The Syrians, Irish, and Our Tree Fort

Canadians and Americans are at war with themselves. A battle in that war involves President Trump’s attempt to close the border to those from seven troubled countries. Another is revealed through one of Canada’s Conservative Party leadership candidates who once touted a hotline for Canadians to rat on their neighbours and now wants mindreading to shape immigration policy. As soldiers in the war for our soul, we must consider who we are. We must decide whether we wish to swap our values for a false sense of security and lives of fear or, rather, share our bounty with those whose homelands are in crisis. As always, the past contextualizes the present. So, let’s draw lessons from our response to a catastrophe that struck another people in peril.

In the early 1800s, rich English families owned 95% of Irish farms. The absentee landlords had middle-men subdivide them into smaller and smaller plots while charging higher rents. About half of rural Irish families suffered crushing poverty. Potatoes were the staple crop with most folks and farm animals living on little else. At the same time, English factories were stealing work from pre-industrial Irish towns. About 2.4 million of about 8 million Irish were unemployed.

A bad situation turned to crisis when, in 1845, potato plants turned black. Potatoes shrivelled and became inedible. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel ordered a commission to investigate but found neither cause nor cure. To address the ironic crisis of farmers without food, Peel ended Corn Law tariffs to lower food prices. It had little effect. Poor Law revisions split Ireland into 130 parts, called unions, and each was assigned a workhouse. Desperate urban poor traded prison-like conditions for housing and food while famine ravaged the countryside.

Starving tenant farmers were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rents. Soldiers marched the families away as landlords had houses knocked down to avoid taxes and keep the desolate from returning. Between 1849 and 1854, 250,000 people were swept from the land. Sixteen middlemen were shot by farmers resisting the mass evictions. London sent more soldiers.

The English gentry and business elite felt Peel was spending too much money and time on Ireland and voted his party from office. The new prime minister, Lord John Russell, cancelled food shipments to Ireland and ended Irish relief. The man in charge of the crisis, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyan, said the Irish needed to self-fund future relief programs and allow the market place to right everything. Linked to the British government’s belief in laissez-fair economics was its faith in providentialism. Trevelyan made the idea clear when he explained the Irish crisis as, “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence, one which laid bare the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”

While the English blamed victims and debated ideology, hunger’s effects caused dysentery, fevers, and dropsy. Typhus, called Black Fever by those it was killing, turned a sufferers’ skin thin, brittle, and black. The Russell government created soup kitchens but, because they had to be paid for by dwindling Irish taxes, they were too few and most too far from rural areas. An increasingly common sight was entire families who had set out to find food and work – blackened skeletons in rags – laying side-by-side in ditches where they had died.

Landlords began hauling delinquent tenants to the docks. The first waves left for Canada. The hellish journeys lasted 40 – 90 days with cramped passengers suffering pots for communal toilets, thin and often rancid gruel, and all the while robbed of sleep by screaming hungry, babies and the incessant coughing of the sick and dying. Approximately 5,000 families carried loved one’s bodies from the fetid below-decks to ships’ rails where, after a few words of scripture, they were tossed into the roiling Atlantic. The vessels were dubbed Coffin Ships.

The emigration peak came in 1847 when 100,000 starving Irish migrants arrived in Quebec City. At one point in June, 40 Coffin Ships bobbed in a two-mile line waiting to be processed. Makeshift hospitals on Grosse Île helped emaciated people trying to survive their fifteen-day quarantine. But mass graves betrayed the growing tragedy. When Coffin Ships kept coming, some were waved through to Montreal and some further on to Kingston. Churches and charities did what they could to help the sick and settle the rest. Within weeks of arriving in Canada,     11, 543 died.

Desperate Irish families were also arriving in America. Unlike in Canada, where the majority were Protestant, most of those arriving in the United States were Catholic. This fact caused consternation among the predominantly Protestant public and public officials and spurred harsh immigration restrictions. Captains had to somehow guarantee that no passengers would ever become wards of the state. Passenger fares rocketed to three times that of ships heading to Canada and regulations restricted the number of people that could be aboard each ship. But the ships kept coming and the numbers swamped the rules. New York became home to more Irish people than Dublin.

As Irish immigrants moved into more American cities, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice and discrimination grew. This was nothing new. George Washington had spoken out against anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments as far back as 1776. But in the 1840s, anti-Catholic street riots in New York and Philadelphia had raged for days. A sign appeared on store windows and factory gates: “No Irish Need Apply.”

