Values matter. Values inform our character and offer touchstone and compass for our lives. If values are sacrificed for expediency, opportunity, or fear, we become blind wayfarers, adrift beneath a starless sky.
Values are as essential to us as individuals as to our collective selves: the nation. That is why we write them in the documents we cherish. They ring from the American constitution’s amendments, reflecting sacrifices made and victories won, as well as from the defiant, aspirational Declaration of Independence. Similarly, Canada’s constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms express values ingrained from lessons learned.
Sometimes, and seldom when seas are calm and skies blue, we are tested. The tests are not of the values themselves but of our fidelity to them.
Canadians were tested in 1914 when a ship called the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver’s harbour. Aboard were Indian families seeking to trade the corruption, poverty, and violence of their homeland for Canadian sanctuary. Officials discovered that the ship had passed through Hong Kong and so cited a 1908 law called the Continuous Passage Act which barred entrance to anyone arriving through a third country. It was a ruse. There were no direct routes from India to Canada. Canadians simply did not want Indians and certainly did not want the Komagata Maru’s 352 Sikh migrants. They were forced to steam away.
A generation later, in May 1939, the German ship St. Louis left Hamburg for Cuba. 937 Jewish refugees were fleeing Hitler’s madness. Nearly all had applied for American visas and saw Cuba as their stepping stone to freedom. Everyone knew of the Holocaust. Western newspapers had been reporting on the theft of Jewish dignity and rights and of Kristallnacht, the two horrifying nights the previous November in which synagogues and Jewish businesses were smashed. Everyone knew.
And yet, the Cuban government refused to allow the St. Louis’ passengers to disembark. The ship was forced to leave. It steamed north and when close enough to see Miami’s lights, American warships turned it away. President Roosevelt was told of the people’s plight and of their certain death if forced back to Germany, but he said nothing. A State Department telegram explained that the refugees must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.” At that time, the waiting list was several years long.
The St. Louis was forced up the coast until it finally reached Halifax. Its reception was the same. The passengers were not allowed landfall. Canadian prime minister Mackenzie King was travelling in the United States at the time and referred the matter to his Immigration Branch director Frederick Charles Blair. Blair ordered the ship gone. When asked how many Jews would be allowed into Canada he retorted, “None is too many.”
The St. Louis arrived back in Europe and Belgium, Great Britain, France and the Netherlands accepted some of the passengers but not all. With options exhausted, 532 returned to Germany and 254 perished in the Holocaust’s ovens.
The Komagata Maru and St. Louis are, in essence, again at our door. This time it is Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of a complex and brutal war. As in 1914 and 1939, many Canadians and Americans are arguing that we should bar that door. We should, it is said, ignore the fact that unless we are indigenous people that we are all from somewhere else and, more significantly, that we should ignore our values.
One argument for saying no to the refugees is that Islamic terrorists could slip in with legitimate refugees. However, we should note that recent terrorist attacks in neither Mali nor Paris were conducted by Syrians or refugees. Should we trust our screening systems and our police and security organization or should we surrender our values to the fear that of the thousands of people who could be saved that one might be dangerous? Are not domestic terrorists such as those who have blown up buildings, or crowds such as in Boston, or shot up schools, and theaters not a greater threat?
America’s Homeland Security and Canada’s RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service agree that Syrian refugees present no threat to Canada or the United States. Time Magazine reported Pentagon sources as stating that the Syrian refugees are being carefully screened and that nearly all are, “survivors of torture, victims of sexual violence, targets of political persecution, the medically needy, families with multiple children and a female head of household.”
A second argument is more disturbing. The racism that sent the Komagata Maru and St. Louis away is with us still, it’s just become more cleverly hidden. The embers of racism are kept alive not just by the obscene beliefs and actions the KKK that we seldom see but by the little racist jokes at coffee shops that we too often hear. A number of pundits, politicians, and even some who wish to be president have been fanning those embers into flames. Canadian cities have seen Muslim women harassed and a mosque in Peterborough, Ontario was burned. Donald Trump has called for a registry of Muslim Americans. Jeb Bush said that only Christian Syrians should be admitted.
Do these fears, attitudes, actions, and proposals reflect the values inherent in our founding documents? Do they reflect the lessons learned from the Komagata Maru and St. Louis, or the Holocaust, by the treatment of indigenous people, or our Second World War Japanese internment camps? What would Lincoln, Kennedy, Diefenbaker, or Pearson say? Or, if you rather, and if you believe, in the Bible’s Matthew 25:35, Jesus taught that showing love for Him was done by caring for the most needy: “For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.” And you invited me in.
The question of the Syrian refugees, like all questions, whether at home, at work, or on the national stage, circle back to values. We believe in our values or we do not. Talking about them doesn’t count. We should measure ourselves, our leaders, and our nation according to the congruency of words and actions. If we do not act according to our values then we really don’t believe in them. If community doesn’t really matter then let’s stop pretending it does. If we really don’t believe in multiculturalism or tolerance or diversity or the separation of Church and State then let’s say so. Let’s concede that all men are not really created equal after all. Let’s take a chisel to the Statue of Liberty so that it no longer proclaims:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
We have a choice. We can listen to our values. Let us insist that the Komagata Maru and St. Louis incidents were aberrations from which we learned. Let us celebrate our values by living them. Let us reject those who sully established values for personal, professional, or political gains no matter how cleverly disguised as for the greater good.
We should welcome Syrian refugees because our values say that we should. And if all that is not enough, there is one more reason that we should save them – because we can.
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