This week in Electionland – the refugee crisis is reduced to talking points

This week’s election news was solidly dominated by the refugee crisis, and specifically by each party striving to position itself as the one which actually gets what’s going on.

Which is all a little bit bizarre. While Germany has opened its borders to 800 000 refugees, while Turkey struggles to cope with the two million it has received, and while tiny Lebanon, with a population of a mere four million, has taken on a million or more, over here in Canada Justin Trudeau thinks he can outdo his rivals by pledging to bring in a mere twenty-five thousand. The small-mindedness of the proposals being put forward is staggering.

The Globe and Mail reminded us this week that we’ve done better before. In 1979, Joe Clark’s government moved to admit fifty thousand Vietnamese refugees in dire need of help.

Some details:

Decades before the current crisis, Canada airlifted 5,000 people from Kosovo in the late 1990s, 5,000 from Uganda in 1972, and 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80. From January, 2014, to late last month, Canada resettled 2,374 Syrian refugees.

Mike Molloy was the Canadian government official who oversaw the airlifting of the Vietnamese boat people and removed bureaucratic obstacles. “The motto out there was not ‘do the thing right,’ it was ‘do the right thing,’” the 71-year-old, who lives in Ottawa, said in an interview…

“The goal was initially to move 50,000 people in 18 months,” Mr. Molloy said. That became 60,000 in two years under Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1980. The government offered to match all private sponsorships, galvanizing the public. It was the formal launch of a system that involved communities in guaranteeing the care, shelter and early costs of refugees. That system has since brought in more than 200,000 refugees.

In the peak month, February, 1980, Canada resettled 6,200 Vietnamese, Mr. Molloy said. Canada flew 181 charter flights during a two-year period, each carrying anywhere from 200 people to more than 400.

Which is to say, Canada took in almost three times more Vietnamese refugees in February 1980 than it has Syrian refugees in the last twenty months. This despite the fact that there are more displaced people in the world today than at any time since the Second World War.

Or consider, for instance, the Irish Potato Famine, which brought some of my ancestors to this country:

On Friday, former Progressive Conservative MP and senator Pat Carney called on the Conservative government to resettle 100,000 Syrian refugees. “In the Irish famine of the 1840s, 100,000 left Ireland for Canada, and 90,000 were admitted,” she said in an interview. Those people included her forebears.

She told Immigration Minister Chris Alexander in a letter to act from his gut and his heart rather than what campaign managers and pollsters are telling him. “Otherwise, the Conservative government should be swept out of office by a tsunami wave of anger that your government is so unresponsive to a humanitarian crisis of Biblical proportions.”

And when you factor in proportions – in 1837 “Canada’s” population was 400 000 – ninety thousand Irish refugees was truly massive. Of course, that wave of refugee migration was intrinsically wound up with the ongoing process of colonization – both of Canada, where Indigenous peoples were being pushed ever westward to make space for more white folks, and of Ireland, where the “famine” was really a direct result of British imperial policy and callous disregard for the value of Irish lives.

Which, realistically, is pretty much the norm. Refugees and imperialism tend to go hand in hand. So for instance, the vast majority of refugees in the world today hail from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, which uncoincidentally are all countries that the United States has bombed this decade. (Canada too!) It’s hard to avoid the notion that we’re in many ways directly responsible for this tsunami of human misery and suffering. Shouldn’t we therefore be willing to take in as many people who have been rendered homeless and destitute as a result of our actions as possible?

All of which amounts to me being pretty unimpressed with mainstream political discourse on this issue.

The NDP have at least had the good grace to publicly and wholeheartedly denounce our current military involvement in Iraq and Syria. For the first time since the campaign began I heard Thomas Mulcair put forward a position that I agreed with completely:

But I smell opportunism in Mulcair’s position. He was on the verge of tears discussing the drowning of Alan Kurdi, but I don’t remember him shedding any tears over any of the 448 Palestinian children killed in Israel’s war-crime-riddled invasion of Gaza last summer. And it’s hard to reconcile his uncritical support of Israel – a country which is literally building a Donald Trump-esque giant border wall to keep refugees out – with his seemingly enlightened position on Syrian refugees.

Far more likely – from my point of view, anyway – is the possibility that Mulcair is choosing to emphasize the NDP’s position on our military operations in Syria and Iraq because he’s feeling the heat on his “left” from Trudeau’s Liberals. The NDP has of course long been opposed to Canada’s involvement in the it’s-not-a-war-if-we-say-it-isn’t, but up until a few days ago I hadn’t heard one word out of Mulcair during the election campaign about the issue one way or another. For him to come out so strongly and firmly on this issue must be a deliberate choice.