Anti-Irish xenophobia played a significant role in creating a new political party called the Know-Nothings. Later renamed the American Party, it demanded a closing of borders to all immigrants, a 21-year waiting period for citizenship, and that foreign-born Americans be permanently banned from voting and holding public office. In 1855, the American party won 43 seats in the House of Representatives. American Party member and Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardiner attacked Irish and other immigrants as, “aliens born, aliens unnaturalized, and aliens entirely ignorant of our institutions.”

Irish migrants faced similar problems in Canada. The resentment and reaction were seen in Toronto. Between June and October 1847, 38,000 Irish economic refugees overwhelmed the city that had a population at the time of only 30,000. Many Irish families moved quickly through Toronto to join established Irish communities in places like Peterborough County, but that didn’t stem anger regarding the city’s changing demographic. George Brown was the influential owner and editor of the Globe and future Father of Confederation. He spoke for many when he observed, “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor…They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”

Barred from integration, Toronto’s Irish congregated in Cabbagetown and in nearby Corktown, named after the county from which many had come. Many businesses refused to hire Irish people with the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge bolstering anti-Irish feelings. To defend themselves, the Irish created the Hibernian Benevolent Society. Toronto witnessed 29 riots involving Orange Lodge members and Irish migrants. Orange Day parades and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations always sparked violence.

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Irish Potato Famine Monument in Toronto (Photo: Toronto Star)

The potato famine reduced Ireland’s population from 8.4 million in 1844 to just 6.6 million six years later. About one million died of starvation and related diseases. Between 1845 and 1860, 360,000 Irish migrants settled in Canada and 1.7 million in the United States. It took a couple of generations, but the prejudice and discrimination directed at them slowly faded as they became contributing members of society and, in America, soldiers in the Civil War. The xenophobic hatred they endured remained but its cruellest wrath was refocused on newer newcomers.

So here we are again. Some want to help and others are eager to direct fear and hatred at the latest group of ‘others’ to arrive in search of better lives. Syrians and others from countries torn by war, political corruption, and economic catastrophes are the new Irish. Muslims are the new Catholics. They are gazing up at us in our fort, constructed years ago, without permission, in an Aboriginal tree. Mr. Trump and some seeking Canada’s Conservative Party leadership are urging us to push down the ladder. It’s up to us.

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Embers: Warnings Offered by Our Anti-Semitic Past

On a cool April 16, 1933, ball players warmed up at Toronto’s Willowdale Park. Like nearly everything else in the city, the teams were ethnically segregated and so a Jewish team faced an Anglo-Saxon opponent. A Nazi flag was unfurled and anti-Semitic abuse was screamed. The chanting young men left, pausing only to paint a swastika on a park building. Two nights later the Jewish team was back and so were the angry young men. As the flag returned and taunts began, a scuffle ensued. Cars filled with supporters of both sides screamed to the scene. Pipes and bats were swung. Bones and teeth were smashed. Blood flowed as an hours-long riot spilled into the streets.

Newspapers suggested that the Jewish community was to blame for what they dubbed the Christie Pitts Riot. Editorials insisted it was an aberration and that anti-Semitism did not exist. City council promised to address Toronto’s many Swastika Clubs. But nothing was done. To deny a cancer is to allow its growth or a lanced tumour to return.

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Canadian anti-Semitism is a long, sad tale. It began with Esther Brandeau. She had disguised herself as a man to secure passage on a ship but her identity was revealed in 1738 upon her arrival in Quebec. The deception was fine but her Jewishness was not. According to the French and Quebec law, she was banished. The British Conquest changed the laws but not mindsets. A Jewish man named Ezekiel Hart was elected to represent Trois-Rivières in Lower Canada’s legislative assembly. He was ejected with a resolution stating, “Anyone professing the Jewish religion cannot take a seat nor sit nor vote in the House.”

