Canada at 150: Is common decency the new bar for national pride?

There’s been a rise in this country’s level of intolerance as of late. It’s difficult to square this trend with the self-congratulating tone and image of Canada’s relationship with refugees in general.

It's hard to reconcile our self-congratulatory tone about accepting refugees with rising intolerance: Zhou

Common decency dictates that Canadians will allow people fleeing war and terror into the country, but what we do next determines whether our country is truly a refuge, Steven Zhou argues. (John Woods/The Canadian Press )

Supreme Court Justice Richard Wagner gave a wide-ranging speech in Ottawa in March to mark the 150th anniversary of the country's constitution. Although the main thrust of his speech was the impact of identity politics on Canadian society, the justice made a point in his speech of noting something that says a lot about contemporary Canada: he said Canadians who fear the possibility of refugees coming in to change the country's legal culture have nothing to worry about.

"Huh?" is the reaction that statement should have elicited among active listeners, particularly in the middle of a wide-ranging speech full of information about how identity politics have played out in the courts since the Charter of Rights equality guarantees took effect in the mid-1980s. That Wagner found it necessary in his speech to comfort those in Canada who worry about the legal threat of refugees (he probably meant Muslim ones coming from Syria to escape war) is a good reflection of Canada's current political attitude and climate vis-a-vis newcomers.

There's been a rise in this country's level of intolerance as of late, due in part to the stoking of right-wing populism down south as well as Canada's own post-9/11 fears and xenophobia. Polls on Canada and religion done by Angus Reid in 2013 and 2015 have shown that a substantial portion of Canadians hold a negative view of Islam. It'd be naïve to think that this prolonged attitude hasn't had any effect on perceptions of refugees coming into this country, recently mainly from Syria.

It's difficult to square this trend with the self-congratulating tone and image of Canada's relationship with refugees in general, which — to the Trudeau administration's credit — has involved the absorption of more than 25,000 Syrian newcomers in the past couple of years. But even as Malala Yousafzai thanked Trudeau earlier this month for sticking up for refugees in a time of rising anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, it's hard not to hear these words in light of the country's overall dismissively narrow-minded attitude toward the journeys and troubles of those who enter this country.

The way Canada has portrayed the troubles and challenges of refugees has focused mainly on their entry into Canada as the end of their overall struggle. The challenge, as reflected by much of the media and Canadian civil society, is primarily perceived to be the act of escaping situations of war or poverty. Once they reach the shores of Europe or North America (the civilized West), then of course they've attained safety and security. By extension, they also have us to thank because we let them into our country.

Leaving aside the history of how Canada was created by those who came from elsewhere (the examples are plenty, as even the most pedantic high school social studies text will reveal), it's simply myopic and deeply shallow to perceive the momentary opening of borders to refugees as the end of their worries. Yes, it's true that they've escaped Bashar al-Assad or ISIS, but a meaningful and sustainable life in a completely new country with completely new customs, languages and realities is going to take more than not having dictators and terrorists in one's life.

Extending common decency — the right to life — to those who suffer greatly at the hands of tyranny is to be expected

The same can be said for immigrants who still flock to Canada by the thousands on a yearly basis. They are relieved of older challenges when they enter the country and are immediately confronted with new ones: a new culture, new languages, new people, new standards of social acceptance, new habits of life that must be adopted, new values that need to be negotiated, and on and on. It's obviously fair to say that these troubles are far preferable to bombs and persecution, but extending common decency — the right to life — to those who suffer greatly at the hands of tyranny is to be expected and not an act of exceptionalism in and of itself.

True exceptionalism would be to extend this decency into realizing that the settling of refugees and other newcomers in Canada means thinking about their post-entry realities: education, family life, employment and other factors that have to do with a prosperous life. Simply patting oneself on the back for common decency is to set a terribly low bar for the society in general, even if the current era is one of diminishing public expectations.

The journey and struggle of those who've been forced from their homes is to create a new one. This is a challenge that depends as much on the external social impact of the wider society on these newcomer families as on the agency of these families themselves. Until it comes to terms with this often hidden or ignored reality, Canada won't ever be exceptional.

About the Author

Steven Zhou

Steven Zhou is a Toronto journalist and commentator who has experience in human rights advocacy. He has worked for Human Rights Watch, OXFAM Canada and other NGOs.