Blog·Recap

Who comes first: Syrian refugees or First Nations?

The comparison comes up again and again when we talk about refugees: Why is Canada putting so many resources towards refugees, when we have problems with our indigenous peoples that should take priority? Checkup takes an in-depth look at the debate.
Left: A Syrian Kurdish woman crosses the border between Syria and Turkey (AFP Photo/Bulent Kilic) Right: Kiokee-Linklater's family had to move out of her in-laws' house when it got too crowded: 27 people were living there. (Oakland Ross/Toronto Star via Getty Images) (Collage: CBC)

In 2015, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government brought up their promise of taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees, critics of the PM's politics would strike a comparison between the resources going to refugee settlement and those going to Canada's First Nations.

It arose quite frequently then, and it arose again during the Sept. 25 Cross Country Checkup conversation. While we were hosting a conversation on how the first wave of Syrian refugees are settling in to Canada, several participants in the show spoke on this issue.

The first was a caller from Cape Breton, N.S., named Jim Steel. He said, "My concern is for all the energy and enthusiasm that's going into helping the refugees, none of that is going into the neglected people of Northern Canada that are hungry and destitute. We have the government and private citizens that are totally ignoring the plight of our own starving people."

Jim Steel raised the issue of how Canada addresses domestic issues, and whether those should take priority over refugee settlement. 2:00

In Canada's Northern communities, food is often twice or three-times as expensive as in the South, due to costs of transportation. The government's Nutrition North program gives a subsidy to offset that cost, but critics deem it insufficient.

However, others took a different perspective. Amer Almahamed came to Canada as a refugee from Syria. He sharply disagreed with Steel. Adapting a proverb to make his point, he said, "We, as Syrian refugees here, we are not taking fish so much as …we are learning how to fish ourselves. So in a year's time or later, we will be part of the community. When we are part of the community, we're contributing."

Listen to Almahamed share his thoughts with Checkup host Duncan McCue:

Amer Almahamed speaks about how he wants to contribute to Canadian society and help fix Canada's problems, after settling in as a refugee. 4:34

Marwan Ismail, executive director of Polycultural Immigrant and Community Services, said, "I think it's not an 'either/or' [situation]; we can do both at the same time."

"I'm sure that the government have plans for the First Nations and other people who are in need in Canada," Ismail continued. "But as a G8 country we have some obligations toward the international community too. It's part of our obligation to help stop wars, and help refugees; that said, it doesn't mean that we don't have to cover our own famine here inside Canada."

For a perspective from an indigenous scholar, Checkup followed up with Katherine Minich, lecturer of Indigenous Studies at McMaster University.

"I'm leery of this sort of comparison," she said, referring to the government services given to indigenous Canadians and refugees.

The sponsorship model raises red flags, in particular, the church involvement historically in its creating the model and continuing to this day. She said, sponsorship bears striking similarities to many programs that were enacted during the colonization of Canada, including residential schools.

Minich said, "When Canada was being founded, churches took a big role in co-sponsoring policies in relation to indigenous peoples, including residential schools. We should be critical of this. Is their ethic the same or different from what it used to be?"

Where the similarities between the two depart, is in the way that indigenous policies have become acculturated, Minich explained.

There is a lot of support for refugees at a family level, whereas Indigenous peoples support is more often given to government departments or businesses, she said.

She gave the example of Nutrition North. "Their method of providing the food subsidy is to provide it to airlines or the postal service," she said.

"There hasn't been a push to help each family with the cost of nutrition. It's always being positioned on another plane, something that is not taking into account the needs on the ground; whereas with refugees, we give them a lot of support at the family level."

When asked, "Is it fair to compare Canada's actions with Syrian refugees to Canada's action with First Nations?"

Minich said, "On a humanity level, certainly not. It's like trying to pick the worst victim. If we're looking only at events, we're going to be drawing comparisons. But if you want to build relationships, and want to build a Canada that respects indigenous peoples, we need to look at history."

Ultimately, Minich agreed with one of our final callers on the program, Peter, who called in from Taloyoak, Nunavut, to offer his support to Syrian refugees. While Peter mentioned that he and others in Taloyoak have to rely on country food when imported foods are too expensive, he wanted to share government resources with refugees.

Peter said, "Most of all what comes to my attention is that people have gone through traumas, and the seriousness of their lives over there in Syria. If they can work together with Aboriginal peoples; they've gone through serious traumas in life, because of the residential schools. I think it would be a great idea for them to help each other, so they can grow this new life."

Hear Peter's full interview:

Peter called in to Checkup to share his thoughts on how indigenous peoples can help Syrian refugees cope with their trauma. 4:08

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