The Memory Of One Drowned Boy: Canada's Response To The Global Refugee Crisis

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

A Photo that Changed an Election Campaign

The outcome of an election may well hinge upon a single moment in time. However, when that moment is the publication of a photo of the body of a small child washed up on a faraway beach, in a country a world away, it indicates something peculiar about the political culture that framed the electoral outcome. The way that a drowned boy tugged at the hearts of Canadians holds a lesson for Christians pondering a just welcome for refugees.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper launched his re-election bid in August 2015, hoping in part that the inexperience of Canada’s Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, and the division of the opposition between the Liberal and New Democratic Parties, would work against them. For the first several weeks of the election campaign, the Conservatives emphasized their experience over nine years in power, and the possibility of new tax cuts, fiscal probity, and a stable federal administration. However, on September 2, the international news media published the tragic photo of little Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old refugee from Syria whose family had paid to be smuggled from Turkey to Greece. He had perished along with his mother and brother in the dangerous midnight crossing. While the photo led to an outpouring of grief throughout the world, it had a particular resonance in Canada. The boy’s aunt lived in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and she had sought to bring the Kurdi family to Canada as refugees, only to find the system working against her.

Over the next month and a half, the dramatic story of Alan Kurdi and the response of the Canadian government drove the election campaign forward. Opposition members of parliament charged that the Conservative government was uncaring and out of touch with the humanitarian tragedy of the refugee crisis. The government responded on two tracks: first, that it would redouble its efforts to bring deserving refugees to Canada, and second, that it would do so with careful attention to the security of Canada and the defense of the nation’s core values. Conservative efforts to champion the latter principle ultimately led the party to emphasize the need to police the behavior of new arrivals, including the announcement of a widely-pilloried “barbaric cultural practices hotline”.  By contrast, the Liberal Party championed the cause of the refugees, making what many felt to be a rash promise to increase Canadian commitments and bring 25,000 new refugees to Canada by the year’s end.

The Conservative response to the refugee crisis ultimately proved tone-deaf to the self-perception of the Canadian electorate. Its efforts to frame a generous refugee policy through the lens of security and the defense of “Canadian values” contributed to the wider view that it was no longer listening to the Canadian desire that generosity overrule any concerns about security. The new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, spoke more clearly to the Canadian view that the country should be a haven for the world’s downtrodden and represented to them more accurately what they felt to be the “Canadian” response to the issue.

Although Canadians often revel in their reputation as “nice people,” the Canadian response to the refugee crisis is shaped by many other factors. Canada’s geographic isolation makes it relatively easy to accept the refugees and immigrants that we want while preventing entry to those we do not. In addition, Canada’s long history of open immigration has made it an increasingly multicultural nation:  20 percent of the population is foreign born, and Canada’s policy of multiculturalism has historically celebrated the retention of ancestral cultures. Added to this is the high-profile success of many immigrants and former refugees: today, even the Minister of Immigration is a former refugee from Somalia. These and other factors have led Canada to maintain a publicly welcoming stance toward refugees – a stance that has become essential to Canadians’ notion of their own identity.

Canada’s Refugee Policy

Canada, like the United States, is a country largely composed of immigrants. Over the decades, refugees in particular have formed a large proportion of these immigrants.  The Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, last amended in 2015, regulates Canada’s refugee determination system. It is overseen by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, which deals with claims made by those entering Canada at borders or from within Canada. Representatives of Canada’s government overseas vet refugees for resettlement before they come to the country.

Refugees from abroad may come to Canada under direct government sponsorship or through the private sponsorship of Canadian civil organizations or groups of citizens.  The dramatic increase of refugees coming from areas of conflict in 2015-16 provided a remarkable opportunity for churches and Christian organizations to step up and welcome those seeking sanctuary. The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, an umbrella group that includes numerous Evangelical denominations, estimates that member churches sponsored just over 3500 refugees between 2015 and 2017.  My own church has sponsored one family who come from Deraa, where the first anti-government demonstrations sparked the Syrian civil war. Inspired by the need, a student group at my own university is raising funds to bring a family to the country as well.

Canada’s geographic isolation from major conflicts in the Middle East and South Asia has enabled its commitment to the resettlement of refugees – but there remain limits to the level of Canadian generosity. Canada maintains relatively open borders to visitors from all over the world, but when there have been spikes in the number of refugee claimants from certain countries, the government has typically responded by applying visa requirements or regulatory controls in order to stem the flow. During the 1990s and 2000s, an increasing number of refugee claimants came directly from the United States.  Most of these were individuals who had sought refugee status in the United States but had been denied the right to remain. Upon arriving in Canada, they went through the Canadian refugee determination process, after which Canada then granted them leave to stay or ordered them to return home.

For Canadians, the image of a drowned child is more deeply ingrained than that of the violent militant.