Canada’s prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, perhaps believing he was being liberal in his attitude rather than perpetuating a stereotype, said, “A sprinkling of Jews in the North-West would be good. They would at once go in for peddling and politiciking, and he is of as much use in the new country as cheap jacks and chapman.” Goldwin Smith, the influential public intellectual who was among the founders of Canadian liberalism, wrote a number of anti-Semitic articles advocating the deportation of Jews. He wrote, “Few greater calamities perhaps have ever befallen mankind than the transportation of the negro and the dispersion of the Jew.” Clifford Douglas advocated a Jewish-free Canada in Social Credit, the book that led to the creation of the Social Credit Party that formed Alberta’s government. Henri Bourassa, the father of Quebec nationalism, stated, “The Jews are the most undesirable class of people a country can have…they are vampires on a community instead of being contributors to the general welfare of the people.” While he later renounced racism, Quebec’s powerful Abbé Lionel Adolphe Groulx never did. The widely-read periodicals he edited and sermons he influenced were virulently anti-Semitic and bathed a generation of Quebec Catholics in a racist cauldron.

With the sanctioning of Canada’s elites, it is hardly surprising that anti-Semitism weaved itself into society’s fabric. Many universities restricted Jewish enrollment or banned Jewish entry into certain programs. A Quebec program called achat chez nous promoted the boycotting of Jewish businesses. Golf and other private clubs banned Jewish membership. Signs proclaiming “No Jews Allowed” were seen at many beaches, hotels, parks, and restaurants across Canada.

In July 1939, 917 German Jews aboard St. Louis sought refuge in Canada after being denied sanctuary elsewhere. In cabinet and House debates, it was explained that if turned away they would end up back at Hitler’s mercy. They were turned away. Deputy Minister of Immigration Frederick Blair was asked how many Jewish people Canada should accept. He replied, “None is too many.” The ship left. Over two hundred people that we could have saved perished in the gas chambers. Hitler’s Holocaust was the shrinking of the sentence: You cannot live among us as Jews. You cannot live among us. You cannot live. We were participants in the shrinking sentence and withering humanity.

Canadians should feel proud of promoting not just tolerance but the acceptance and celebration of differences. But we need vigilance. Those who fan hatred’s embers are among us now, speaking of immigration restrictions and Canadian values tests. They are speaking in code at the moment but as Mr. Trump has demonstrated, it is a short step from code to clarity and far too easy to spark racist embers to flames.

Let us beware of the future by being aware of the past. Let it serve as warning and invitation to reject those who promote a return to a dark version of ourselves that deserves to remain in the past and never, ever return.

If you found this column of value, please share it with others. I tell a fuller story of Canadian anti-Semitism in Last Step to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, available online through Chapters-Indigo and Amazon. https://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/books/last-steps-to-freedom-the/9781896239408-item.html?ikwid=john+boyko&ikwsec=Books&ikwidx=5

Teenagers: Tears, Fears and Warnings

Young people cry at funerals. Old people cry at weddings. The tears reflect fears. We know too much. Everyone cries at graduations because we know too little. No one knows what’s around the bend for the young grads anxious for the next chapters in their lives. Last Saturday presented a perfect bright and warm morning with the sky a brilliant, cloudless blue. Although my responsibilities are such now that I didn’t need to be there, I watched a hundred young people graduate from a prestigious Ontario private school. I watched tears and at one moment felt the welling of my own. But I knew the question that had me wiping my eye.

All schools do graduations well. They are worth the pomp. This one takes place every June on a massive lawn under a big, sparkling white tent. Parents are seated to the left of the front long tables with graduates and next year’s grads to the right and staff and faculty at the back. As speakers speak it is always fun to watch the three groups react differently. I listened, sort of, but my mind wandered and as I scanned faces I wondered.

I wondered how many of the seventeen-year-olds sitting in their sharp jackets and striped ties realized just how proud the group behind and beside them were of their efforts and of them. They were all more beautiful and healthy than they will ever be, shining in their youth and bursting with potential. Yet they sat largely oblivious to the fact that by graduating from this place, with their families, in this country, at this time in history, they were already on second base without even having swung the bat. But that’s okay. The dumb luck circumstances of their births had nothing to do with them but neither was it their fault.

The parents and teachers knew that and more. They understood that the young people had earned a right to be a little self-satisfied today for, after all, teenage years are tough.

Teenagers- Tears, Fears and Warnings

Here they are still searching for identity while their bodies continue to change and often betray them. Here they are with brains still not fully wired and therefore unable to fully and accurately read people and situations but being held to adult standards. Here they are stuck in our society’s drawn-out childhood when for thousands of years and in other places they would be an adult with adult decisions and responsibilities. Here they are being forced to pick university courses that will determine their futures when they really tell us what they want to be when they grow up only so we’ll stop asking.

