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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


Unfinished work: churches advocate for refugee rights

Many congregations have helped refugees in the past year. Some Canadians think the job is done because tens of thousands of Syrians are settling in to new lives in Canada.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

In July, the Canadian Council of Churches joined Amnesty International and the Canadian Council for Refugees in a court challenge to the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA), a deal which endangers the lives of asylum-seekers (see story, PM July 19). Under the STCA, a refugee who presents themselves at a Canada/USA border post, seeking entry to Canada, is denied access to the Canadian refugee system and immediately returned to the United States. The STCA has been a cause for the increase in irregular border crossings in places like Emmerson, Man. In winter 2017, refugees risked their lives to make secretive crossings to avoid border posts. These irregular crossings are more common as a direct result of President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant pronouncements.

Churches advocating for the rights of refugees is not new. Faith communities have lobbied to help refugees throughout Canadian history.

The Catholic Immigrant Society was founded in 1928 and headquartered in Winnipeg. In 1948, the Canadian Catholic Conference (of bishops, established in 1943) sent a Catholic priest to get refugees and war orphans out of post-war Europe. Catholics mobilized to welcome refugees who arrived in special movements from Hungary in the 1950s, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, and even Uganda in the 1970s. Canada only ratified the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees in 1969.

After the coup d’état by the bloody military regime of General Pinochet in Chile in 1973, national churches pressured the Liberal government to bring those in danger to Canada. Ottawa was loathe to accept people of the political left as refugees. Revs. Buddy Smith, SFM, and Francois Lapierre, PME (later to be named bishop of St. Hyacinthe), travelled to Santiago to facilitate selection of people imprisoned and tortured by the junta. In his history of Canadian refugee policy, Gerald Dirks lamented that time when “ideological considerations replaced racial criteria as a discriminatory factor in determining Canada’s refugee admissions policy.”

The federal government released a contentious “Green Paper” on Canadian immigration policy in 1975. Refugees were seen as a burden, especially those who exhibited “novel and distinctive features” — i.e., not white. National churches worked together in the Inter-Church Project on Population to decry the fact that government “. . . examines what it calls the ‘costs of more people,’ their impact, but does not equally examine the costs to people of many current social disorders and their causes, and their impacts on people. It is if we can somehow afford waste, profiteering, ruthless competition and self-seeking but cannot afford more people.”

In March 1979, the Mennonites signed the first Master Agreement with Ottawa to facilitate the private sponsorship of refugees. A new book, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, written by former immigration department bureaucrats, recounts how, by the end of August, 28 national church organizations and Catholic or Anglican dioceses had signed master agreements. By March 1981, this total had reached 47. Many continue today.

The Catholic bishops released pastoral letters on refugee matters in 2006 (“Canada Must Demonstrate Every Effort to Welcome Immigrants and Refugees with Dignity”) and October 2015 (“I Was A Stranger and You Welcomed Me”). And a resolution passed at the bishops’ 2015 plenary assembly took up Pope Francis’ call to assist refugees by asking each parish to sponsor a family.

The Council of Churches’ decision to challenge the STCA required all 25 member churches to agree on this course of action. One small church originally opposed the consensus, which held up the council’s ability to proceed. This occurrence exhibits a structural weakness in the modus operandi of the “forum model.” To push ahead, the council’s Commission on Justice and Peace met and fully supported participation in the court action. Finally, the Governing Board meeting in Ottawa at the end of May was able to concur.

Beyond the hard work of receiving and settling newcomers, our faith communities must continue to advocate for improved governmental policies related to refugees. Wait times are still too long, stretching over six years for sponsorship applications from some parts of Africa. The backlog for processing asylum seekers here in Canada is often atrocious, with “legacy claimants” waiting over five years. But settling refugees here is never enough — most refugees are harboured in some of the world’s poorest countries. So, the Trudeau Liberals’ refusal to increase the international assistance budget is extremely shortsighted.

Refugees, asylum-seekers and displaced people now number more than 65 million, according to the UN. Migration issues are starkly present in Europe, where Pope Francis constantly challenges political leaders to respond with biblical charity and openness. A global economic system that breeds inequality is hugely responsible for forced migration, but in addition, climate change and other environmental factors have caused today’s disasters to be twice as likely to cause displacement compared to the 1970s.

Obviously the moral voice of faith communities is more necessary than ever before.

Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, a member-driven, faith-based public policy organization in Ottawa focused on ecological justice, refugee rights and poverty elimination.