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ANDERSON: This isn't 1980, Mr. Trudeau, and these aren't the boat people

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December 29, 2015 - 8:17 AM

In 1979, following the communist invasion of South Vietnam, the killing fields of Cambodia, and various regional wars, about two million South Asian refugees were driven out of their homes. Out of desperation and facing almost certain death behind them, many simply floated out to sea in leaky boats in hopes of finding safety somewhere, anywhere, with anyone who would take them. After surviving war and communist execution squads, they now had to endure pirate attacks, shipwrecks, starvation, and even refusals to let them land in neighbouring countries. Death toll estimates range from 10 to 70 per cent, and the lucky ones ended up in the squalor of poorly funded refugee camps in Malaysia and Thailand.

I've written elsewhere about the conditions in Asian refugee camps of that era, and the Southeast Asian camps were no exception. The boat people were without homes, without food, without a future, living on borrowed time in countries that couldn't feed them and didn't want them.

In response, back in Canada, the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program came into being during the Joe Clark interregnum and was transformed into a national crusade by the Pierre Trudeau regime in 1980. The new program enjoyed wide support, setting the tone for the "humanitarian" mythology that successive Canadian governments have tried to foster ever since. The government revised its initial commitment upwards in response to public pressure, ultimately accepting close to 60,000 so-called "boat people" between 1979 and 1980.

In 2015, it is of course impossible to say what precisely motivated Trudeau the Younger to rashly promise to take 25,000 Syrian refugees by Christmas of this year. A cynic would suggest the motivation was Liberal constituency building and an idealist would claim, as does a recent government webpage, that it's "the Canadian way." But I think it's Trudeau era 2.0.

Indeed, the narrative issuing from the PMO these days attempts to summon, quite intentionally in my opinion, the spirit of 1980. In a series of virtually identical messagings, Trudeau has emphasized the moral aspect of the resettlement. "Canada is doing the right thing," he claimed on December 11, in one of many such statements from his office. "We have a responsibility — to ourselves and to the world — to show that inclusive diversity is a strength and a force that can vanquish intolerance, radicalism and hate," he platitudized to the press in England. Not content with flourishing hyperbole, the Liberal government unleashed a $500,000 digital ad campaign to boost public support for what it christened "Operation Syrian Refugees." In keeping with the narrative, the government claimed the operation would "demonstrate Canada’s compassionate values and re-affirm our global leading role in refugee resettlement."

Of course, a necessary part of the narrative must include urgency, lest the whole thing be perceived as a waste of time and money. The Syrians were in dire straits, we were told, "desperately seeking safety," while Canada was "providing refuge." This refugees-in-dire-danger posture began before Trudeau was even elected in October of 2015 and has been echoed regularly since by the PMO. According to this narrative, the Syrians are "displaced and persecuted" and "fleeing their country's brutal civil war," thus creating "a pressing international need."

But there's a problem with the narrative. This isn't 1980, the Syrians aren't the boat people, and they're in no hurry to come to Canada.

That the Syrians have been through a traumatic ordeal goes without saying. That they fled their country in fear for their lives, many losing relatives and friends, is without doubt. But they aren't in danger any longer and they haven't been for years. They're not hungry and they're not cold and the UNHRC camps they live in are not the refugee camps of yesteryear. Linda McAvan, chair of the European Parliament’s International Development Committee, visited one such camp and described it like this:?? "Each family has their own tent and there are schools run by volunteer Syrian teachers offering the Syrian curriculum as best they can. UNICEF supports special projects for orphaned and traumatised children, puts on activities and sets up libraries. The World Food Programme (WFP) runs a food card scheme so families can buy their own food at either of the two well-stocked supermarkets onsite. There is even a shopping street where Syrians living in the camp draw lots to set up mini businesses such as phone card shops, clothes stalls, etc...The tents have satellite dishes and electricity provided. Many refugees have planted vegetable gardens."

Adrian Lancashire, of Euronews, visited another camp, and recounts a conversation with a young man in one of the camps: “We are staying here temporarily, until the crisis in Syria is resolved, and then we will go home. There are no problems here. We are safe here.”

Is it any wonder then that the Liberal government is having trouble convincing Syrians to come to Canada? Why in the world would people, living in well-ordered and well-stocked camps while they await the end of a war so they can go home, want to start all over in the snow and ice of a distant land on the other side of the world? According to a government website set up to keep us apprised of progress in "Operation Syrian Refugees," the Trudeau government has phoned or contacted upwards of 130,000 Syrians, but as of today, Dec. 29, fewer than 6,000 had gone so far as to finalize their applications. To add insult to injury, blazoned across the top of the website is the grandiose promise, "The Government of Canada has committed to resettling 10,000 Syrian refugees by December 31, 2015." That's the day after tomorrow, and there are fewer than 3,000 in Canada today. As Brian Dyck, the national migration and resettlement co-ordinator with the Mennonite Central Committee, said of the search for Syrian migrants: "demand has outstripped supply."

To explain this dearth of grateful refugees, the Trudeau government has come up with a number of conflicting excuses. Immigration Minister John McCallum claimed Canada is "moving heaven and earth" to bring over refugees, but hypothesized that the delay is due to the fact that some of them may want to say goodbye to relatives or have assets they wish to sell. Trudeau initially said the opposite, implying that the sluggishness of the operation was due to security concerns. "Getting this done right" was more important than speed, he opined, and then went on to blame Canadians for a climate of fear. "[After the Paris attacks] we were aware that people were going to raise security as a reason not to welcome refugees at all." The fact is that the Liberals are having trouble finding 25,000 refugees who want to come to Canada, and they're uncertain they can find enough support amongst Canadians to welcome them even if they could.

I believe Trudeau the Younger is using the Syrian migrants to try to recreate his father's national project, as if he can drag back into being one of the halcyon mythologies of what has become known to history as the "Trudeau years." "This is not about government signing a paper and bringing over refugees, this is a whole of Canada effort," he enthused. "This is the story of this country."

But instead of South Asian refugees on the edge of starvation, walking for miles and lining up for hours in festering camps in Thailand or Malaysia in hopes that today might be the day they escape to Canada, well fed Syrians are kinda 'meh' about the whole enterprise. And instead of the great coming together of 1979-80 in response to a people in genuine need, Canadians are deeply divided over the wisdom of immigrating significant numbers of people whose culture may or may not mesh well with the western ethos. Instead of public pressure to bring over more migrants faster, there's public pressure to bring over fewer, and more slowly. Operation Syrian Refugees, the jewel in the crown of Trudeau's Great Canadian Return to Sweetness and Light, has become a public affairs farce, an operational fiasco, and a political hot potato.

In 1990, biographers Christina McCall and Stephen Clarkson wrote of Trudeau the Elder: "He haunts us still." They were of course referring to his legacy, and they had no idea at the time that the real haunting would come in the person of his son. But this isn't 1980, Mr. Trudeau, these aren't the boat people, and you can't be your father.

— Scott Anderson is a Vernon City Councillor, freelance writer and a bunch of other stuff. His academic background is in International Relations, Strategic Studies, Philosophy, and poking progressives with rhetorical sticks until they explode.

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015
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