It’s amazing that with all of that, and for many of them much more, they keep going, smiling and trying. They made it all the way to this moment. For many of them, after all, and especially for far too many girls, high school is not a sanctuary but a battlefield. Too many people put teenagers down for the actions and attitudes of a few. It doesn’t matter where the teenagers attend school or who their parents are, hormones don’t care and society’s dangerous messages and temptations don’t discriminate.

I would rather accept that there are a few unfortunate teenagers just as there are many unfortunate adults and instead consider the many. I am in awe of the vast majority of teenagers for their generosity, energy, intellectual curiosity, and goofiness. I admire the resilience they muster in the face of so much and so many stacked against them.

Resilience, in fact, was the theme of one of the speeches that I found particularly poignant. The headmaster spoke of failing forward. The notion, he explained, is that we learn more from failure than success. We learn what works and what doesn’t. We learn of our own character as it deepens through our growing ability to adapt to circumstances without sacrificing values. Anyone, the headmaster said, can experience a failure. Only if you refuse to learn, accept responsibility, or try again do you become a failure.

It was an excellent point to make and especially to those gathered that day beside parents with the financial ability to have constructed a net beneath them of sufficient strength that any failure or fall would be recoverable. I wondered how many of the young people really absorbed the message. I guess I wondered, as I do when I see wedding day tears staining wrinkled cheeks if winter can ever warn the spring.

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The Third American Revolution

Let’s forget Donald Trump’s bragging about things better left personal and insults masquerading as debates and consider instead what is really going on. We are witnessing the third American Revolution.

The first began in the 1760s with rival Boston street gangs joining to challenge the authority of a British governor. Unrest spread and years of requests were ignored and demands snubbed until the government’s legitimacy was lost. Only a third of the colonists supported the rebels but in any revolution that’s plenty. By 1787, a new state was in place.

The second revolution was also a slow-motioned affair. It began with the constitutional compromise that allowed southerners to keep their slaves. The deal was torn asunder as every new state sparked arguments regarding slave or free. Lincoln’s election was the last straw for those fighting to protect their economic and social structure from a government that threatened both. Over 600,000 Americans died in the ensuing struggle and many old wounds are yet to heal.

The roots of the third American Revolution lay in Richard Nixon’s southern strategy. In 1968, the wily presidential candidate determined that white middle and working class southerners were angry about the Civil Rights movement that was desegregating their schools, the Women’s movement that was tempting their daughters, social policies that were increasing their taxes, and longhaired students who were insulting their beliefs. Nixon welcomed white segregationists and blue-collar workers to what he called his “silent majority” that would “win back America.”

Ronald Reagan expanded Nixon’s constituency to white, God-fearing Christians who feared the widening gulf between what they saw on their televisions and heard from their pulpits. Rights to abortionists, then gays, then immigrants, signalled the road to perdition with the government doing nothing to stop it.

The shift from all in which they had once believed became more disturbing when the fading industrial revolution closed factories and real wages stagnated or fell. Debt rose to desperately hold lifestyles that had before been assumed. Then the World Trade Centre fell with the government having failed to prevent it. Iraq became a debacle with sons and daughters arriving home in flag-draped caskets amid government lies about why. Finally, in 2008, homes were taken along with jobs and savings while people watched their tax money bail out those who caused the crisis. People recalled Reagan’s exhortation that government was not the solution but the problem itself.

Fox News and radio screamers fanned the flames of discontent and the donor elite, epitomized by the Koch Brothers, tried to convince the Nixon-Reagan folks to continue to vote against their interests. The Tea Party gave voice to the angry and cheated who increasingly rejected those claiming to speak for the little guys but once in Washington voted with and for the one percent. The Tea Party, and to a lesser extent the Occupy Movement with whom it shared enemies, was Toto who drew back the curtain to reveal the rigged game.

As in the first revolutions, the elite has lost control of the narrative. Mitt Romney’s recent speech attacking Trump showed the old oligarchy playing the old game but Trump’s supporters listened to him like the colonists heard the King or the Confederates heeded Lincoln. Equally dismissive of the DC elite are those “Feeling the Bern.” Of course Trump spouts nonsense and many of Sander’s ideas are impractical. It doesn’t matter. While Hillary Clinton offers the old world view, Tea Party favourite Ted Cruz, Sanders, and Trump speak to the same rage; to the same people with nothing to lose who gathered on Boston streets and Gettysburg fields.

