By Samuel Getachew
With the words of Margaret Mead echoing inside my head – Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has – I visited the office of Finance Minister Joe Oliver’s constituency office earlier this week with a small but determined group of community activists. The group was there to deliver an open letter in opposition to a latest proposed omnibus bill by the federal government.
This omnibus bill – C-43 sections 172 and 173 – is an invitation for provinces to deny basic necessities of life, such as shelter and food, for refugee claimants and those without status in Canada, by denying access to social assistance. For the Harper’s Conservatives, this is an encore performance having presented a similar bill two years ago, since having been deemed in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by a Federal Court, denying basic health care for refugees and refugee claimants.
That is never a good thing especially for a country that has benefited a great deal from migration.
I hope the federal government will soon realize that these actions are not just wrong but are forever tarnishing Canada’s image at home and abroad. At best, these actions are the direct attribution to the extremism that still exists within the Conservative party that has not fully shaken the skeleton of Preston Manning’s old and outdated Reform Party.
Think about it.
The actions of the government when it comes to their treatment of the most vulnerable in our society have been condemned by a slew of Canadian personalities including Conservative Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall. For Premier Wall, the decision to deny health care coverage to refugee claimants was “unbelievable” and he noted “the decisions that have been taken federally have been having this impact on people who are clearly the most vulnerable.” The Premier stated, “It is a Canadian and Saskatchewan value to help those in need”.
This new omnibus bill goes even further.
Health For All, a social activist organization opposing the bill notes that it “allows provinces the right to deny social assistance to refugee claimants and others who lack permanent residency status”.
Health For All’s Ritika Goel, an activist and family doctor notes, “Refugee claimants are among the most vulnerable members of our society. To deny them access to what is often their only source of income would be cruel and in direct violation of Canada’s stated commitments to international human rights law.”
For an Ethiopian-Canadian lawyer based in Toronto, Teklemichael Abebe, he finds the situation of would-be-refugees in Canada concerning at best. He wonders if the potential minor monetary saving can truly compensate the great welcoming tradition and reputation Canada is known for around the world.
How could that be? Doesn’t Canada talk about being a decent, responsible and generous country? Why are we being mean-spirited and worrying about petty savings at the expense of human beings? Are we not the country that welcomed refugees and immigrants who look like me, Adrianne Clarkson or Michaëlle Jean to our shore and afforded us rights and privileges?
Pierre Trudeau welcomed Ugandan refugees of Indian-descent in the thousands after their mass exodus from Uganda some four decades ago. Joe Clark welcomed 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian political refugees and Jean Chrétien welcomed 5000 Kosovar refugees in 1999. The a noted mayor and noted NDPer, Marion Dewar, led an organization named Project 4000 – where Ottawa residents sponsored and supported thousands of Asian refugees. Even United Nation’s High Commissioner for refugees awarded Canada and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney the Nansen medal in “recognition of their major and sustained contribution to the cause of refugees” in 1986.
Canada’s interest in the well-being of would-be refugees and refugees has always been a nonpartisan Canadian tradition. It is our signature to the world and is how the world has come to know and respect us.
It was Prime Minister Stephen Harper who once uttered the words that has guided our foreign policy for almost a decade. He described how he believes “very strongly that in this world you have to have values and you have to stand up for your interests and if you don’t do those things you’re not going to get anywhere”. I certainly hope the Prime Minister does not believe denying human beings their most basic necessities to life is a Canadian value or interest worth promoting. I hope he understands that how we treat the neediest amongst us is how we are be judged. This is what determines Canadian society and I would like to see a tradition where we treat our most vulnerable in a manner that makes us an exemplary nation in the world.
Anything less should not be a Canadian value.
Samuel Getachew is a resident of Toronto, Canada