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Journey to Justice

By Joe Gunn


At Christmas, and beyond, advocate for refugee rights

Do you believe Canada is a welcoming place for refugees?

After the arrival of over 40,000 Syrian refugees since November 2015, many hosted by Christian congregations, readers of the Prairie Messenger likely believe that Christians are more inclusive than others in Canadian society. And we should be proud of that — if only it were true.

The Angus Reid Institute released a public opinion poll in May that allowed Canadian respondents to define themselves in one of four categories: the “religiously committed,” “privately faithful,” “spiritually uncertain,” and “non-believers.” The spectrum of Canadian mindsets on religion is not surprising: 19 per cent self-define as non-believers, 30 per cent are each of spiritually uncertain, or privately faithful, with 21 per cent religiously committed.

Then, all were asked to agree or disagree with the following statement: “Canada should accept fewer immigrants and refugees.” I was shocked to read the results of this poll.

Sixty-four per cent of “religiously committed” and 59 per cent of “privately faithful” respondents want Canada to close our doors. This is greater than the Canadian population at large (57 per cent). And, in a related query, fully 36 per cent of the “religiously committed” said: “I would feel uncomfortable if my son or daughter were planning to marry someone from a different cultural or religious background.” (That also was higher than the Canadian average — by 10 per cent.)

Polls report what respondents say. They do not explain what makes people of faith in Canada less willing to be welcoming and tolerant of newcomers or our neighbours from different cultural and religious backgrounds. They do not answer why the public urgings of the Catholic hierarchy and other religious leaders have been ignored. But poll results can incite religious leaders and all members of religious organizations to get busy changing perceptions and attitudes.

At the three-day conference of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), which took place in Niagara Falls in early December, CCR president Loly Rico laid out the challenge. Before 300 participants from some of the 195-member groups which assist refugees, Rico clearly stated that “migrant rights are human rights.” She stated that we must help people understand that “human rights don’t stop or start at any border,” but are inherently present in every human being.

Herself a refugee from El Salvador 27 years ago, Rico now runs three houses in Toronto, owned by religious sisters, the Faithful Companions of Jesus. Only one day prior, she was awarded a 150th Anniversary Medal by the Canadian Senate.

The CCR is afraid that the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration will cause further “irregular crossings” of vulnerable persons from the United States. The main thing to understand is that such persons are not making “illegal” crossings. By signing the UN Convention on Refugees, Canada agreed to give each and every refugee claimant a chance to a hearing — and to prove they have the right to remain here.

According to the CCR, Amnesty International, and the Canadian Council of Churches, it is the Safe Third Country Agreement (signed by Canada and the U.S. in 2004) that makes such crossings treacherous. By this agreement, any refugee arriving at a Canadian port of entry from the U.S. is automatically returned. Thus, at Emmerson, Man., and Lacolle, Que., refugee claimants must bypass official border posts, and apply for refugee status after taking circuitous routes. Rico wants the misnamed “safe” agreement to be scrapped, in order to “bring back the right to make a refugee claim at any port of entry of this country, by land, sea or air.”

Unfortunately, however, because the government has not increased resources for the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), a large backlog is developing. Ottawa responded by announcing a review of the IRB’s effectiveness, hoping to make the refugee determination process more “efficient.” The CCR fears that, instead of strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the IRB, this review could recommend that ministerial bureaucrats take on this role. (An interim report due in December might indicate some directions the final report due in June 2018 will recommend.)

This federal government has made some policy improvements — raising the age of dependents to 22 years to allow families to bring their children to Canada, and ending interest charges on travel loans that refugees must repay (sponsoring churches and Citizens for Public Justice have demanded that these loans be scrapped altogether in order to decrease financial burdens on newcomers). Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada has also promised to end the backlog of private sponsorship requests by 2019. But in November, the government announced that Canada will only take 7,500 Government-Assisted Refugees in 2018 (the CCR had recommended 20,000).

Pope Francis holds the situation of refugees “constantly in my thoughts and prayers.” His message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace (Jan. 1, 2018) is entitled, “Migrants and refugees: men and women in search of peace.” Francis notes that there are over 250 million migrants worldwide, of whom 22.5 million are refugees. And the pope lays out four mileposts for action to assist asylum seekers, refugees, migrants and victims of human trafficking: “welcoming, protecting, promoting and integrating.” These four verbs are to be implemented in public policy, according to the Vatican, by 20 action points that can help the international community adopt two UN Global Compacts (one on refugees, and the other on safe, orderly and regular migration) that are currently being negotiated.

Taking Francis’ call to heart here in Canada, our faith communities must increase our efforts to change the hearts and minds of members. Only then will we understand the words of St. Paul in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

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.