The Sunday Edition

Syrian-Canadians and border town residents on immigration and the federal election

In the 2015 election, the Syrian refugee crisis was the focal point of debates about immigration. In 2019, irregular border crossings have become the focus. The Sunday Edition spoke to two Syrian-Canadians who will be voting in 2019 for the first time, and to two border town residents about what's happening in their communities.
Heba Diab, 21, came to Canada as a refugee and became a citizen last month. She said she's excited about voting for the first time. (Submitted by Heba Diab)

In the 2015 election, the topic of immigration seemed inescapable. Like much of the rest of the world, Canada was gripped by the Syrian refugee crisis, and party leaders sparred over how to respond.

Four years later, some of the Syrians whose lives became a flashpoint in the last election are themselves Canadian citizens — which means that they've gone from being talked about by voters, to being voters themselves. 

By 2017, anxieties over resettling Syrian refugees gave way to fears about irregular crossing at the Canada-U.S. border. Those concerns have become the focal point of debates about immigration in the 2019 election campaign. 

A tale of two elections: In 2015, the Syrian refugee crisis was the focus of the conversation about immigration and migration. In 2019, concerns about irregular border crossings at places like Roxham Road (L) have moved to the forefront. (Charles Krupa/Associated Press; The Canadian Press)

The Sunday Edition spoke to two Syrian-Canadians who are voting for the first time, and to two border town residents, about immigration and the federal election. 

'The country of new immigrants'

Heba Diab was born in Syria and came to Canada as a refugee through the United Nations resettlement process. Now 21 years old, she became a citizen one month ago. 

"This is my first time voting. I'm so excited about that," she told The Sunday Edition. "You get the chance to choose who you want to represent you or community, to make your voice heard."

I built myself here.- Heba Diab

Diab said it wasn't easy for her to learn English and adapt to a new country when she first arrived. But she feels like the process has made her stronger.

"I built myself here. I worked in many places. I developed myself," she said.

"Some people, they want to limit immigration. I personally disagree with that because this country is the country of new immigrants. They built this country and that's what I think makes Canada different and powerful."

'They're here to feel human'

Shahed Ishak, a 36-year-old Master's student at York University, will also be voting for the first time on Oct. 21. She was born in Syria, came to Canada in 2013, and became a citizen in 2018.  

Shahed Ishak at her Canadian citizenship ceremony in 2018. (Submitted by Shahed Ishak)
When Ishak considers the different parties' immigration policies, she said she won't just be looking at their stance on welcoming immigrants, but "how their policies and decisions will make the integration process easier."

"That's very important, because it will bring out the best of immigrants. When I moved to Canada, the integration process helped me not only to form my identity [but] to feel part of this society. That's where I feel responsible to vote," she said. 

Many of Ishak's friends in the Syrian community in Canada arrived as refugees. 

"They came with the mindset, 'We want to start a new life. We don't want to depend on welfare. We want to work right now,'" she said. 

They're here to feel human. They're here to feel important and to contribute.- Shahed Ishak

"The Conservatives always use immigration as a scapegoat for other financial problems and they want to say they're a burden. I want for Canadians to know … people from Syria and other countries are tired of all the destruction and war. They're here to feel human. They're here to feel important and to contribute."

A 'disconcerting' time in the border town of Emerson Franklin

Dave Carlson, the reeve of Emerson-Franklin, Man., said irregular border crossings have stretched the resources of his community. Emerson-Franklin is located an hour south of Winnipeg, by the border where Manitoba meets Minnesota and North Dakota.

Dave Carlson is the reeve of Emerson-Franklin, a border town in Manitoba. (Cheryl Struss Photography)
"There is a concern because we want to help people, and you don't see anyone get hurt or get killed. We have some difficult terrain at the border, especially in the wintertime. You're crossing creek beds where there could be thin ice, there's a river, there's deep snow," he said. 

"Quite often, when you get a call, you have to actually go out and find the people too, so it was putting our own people a little bit into harm's way."

When border-crossings were at their height, Carlson said it was an uneasy time in Emerson-Franklin. "For people in the community, it was a little disconcerting, when someone's knocking on your door at 2:00 in the morning," he said. 

"When we're getting such a large influx at one time, it really wasn't sustainable. I think we'd just like to see this situation resolved one way or another, because you're kind of watching and waiting for it to happen again -- because it possibly could."

'There hasn't been a crisis' at Roxham Road, says area resident

Frances Ravensbergen lives in the farming community of Hemmingford, Q.C., close to Roxham Road, the busiest irregular border crossing in Canada. 

When the crossings became a flashpoint, Ravensbergen became part of a community group called Bridges Not Borders.

"There were some people who were questioning people who were coming over as asylum-seekers and why were they doing that, and maybe they shouldn't be doing that," she said. "So we thought it was important to do that educational work, and we felt called to actually bear witness, in a humanitarian way, to what these people are going through."

Frances Ravensbergen and Sue Heller wait on Roxham Road, on the US side of the border, ready to welcome asylum-seekers to Canada. (David Zinman/Aaron Lakoff)

She finds it strange to hear the situation at Roxham Road described as a "crisis."

"My reaction has always been, no, there hasn't been a crisis. There was certainly an influx for a couple of months, but we're not dealing with anything close to what's happening in places like Turkey," she said. 

"We also find that there's a bit of fear mongering that goes on, and we find it really sad that we seem to be falling into this American reality [where] it's not facts that count, it's what I think that counts. So we're just trying to counter it as much as we can, with securing the facts behind the issues to turn that tide of racism that is growing, unfortunately, in Canada."

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