This flow of refugees over Canada’s southern border led Canada and the United States to sign a safe third country agreement that requires all refugees to make their claim in the first state to which they flee, effectively eliminating the option of making a refugee claim at Canadian land borders. Over the past decade, the relatively high number of (largely unsuccessful) refugee claims to Canada from the Czech Republic and from Mexico led to the temporary application of a visa requirement for all visitors from those countries.  Higher levels of control over Canadian borders and the number of refugee claimants arriving in Canada have made it possible for the government to pick those refugees that it wishes to resettle, bringing them directly from their first country of refuge.

Refugee Resettlement in Canada Today

Canadian popular and political culture and values are closely intertwined with those of the United States, and many of the same concerns and debates taking place in the United States are taking place in Canada as well. Canada has served as a close ally of the United States in Afghanistan and Libya as well as in the fight against Islamic State in Iraq. Nevertheless, anxiety over the risk to Canadian security and culture stemming from the acceptance of Middle Eastern and South Asian refugee populations has not reached the pitch that it has in the United States or Europe. 

Canadian society is more highly secularized and pluralistic than its American counterpart and even Canadian Christians are less likely to feel that the increasing ethnic diversity represented by refugee resettlement threatens their relative position.  Canadian Christians often presume themselves to be a minority in a country of many different religious and secular traditions rather than the defenders of a Christian nation.  Moreover, they have become increasingly comfortable with that position. Christians in Canada are also increasingly diverse, coming from various countries around the world, and from a variety of denominations. Certain prominent denominations, such as the Roman Catholic and Mennonite Brethren churches, are less likely to identify the defense of Christian principles with the state or with military action. At the same time, the attitude of Christians in Canada reflects the broader consensus that the privileges of living in a free and democratic society come with the responsibility of caring for those who are not so fortunate. 

While few Canadian politicians signal their intentions to limit the resettlement of refugees, they sometimes use the politics of identity to frame concerns over the ability of refugees to adapt to Canadian culture and values. This debate arises perhaps most acutely in the province of Quebec, where the government has long asserted its sovereignty over both resettlement and the related preservation of the French Canadian culture and language. In 2007, one town in Quebec grabbed headlines for proposing a code of values to which citizens should assent in a barely veiled attempt to point to Muslims as suspect cultural immigrants. It should not be surprising then, that the Conservative concerns over “barbaric cultural practices” that arose during the 2015 election campaign tended to resonate in Quebec. Many have also pointed to such insularity to explain why a single extremist gunman opened fire on Muslims at prayer in a Quebec City mosque on January 29, 2017, leaving six people dead, a deed universally condemned throughout the country.

Concerns about the continued integration of new immigrants and refugees come up from time to time. Leadership candidates for the Canadian Conservative Party have raised the underlying theme of protecting “Canadian values” against putative threats.  The massive increase in the number of refugees coming to Canada over the past two years has added to the administrative burden of vetting these new arrivals, creating challenges for social service organizations, including churches. But this does not seem to have reduced Canadian enthusiasm for welcoming refugees.

Recently, the interdependence of the Canadian and American borders has come into focus as individuals and families from states targeted by the Trump administration’s executive order of 27 January 2017 have begun to cross the Canada-United States border illegally. Most of these migrants had hoped to win status as refugees in the United States but now fear that they will be deported. They are taking advantage of a loophole in the safe third country agreement that allows them to claim refugee status in Canada if they do not cross at an official border post. The passage of these refugees has raised some alarm in local settings, such as in Emerson, Manitoba, where many of the would-be refugees have braved extreme temperatures. There have been increasing calls for the government to lay aside the safe third-country agreement to allow these individuals to claim refugee status at border posts. But little in the way of public concern has been raised about the security risks posed by these migrants.

One particularly timely Canadian parody pokes fun at the relatively relaxed attitude toward refugees in Canada. In the clip, a bemused Canadian police officer stands out in a wintry landscape intercepting people attempting to cross into Canada illegally. His first detainee is First Lady Melania Trump. The second is Hilary Rodham Clinton. The police officer then confesses to the camera that both of them will likely be sent back to the United States.  He adds, “I feel bad sending them back there. I can’t imagine what their lives are like.”

Though the parody reveals a common superior conceit that Canadians have about our relationship with the United States, it also portrays some of the bewilderment that we feel about the presumption that accepting refugees is a serious security risk. Given our common commitment to providing refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution and the relative isolation of the continent of North America, mounting feelings of insecurity over refugee flows in the United States typically strike Canadians as odd. For Canadians, the image of a drowned child is more deeply ingrained than that of the violent militant.  Such a resistance to the “spirit of fear” should challenge Christians on both sides of the border to step up with kindness to the strangers seeking sanctuary in dangerous times.

-Paul S. Rowe is professor of Political and International Studies at Trinity Western University in British Columbia.