The Third American Revolution

(Photo: http://www.breitbart.com)

America’s third revolution has arrived. We can look back at the slow progress of the first two and identify tipping points where power shifted and a new order was born. Let’s consider now if the current nomination races represent a new tipping point or, perhaps, if that point is already behind us.

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Hockey, Trump & Happy in the Hurricane’s Eye

Sometimes I feel a need to apologize. Like everyone, I harbour a few regrets, wish some things were a little different and others a trifle easier. Mostly though, I feel like I’m in a hurricane’s eye. Things are calm here, they’re nice, and yet all around me seems awhirl in furious thunder. While so many are so angry, I’m happy. Sorry.

Am I missing something? I’ve recently seen two sources of curious anger that gave me pause.

Hockey

Hockey is a great sport. Unlike football and baseball, offense and defence flip with no time for pauses or plans. Its beauty is the patterns in the chaos. Hockey culture, on the other hand, is another thing altogether. I’m not talking about the billionaire’s business posing as sport, but children’s hockey.

Hockey, Trump, Happy & the Eye of the Hurricane

It’s not the kids’ fault. Nearly all of them are there for the fun but too many parents see games as invitations to display their character’s worst colours. They yell at referees, coaches, their kids and other peoples’, and sometimes even each other. Those yelling loudest are always those who understand the game least.

How many of those shouting for their kids to do this or that or about someone denying their kid opportunity are revealing personal rage regarding chances they didn’t take or doors slammed on their ambitions? How many parents are pushing kids and attacking others in blatant attempts to chase unrequited dreams through imposing them on their children?

My seven-year-old granddaughter plays on two hockey teams and I love to watch her. The score is kept on the big board but tallying stops whenever the spread grows to more than three goals. Teams shake hands after every game. Afterwards, we ask only if she had fun. She never knows who won and never cares. Parents and grandparents laugh and cheer and shout nothing but encouragement. It’s great.

Folks at other games are apparently different because the arena found it necessary to erect the sign below. I hope it helps those unable to park their regrets, fears, and vicarious dreams that manifest as ugly anger. I wonder, though, if those who need the sign ever read it, heed it, or even understand it’s for them.

Why I'm Not Angry Enough

Trump

Last week I also watched a Donald Trump speech on YouTube. Trump is fascinating but it’s not the first time we’ve seen his ilk. In 1968, Alabama Governor George Wallace ran for president and attracted much the same people. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that he attracted the same emotion.

In the late 1960s, like today, a great many people were afraid that their world was changing in ways they didn’t like or understand. They were mad. Women and African Americans were demanding equality, the economy was shifting from its long post-war prosperity, and America was losing a war in Vietnam. Now, gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are demanding equality, the industrial revolution is over with nothing to replace avenues for middle-class prosperity and working-class mobility, and America seems to be losing the war on terror.

Why I Love Donald Trump and the Rhinoceros

What can be done? One could delve into nuanced and complex causes and effects and accept that economic and social shifts take time and demand concessions from all sides. Forget that! There is no time for that nonsense when one’s life is happening now, children need their futures to start now, and a living must be made and debts paid right now.

It is much easier to get mad at those deemed responsible for the disconnect between how life is and how it was expected to be. Wallace knew it then and Trump knows it now. Therefore, blame the desegregationists or the immigrants. Blame the other, whether it’s the other race, religion, ethnicity, lifestyle, region, party, and, of course, blame the government. Get mad at those who are causing the changes or not stopping them or refusing to acknowledge that the way things were before was better.

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George Wallace, February 1968.  (www.eurweb.com)

Trump rides the difference between nostalgia and history. It’s why facts don’t matter and lies are accepted. His followers, like Wallace’s, yearn for a misty-eyed past that never really existed; when rules were certain, dreams assured, and everyone knew their place.

It’s a fretful yearning that fuels anger, fills stadiums, makes signs, and fills lungs with desperate rage. It’s the same yearning that sparks screaming at little hockey loving kids.

