The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has moved us all. The stories, images, and sounds of people trying to find passage to safer lands has struck a personal chord with many of us living in Canada, and has hit particularly close to home in Metro Vancouver, where Ghalib, Alan, and Reham Kurdi should have been living.
From neighbourhood to neighbourhood, and across the web, people are asking one another what they can do. The urge to respond is real. Yet people’s desire to help is being met by regressive immigration and refugee policies of the current federal government. It’s an important moment to be reminded that we’ve done this before.
In 1979, moved by images of hundreds of thousands of refugees attempting to escape Vietnam through dangerous and deadly boat journeys, then Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar rose to the challenge. And she brought a willing and compassionate country with her.
At the time Canada had an annual quota of 8,000 Southeast Asian refugees, and half those spots had already been claimed. And so, the federal government, in response to an international call for help, offered to take 4,000 Vietnamese boat people. Mayor Dewar’s response? “We’ll take them.” She meant that Ottawa, on its own, would resettle 4,000 Vietnamese refugees, and she challenged other cities to match her.
Ottawa at the time had a population of 400,000, so it seemed reasonable, Dewar reflected, that they could easily welcome 4,000 refugees. With that goal publicly set, faith communities, the media, and the general public stepped up the the plate, fundraising and signing up to privately sponsor refugees. The initiative became known as Project 4000, and it shifted the role the country would play in welcoming and resettling refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
Following Dewar’s example, leaders across the country stepped up too, so much so that Canada eventually resettled 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees. And we are a better country because of them.
For thousands of Vietnamese refugee families this groundswell of compassion was life-saving. Vietnamese "boat people" were driven by the same desperation as Syrian refugees today. Vietnamese parents uneasily decided to take their families and loved ones through risky journeys, many on makeshift boats, in order to have a chance at living and raising their children. Their stories were no different from the millions of Syrian refugees today who have come to the difficult decision that their country, their community, and their home, is no longer livable. The result of the compassion and leadership from Mayor Dewar and many others, is that since 1979 Vietnamese refugees have become a part of Canada’s social fabric.
And now, as a region of roughly 2 million immigrants living on the territory of the Squamish, Musqueam, Tsleil-waututh, Tsawwassen, Semiahmoo, Qayqayt, Kwikwetlem, Katzie, and Kwantlen First Nations, we have history we can look to for inspiration. Leadership matters, at every level. It matters to have a vision, to set clear targets, and to create the space and the supports for people to rise to the occasion.
People are seeking leadership on this issue. Canadians want their willingness to help to be mirrored in their leaders’ actions. According to the federal government, in 2014 Canada accepted 12,300 resettled refugees. The Conservatives have pledged to accept 20,000 Iraqi and Syrian refugees over the next three years, of which they say 2,500 have already arrived.
In contrast, Germany expects to welcome 800,000 this year. The Mayor of Munich said on Sunday that they aren’t asking how many refugees they can afford to resettle, but how the city can make the new arrivals feel safe at last.
We hope that we will elect a more compassionate government in Ottawa come October 19, one that will act to increase the number of refugees settled in Canada. But until that day comes, we need strong leadership elsewhere, starting in our cities. Toronto mayor John Tory has said that the issue of refugee resettlement will be on the agenda of the next Big City Mayors meeting. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has been highly critical of the federal inaction. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson hosted a public forum on the Syrian refugee crisis on Tuesday and is asking the federal government to increase its targets. OneCity is calling on Mayor Robertson, as the chair of the Big City Mayors, to do more, to set a bold target for Vancouver that publicly declares in no uncertain terms, “Refugees are welcome in Vancouver”.
The UN Human Rights Council has asked Canada to welcome 10,000 refugees. OneCity believes Metro Vancouver should seek to welcome that many, and that we should set the bar for what other regions across the country can do.
With a deepening affordable housing crisis, this won’t be an easy task for Vancouver. But the failure of all levels of government over the past three decades to create adequate housing should not be an excuse for avoiding other crises. In fact, perhaps this crisis can be yet another catalyst to move beyond ‘market mechanisms’ and finally get real about affordability in Vancouver and neighbouring municipalities.
It’s also an opportunity for Vancouver to stop dragging its heels and join Toronto and Hamilton in becoming a Sanctuary City. Local activists and immigrant and refugee serving community organizations have been tirelessly advocating for more supportive and welcoming policies at the local level for years, including pushing for Vancouver to formally state its support as a Sanctuary City. Robertson and Vision have spent the last year and a half talking about and studying the initiative. It’s time to make it happen.
To be fair, this is not just a challenge for our local government. It is a task for all of us lucky enough, by birth or by circumstance, to live here. The challenge isn’t just to open our pocketbooks, but to open our hearts and our doors. Vancouverites, moved immensely by this crisis, certainly seem willing. What we need now is leadership to set a vision, and to assist in tackling the bureaucratic hurdles.
Vancouver is a better city because of the thousands of immigrants and refugees who now call it home. We can be a better city still. As author and journalist Eduardo Galeano wrote, "the world was born yearning to be a home for everyone." Let’s make that so in Vancouver.