have been, to indeed strive to be that wished-for, peace-filled, safe secure haven for all, no matter what skin colour, culture, religion or language spoken — a true Eden.

Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.