Welcome to Canada
He made us proud. In the hours after the new American president signed an order severely restricting immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspending all refugee admission for 120 days, and barring all Syrian refugees indefinitely, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took to Twitter in defiance of the new US president.
To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.
It was an important and timely message. Our prime minister didn’t hesitate or dither. A simple, direct statement to a group of people, mostly vulnerable and frightened, who had just had a door slammed in their faces. WelcomeToCanada was trending around the world.
It reminded us that Canadians see the world differently than Americans do. This distinction has never seemed as important as it did this past week, as that nation, and indeed the world, reeled from a series of executive orders penned by President Trump, setting in motion a new, darker era—surely to be defined by fear, ignorance, and mistrust.
Our leader signalled a clear split from the American president and his view of the world. We felt proud of our prime minister for standing on his own two feet—not to rebuke, but to show a better way.
But how well-founded is this pride?
Just a few days before he tweeted Welcome to Canada, this country’s doorway to Syrian and Iraqi refugees was closed. By January 25, Canada had reached its limit of just 1,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugee applications for 2017. That’s it. No more for the rest of this year.
Meanwhile, communities across this nation have raised money, found shelter and organized support to welcome refugee families—only to be left waiting, without explanation, for a year or more.
Carlyn Moulton heads PECSyria, a grassroots organization formed in response to the plight of children and families fleeing civil war in that nation. PECSyria was propelled by an outpouring of support from this community and the surrounding region. There were some early successes— three families settled in Wellington, Picton and Belleville. Preparations were being made for many more. There seemed no bounds to the generosity and resources made available for this effort. But suddenly a process that was moving smoothly slowed to a crawl.
Then in March last year, without prior notice, immigration authorities gave private sponsoring groups 24 hours to submit their applications— no more would be considered in 2016. PECSyria scrambled to submit applications for four families— all relatives of families who were already settled here. Altogether they are 24 children and eight adults.
Nearly a year later these applications—and lives—remain in limbo. PECSyria has received no explanation—just bureaucratic silence. Meanwhile, these families sit and wait in a refugee camp in Lebanon—a nation teetering under the weight of this humanitarian burden.
“We had housing ready to receive them, and volunteers in Trenton, Wellington and Picton had all worked very hard,” said Moulton. “Whatever collective frustration we may feel, however, pale in comparison to what the people we are sponsoring must be feeling. In Lebanon, right now they are very, very cold. It was only 11 degrees last night. They do not have heat, nor are they in shelters with insulation. Most don’t have electricity or running water. Food is in extremely short supply.”
Immigration authorities say the severe limitation on new applications is needed to process the backlog that has built up over the past few years—that more refugees will be settled this year than last. But this hardly matters to the families looking for refuge—or to those ready, eager and willing to help them settle safely and comfortably in this country. Nor does it fit the image we have of ourselves as a welcoming nation.
If Justin Trudeau is serious about helping these folks, if his welcome is genuine, he will act swiftly to apply more resources to the task of processing refugee applications. Canadians want a safe, secure screening process, but they want the process to move much faster.
The words are good—but actions will define the distinction between Canadian and American leadership. Our young prime minister will be tested over the next weeks and months. We can be confident that he will say the things that need to be said. This is no small thing. There is already too much calculation and handwringing in world capitals about how to deal with Trump.
Canadians are rightfully proud of their prime minister for speaking plainly and forcefully for the values that we share. Now it is time for him to back up those words with action.
PECSyria welcomes support as a donor or as a volunteer. If you would like to make a donation, please send a cheque to PECSYRIA, Box 118, Bloomfield, Ontario K0K1G0, or visit the Picton Scotiabank branch. If you are interested in volunteering, please visit the website at pecsyria.org and fill in the volunteer form. PECSyria is also on Facebook.