Refugees and the Great White North: Canada’s Benevolent Resettlement Plan

Trudeau’s Canada is blossoming as a humanitarian leader and a global force of peace and acceptance


by Alec Hernández

[dropcap] N[/dropcap]ot often is the United State’s northern neighbor at the center of international interest, but after the election of their new liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Canada inched its way back into the interest of the international community. Trudeau, son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, has long been involved in politics. First having gained Canada’s attention after a powerful eulogy at his father’s funeral in 2000, Canadians have watched him come into his political self, initially as a member of parliament from Montréal’s Papineau neighborhood, to the head of his Liberal Party, and now as the Prime Minister of Canada. Trudeau and his famously gender-balanced cabinet have already proven their capability and progressivism through the issues they have begun to tackle: state relations with First Nations Tribes, environmental policy, and a renewed relationship with its most important trade and diplomatic partner, the United States. President Obama has taken a liking to Canada’s newest leader – the White House hosted the first State Dinner with a Canadian Prime Minister this Thursday for the first time in 19 years.

As Canada reemerges as a progressive international player, it has also reimagined its participation in the anti-ISIS coalition in two crucial ways: a withdrawal from the air strike campaigns and a promise to help resettle refugees as they are forced to leave Syria. Although the country faced harsh backlash from its military allies, Trudeau maintained his stance that bombing Syrian cities will only exacerbate the issues at hand, and likewise multiply the need for refugee resettlement. By no means did the military secession mean an end of the Canadian effort to remedy the Syrian crisis. Only a month after his election in October 2015, Trudeau announced Canada’s national plan to accept and resettle 25,000 refugees – a plan that has already spent hundreds of millions of Canadian money. The plan even comes complete with its own hashtag, #WelcomeRefugees.

Since its inception in late 2015, Canada has already welcomed 26,166 Syrians and thousands more are expected to come over the course of the year. The intake of refugees is regulated by a five-phase plan: identifying refugees with help from the UNHCR in Jordan and Lebanon, processing the families in Canadian visa centers in Amman and Beirut, transportation to Canada, welcoming to Canada, and finally resettlement and community integration. Refugees arrive on Canadian planes to cities like Toronto or Montréal, where some were even welcomed by Trudeau himself at the airport terminal. The refugees are then sent across the country, from the maritime provinces in the east to British Columbia on the west coast. Some locations receive as many as 1,000 refugees at a time, while smaller communities range from 5 to 30 refugees resettled in the area. Toronto, a city with a grand history of tolerance and multiculturalism, Calgary, Ottawa, Vancouver, and Montréal have embraced the highest resettlement numbers – typically in the thousands – while smaller towns like Sudbury, Ontario have only received around 15.

The Canadian federal government has proven its commitment to help alleviate the problems created in the wake of the Syrian Civil War and the fight against ISIS, and the government’s hospitality toward refugees has been positively accepted by the majority of its people. As with anywhere, the resettlement plan has met some political opposition. The loudest anti-refugee voices come from the Conservative Party in parliament of former Prime Minster Stephen Harper, who has the same problems with the plan as many Republicans do in the United States, such as the threat it may pose to national security. However, a CBC-conducted poll reported in December 2015 that 48% of Canadians support the plan while 44% are in opposition to it. On both a political and social level, it seems like Canadians are far more willing to accept refugees than their American neighbors. But what is it about Canada that makes it drastically more sympathetic toward refugees?

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There could be several factors at play here. Perhaps it is a reflection of a Canadian national identity. From its inception, the country has continually balanced a multilingual, multicultural identity. Some of the country’s earliest roots lie in Québec, an early French fur trading post turned Canadian province, which still grasps its French heritage in language, culture, and religion. When the British claimed Canada in 1837, the British colonizers decided they must let French Canada maintain its culture while simultaneously integrating them into a British system of governance. The outcome of the fusion of cultures has created a country that adheres to two histories – both French and British – while likewise considering themselves members of a national Canadian project that fuses the two together in a unique blend. Therefore, Canadians face issues in multiculturalism on a daily basis, one only has to flip through TV channels to understand the Franco-British dichotomy at hand. This sense of multiculturalism may lend the Canadians a fresh perspective on acceptance, one that sees these refugees as displaced peoples rather than merely Arab, Muslim, or Kurd. At the same time, Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is one of the most diverse in the world. Toronto is home to 30% of Canada’s recent immigrants, and upwards of 1.2 million Torontonians were born outside of Canada. An influx of refugees to the city would not entirely alter the city’s demographics – in fact, it would be keeping with the immigration trends.

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Hospitality toward refugees may also vary by province. French Canada, for example, has faced its own refugee crisis in the eighteenth century. When French imperialists first settled in what are now the Maritime Provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), their colonies were established in the image of France. Nova Scotia, for instance, was home to thousands of French-speaking colonists, the Acadians, who lived along the Bay of Fundy in the west of the province. The colony’s coastline and strategic ports were often subject to a change in power – Nova Scotia switched back and forth between British and French rule for about a hundred years until the British finally gained control of the region in 1710 after Queen Anne’s War. The British, hoping to hold onto the region uncontested into the future, felt anxious ruling over the Acadians who would have likely been sympathetic to the French cause. So, in 1755, the British massacred and deported hundreds of thousands of Acadians. Those who survived resettled in New Brunswick and Maine, while thousands were shipped to France, the British Caribbean, and Louisiana. Even today, Acadians constitute a large faction of French North Americans, and the memory of the Grand Dérangement has become an important part of French Canadian history. In this sense, the notion of what it means to be a refugee is familiar to many Canadians, even if they didn’t experience the pain of displacement themselves.

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The Canadian intake may also be a calculation on Trudeau’s behalf. The era of Stephen Harper was marked by his isolationist foreign policy – one that removed Canada from the world stage and turned the country inwards. From his first day in office, Trudeau has set out to reverse the foreign policy precedent that his predecessor created. Not only does he need to rehabilitate Canada’s international image, but devise a new strategy for dealing with foreign affairs, and in particular with the United States. For the most part, Trudeau’s emphasis on image rehabilitation could be the major proponent for his government’s plan to receive upwards of 25,000 Syrian refugees. Within the international sphere, Canada is often compared to powers like the United States and several European countries. Within the scope of the refugee crisis, however, both Europeans and Americans have failed to contribute their fair share to welcome refugees into their borders are temporary residents, which allows Canada to take charge of a crucial international initiative that could cement its role as a global leader once again.

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For Canada, remedying the Middle Eastern refugee crisis appeals to its national identity, history, and demographic. With Trudeau at its helm, Canada’s international role will likely far surpass his predecessor’s record, and rocket Canada to international importance. Whether withdrawing air force from Syria or creating a hospitable environment for tens of thousands of misplaced human beings, Trudeau’s Canada is blossoming as a humanitarian leader and a global force of peace and acceptance. If only some of that good-natured Canadian spirit would rub off on its neighbor.