It was also a dangerous move for Mulcair – after Trudeau said back in June that he would end Canada’s conflict with ISIS, the Conservative Party smeared him with one of the most gratuitously dishonest and hostile attack ads this country has seen Kim Campbell. We haven’t heard much out of the Liberal Party on the subject since then.

But Mulcair has to throw some bones to his base, after all. And with Trudeau trying to claim the mantle of the Reasonable Keynesian on budgetary matters, Mulcair’s gotta take his opportunities where he can find them.

And with a slew of recent polls showing the Conservative Party has fallen to a still-close third place, it looks more and more possible that the end-game of this election will be a battle royale between the NDP and the Liberals to show which can pose as the most credible alternative to Stephen Harper.

It’s no coincidence that both parties came out swinging the morning after Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s cringe-inducing disaster of a performance on CBC’s Power and Politics. But despite Alexander being demonstrably and blatantly wrong about most of what he claimed in that now-notorious interview, Stephen Harper has doubled down on the Conservative Party line, which doesn’t hold up under even the most cursory fact-checking.

And shame on them for their atrocious record on immigration and refugees. It’s been a national disgrace for years now and I’m glad that the issue is finally getting some prominent public attention.

But it is kind of disgusting watching the plight of refugees become a kind of political football, with all the major parties jockeying for positive coverage and electoral advantage.

For me, the Politician of the Week Award goes to Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, hands down, for his no-nonsense on-point commentary on the issue:

He slammed the “talking points” about attacking ISIS as a solution to the crisis and said Canadians are asking whether the airstrikes are working.

“No one is saying you bring in the refugees and that solves the whole problem,” he said.

“But regardless of all the rest of it, we have tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of desperate people, and we have a country that’s known as being a safe haven and we have to be able to do that.”

He saved his strongest condemnation for Chris Alexander, the federal immigration minister who was once a Canadian diplomat stationed in Afghanistan.

He lashed out at Alexander’s blaming of the media for not bringing more attention to the Syrian crisis, a comment that resulted in a strong backlash against the minister.

“As if federal government policy should be based on what’s on the cover of the Calgary Sun or on Power & Politics every morning is ridiculous,” Nenshi said.

“Minister Alexander should have been a star. He was an incredible diplomat. By all accounts he’s a brilliant man, but he’s also the minister behind Bill C-24, which I remind you means that me — born at St. Mike’s hospital in downtown Toronto — could have my Canadian citizenship stripped,” he said.

And from the Department of People Who Just Don’t Know How To Quit When They’re Behind:

Alexandra Day, a spokesperson for Alexander’s campaign in Ajax, Ont., said in an email to CBC News on Saturday that Calgarians “have for years been supportive of sponsoring refugees from the region and helping them start successful new lives in Canada.”

“As for his views on our strengthened citizenship laws, unless he [Nenshi] intends to commit and be convicted by a Canadian court of acts of terrorism, treason, espionage or taking up arms against the Canadian military, he has nothing to worry about.”

Stay classy, Conservatives!


Today in many ways marks the true beginning of the election. The month of August was taken up largely by throw-away announcement and micro-positioning, as the parties size up the electorate, test out their messaging, and get the campaign machine rolling. Post-Labour Day, we can expect to see things kick into full gear. So going forward, here’s a few predictions:

The Liberals will continue to run slightly to the left of the NDP – which isn’t saying much, but still. This approach, they hope, will allow them to snag more votes from the ABC crowd and help dispel the “myth” that there’s no real difference between Liberals and Conservatives – but if they’re successful, it may be at a great cost. If the non-Con vote is too effectively split, it could allow Harper to sneak up the middle for a win.

That being said, the Cons are currently falling in the polls, a trend which isn’t likely to reverse itself absent (a) a sustained barrage of negative attack ads aimed at their rivals, (b) some middling-to-major missteps by either Mulcair or Trudeau, and (c) some external news which shakes up the election and breathes life into Harper’s campaign. All of which is entirely possible.

At the outset of the election, I predicted the NDP would win a narrow majority. Though that’s looking a bit more long-shot-ish now than it did then, I’ll stand by it, just as I’ll stand by my total lack of enthusiasm at the prospect of yet another “left-wing” “social justice” party selling out its principles for its chance at power (see: Blair, Tony).

Lastly, and most uncontroversially, I’ll predict that important issues will be distorted and ignored, poverty and racism and misogyny and other forms of oppression will be overlooked, and no matter who wins, the people will lose.


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