Decision

I don’t yell at hockey games. I don’t support Mr. Trump. I just can’t muster the necessary anger. This makes me neither better nor smarter than anyone – far from it. But I choose to be informed rather than bamboozled. I choose to be calm around children, knowing that they’re watching and learning how to behave and how to be an adult.

Emotions are decisions. I choose to go outside, run, be with family, enjoy friends, play music, be childlike but not childish with children, set and celebrate achievable measurable goals, enjoy goofiness, and when I encounter one, to say right out loud, “This is a good moment.” In short, I choose not to be angry but happy.

Happy is not a surrender of personal sovereignty, a rejection of values, or naive. Anger, on the other hand, is all three. Anger’s adrenaline is cheap tequila while happy’s endorphins is a fine wine. No one’s happiness led them to become a bully in the stands or to follow one behind a lectern. I’ll leave those yelling at Mr. Trump’s rallies and in hockey arenas to their rage.

For me, happy is a better decision and the eye of the hurricane is a pretty nice place. I think I’ll stay.

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The Value of Values

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!”

Daily Life in Domiz refugee camp, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

(Photo: http://www.resettlement.eu)

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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Shudder or Think? We Must Decide

Canadians are being asked to be afraid. We should apparently be so afraid that we will trade a little more security for a lot less liberty with Bill C-51, Canada’s Patriot Act. It will affect our privacy at home and at work and is why four former prime ministers, retired judges, and so many academic experts in privacy matters oppose it.

At the same time, we are to be afraid of what people wear. A hijab, we’re told by the federal government and a Quebec court, is a threat; not a burka, that covers a person’s face, but a hijab that covers one’s hair. Is this a thin edge of the wedge where courts and the government can tell us what to wear and to fear those outside the mainstream, wherever that ever shifting current happens to be at the moment?

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Rania El-Alloui was recently told by a Quebec judge to remove her hijab or consult a lawyer before proceedings could continue. (Photo: Graham Hughes)

Rather than shuddering, many Canadians opting to think because the anti-terrorist bill and hijab kerfuffle are stirring a debate regarding the definition of Canada.

To try and define Canada, however, is tough for any assortment of words quickly tumbles into confessions of a job half done. Canada is the dancing fire in Iqaluit’s sky as much as the homeless veteran on a Yonge Street sidewalk. Canada is Montreal private club English and Moncton Franglais as much as Ottawa Valley twang and Come By Chance slang.

If only we could ask the Irish who, when the potatoes went dead in the ground and rents flew high, left to start again where merit meant more than whose your father. It would be nice to ask the slaves who snapped their chains and followed the North Star to freedom. Or, maybe the Ukrainians, those peasants in sheepskin coats, who left poverty and oppression for free land and a fresh beginning.

Nowhere was Adolf Hitler’s evil more banal than at the death camps, and the worst of the worst was Auschwitz. The innocent who suffered unspeakable horror spoke of a building where their confiscated property was stored. It became a sliver of light through the cruel darkness. It held the promise that someday they might be released. We could speak with them about their naming the building Canada.

At the war’s end, Canadian doors opened to its victims. Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and more came to work the mines, factories, and farms and build the schools, roads, and little towns and towering towers. The Ottawa men called them Displaced Persons while some snarled DP as an insult. The latest to arrive are always harshest on the next in line. Ask the Vietnamese about the Pakistanis or the Irish about the Jews or, for that matter, ask the Boethuk about the English; that’s if you can find a Boethuk to ask.

All the answers from all these people, along with songs and stories and dusty old Royal Commissions, leave us with a country too complex to fully comprehend let alone define. Maybe that’s OK. Canada is like the shape-shifting trickster Raven whose beauty is its ever-changing complexity.

Perhaps this vision brings us as close as we will come in our quest for understanding. But in our hearts, we have always understood the Canadian secret. It is the freedom to try and fail and try again. It’s the draw bridge locked open to new people and ideas.

It is embracing complexity and the fundamental notion that there is value in us all that has created a society where each of us gives a little to help folks we will never meet, whether it’s the old man across town or the hungry child half way around the globe. It’s the notion of community extending beyond our family to where every child is ours. It’s where differences in whom we are, whom we worship, and whom we love are not just tolerated but accepted as who we are

It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. But it is what will save us from fear-based prejudices and policies, be they the proposition of police-state practices or a national dress code. It is our celebration of Canadian complexity that we guard, oh Canada, when we stand on guard for thee.

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