The Sunday Edition

Do NOT give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

On August 14, 1979, 210 Vietnamese refugees flew into an Edmonton military base aboard a Canadian Forces 707. That night they were housed in a military barracks.Over the next 18 months, at the rate of more than 500 a week, Canada took in some 60,000 so-called boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.The actions of the Joe Clark government and...
Listen3:59
On August 14, 1979, 210 Vietnamese refugees flew into an Edmonton military base aboard a Canadian Forces 707. That night they were housed in a military barracks.

Over the next 18 months, at the rate of more than 500 a week, Canada took in some 60,000 so-called boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The actions of the Joe Clark government and the arrival of the boat people were in keeping with Canada's reputation for taking in huge numbers of refugees in turbulent times of human upheaval.

Back in 1956, the people of Hungary rose up against their Communist overlords. Russian tanks brutally crushed the revolution and more than 200,000 Hungarians fled to Austria. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in 1956 was the hyper-powerful Liberal politician Jack Pickersgill. He ordered more than 200 chartered flights to bring to Canada any refugees who wanted to come. In less than a year, Canada took in more than 37,000 Hungarian refugees.

Years later, Pickersgill said his proudest moment in public life was bringing the entire forestry faculty of Sopron University to the campus of the University of British Columbia where they could continue teaching.

And in 1968, Canada welcomed tens of thousands of American deserters and draft dodgers, driven out of the U.S. by the disastrous Vietnam War. 

The world has turned over a few times since those heady days, and things have changed. Most things about this country have changed since the mid-fifties. What has changed profoundly is Canada's attitude toward refugees.

Instead of being the open, welcoming nation we once were, we have become pinched, fearful, meaner. We have become a bit smaller.

There are something like 3.5 million Syrian refugees scattered across Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq and they are running out of food. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has called the predicament "the most dramatic humanitarian crisis the world has faced in a very long time."

Canada's response to the crisis has been lukewarm to say the least. In July, 2013, we agreed to bring in a piddling 200 government-sponsored and 1,100 privately sponsored Syrian refugees by the end of 2014.

We don't know precisely how many Syrians we really have brought in, because the government numbers are vague. We could bring in thousands more, tens of thousands more quite comfortably. And those thousands would enrich the country. They would expand the workforce, encourage investment and provide taxpayers who will be needed to support an ageing population. The success of this country could well turn on the efforts of these refugees and others, their children and grandchildren. 

Besides, we should do more because it is the right thing to do.

My ancestors came to this place in the coffin ships from famine Ireland. Every one of us, except the indigenous first owners of the land, have come from somewhere else, either as refugees or immigrants.

When governments and people ask how this country could realistically bring in thousands of Syrian refugees, the answer is simple.

In airplanes.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.