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Let’s help our own without forgetting to help the refugees

In all of the reaction since the federal government's announcement that Canada was prepared to welcome and resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees (now, by the end of February), there has been one sentiment that I was particularly quick to dismiss.

It wasn't the fear that terrorists may be hiding among the desperate and broken families lucky enough to make their way here, or the worry that refugees will take jobs away from Canadians, or the notion that they somehow don't belong here – although all of that is nonsense.

No, it was the sentiment repeated in comment sections and on call-in shows across the land: Why don't we take care of our own first?

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There is much to loathe about that question, beginning with the phrase "our own." Let's be generous and assume that it means people of any nationality, race, religion, culture or sexual orientation who have already made their way to this country.

Then there's the word "first," which implies that we can't do both at once. Let's be generous there as well and assume it indicates that, while we have our own problems, we are also interested in helping people whose lives have been shattered and are currently doing their best not to freeze or starve to death in a refugee camp.

In fact, let's just drop the word "first" and say this instead: The Syrian refugee crisis has shown, once again, that Canadians are – for the most part – a compassionate people. It has also shown that when we are faced with a crisis – when lives are at risk – we can come together to offer help to those in desperate need. We can open our doors, collect furniture and clothing, and make significant cash contributions. Our churches, mosques, synagogues and temples have become rallying points.

All levels of government are helping to facilitate this, with our federal government spending hundreds of millions of dollars and countless hours of labour making sure that it happens. Neighbours are meeting to ensure that new arrivals feel welcome. People and friends are coming together to sponsor entire families.

We do this because mobilizing to help people who through no fault of their own have ended up in dire circumstances is the right thing to do.

Deciding whom we help and how much help we offer as individuals and as governments? Well, that's a choice that depends on what we collectively decide is important.

And we can decide that anything is an emergency; you don't have to look very far to find one.

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This is the time of year when food banks across British Columbia hope to fill their shelves and their coffers to make it through another year. There are 97 food banks in B.C. that, combined, see more than 100,000 people come through their doors each month.

Their clients are single parents, people who have become too ill to work, the working poor, retirees and people with a host of other challenges. Social-assistance rates, having not kept pace with the cost of living, mean that those people have no choice but to rely on food banks to feed themselves and their families. That's an emergency.

There is the rental emergency that has now spanned all of Metro Vancouver, with affordable buildings being razed and replaced with condo towers out of reach for anyone on a modest income – even if the purchaser decides to rent out the unit.

It has now been exactly six years since 224 units of family social housing were demolished at Little Mountain near Queen Elizabeth Park. One 53-unit building has been completed. The rest of the site remains a wasteland, with a developer keen to maximize profits trying to squeeze even more density out of the city.

Yes, it was old and, yes, the land was underused, but displacing families and knocking it all down before there was a firm plan or timeline in place for what would replace it? That was a choice.

Cast further and you'll find that 31 of the 324 First Nations communities in this province remain under boil-water advisories, which, for people living on those reserves, is an emergency but has been going on for so long that it's now the status quo.

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A shuttle bus to transport people along Highway 16 – the Highway of Tears – has been deemed impractical by the province. Eighteen women have been murdered or gone missing along the highway since the 1970s. An emergency? I guess not.

I've barely scratched the surface. I haven't even mentioned children in care, the needs of seniors, drug addiction and substance abuse, a lack of mental-health care and homelessness.

But does it all mean that we need to "take care of our own first," at the expense of resettling refugees?

I'm thinking that if we really put our minds to it, we could do both.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.

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