In 1913, the year before the Great War started and an era of globalization and confidence ended, the booming Dominion of Canada, with a population of fewer than eight million people, welcomed 400,000 immigrants. That's the equivalent of the Canada of today accepting close to two million newcomers, or about seven times our current immigration rate.
The new Canadians of a century ago were ethnically different from today's, coming mostly from the least pleasant shires of the United Kingdom, the worst corners of the Russian Empire and the most miserable parts of Mitteleuropa. But they came then, as they do today, because life where they were was nasty and brutish and worse, and Canada represented hope. "Canada," said Sir Wilfrid Laurier, "shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come." It has always been so.
The question is never how many want to come to Canada, because the answer is legion. It is nearly all of humanity. The question is: How many will we allow to come?
For Canadians, the planet seems small and close. We can fly across the Atlantic in six hours, and the Pacific in 10. But for those dreaming of our shores, Canada might as well be the moon, or heaven.
Europe is having a refugee crisis because it, unlike Canada, is geographically intimate with the rest of the world. You can see Greek islands from Asia Minor, and you can, if you are willing to risk death, sail a barely seaworthy small craft from North Africa to Italy. But absent an ocean liner, you aren't sailing to Canada. And absent the right passport, or the appropriate visa, or both, no airline will let you get on a plane to the promised land. The world cannot easily reach Canada. But we can reach out to the world.
Canada is a geographic outlier, and distance has given us choice. Canada long ago chose to be a relatively high-immigration country. Canada is also a political outlier: Our political parties, of left, right and centre, are pro-immigration, and public opinion is with them.
When it comes to refugees, Canadians have usually been generous, though not always. But the thing about this world is that it never stops creating new tragedies, and new opportunities for us to get it right the next time.
In 1956, after the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, Canada acted. This country admitted more than 37,000 refugees in less than a year, according to the Canadian Council on Refugees.
In 1972, after Ugandan dictator Idi Amin decided to expel his country's Asian population, Canada responded. By the end of 1973, more than 7,000 refugees had come to Canada. When the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, Canada took in 11,000 Czechs in a little more than six months.
And when the boat people began fleeing South Vietnam in the late 1970s, after the Communist takeover, the public pushed the government of the day to be generous. Canada agreed to admit 50,000, and in the end welcomed more. This country's generosity was such that, between 1978 and 1981, refugees made up one-quarter of all immigrants to Canada, compared with a level closer to 10 per cent in recent years.
Canada's response to these tragedies was open-hearted and swift.
We now know that relatives of Alan Kurdi, the 3-year-old whose lifeless body washed up on an Aegean beach, wanted to bring him and his family to Canada, but were hamstrung by bureaucratic impossibilities. On the campaign trail, each of the party leaders reacted to the harrowing image, and the Canadian connection, with emotion and empathy. Conservative Leader Stephen Harper spoke of how this could have been his own son, and focused on how the tragedy explains why Canada is fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and in Syria.
Mr. Harper's response was true – IS is one of the forces destroying two countries and creating refugees – but incomplete. Canada's mission against IS may be motivated by a desire to help. But we can help militarily, while also taking in more Syrian and Iraqi refugees. They aren't mutually exclusive.
It may be proper to work for the end of IS, but it isn't realistic to expect that it will be defeated tomorrow, or that the Assad regime will be replaced the day after, or that Iraq will suddenly turn into a constitutional democracy where minority rights are respected. Millions may be able to return to their homes eventually, but eventually, if it ever comes, will not be any time soon. Millions need help now.
In January, the Harper government said it would take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years, on top of 1,300 promised earlier. Mr. Harper's party recently pledged to take in 10,000 more. Immigration Minister Chris Alexander says Canada has so far accepted only about 2,300 Syrians, plus 22,000 Iraqis over the past few years.
Given the scale of the crisis, given that Canada comfortably takes in more than a quarter of a million immigrants every year with much benefit to both recipients and received, and given that a Canada planning for far fewer temporary foreign workers needs more permanent citizens, Canada can and should welcome far more refugees from Iraq and Syria. We should be aiming higher – much higher. Canadians who want to sponsor someone should be helped, not hindered. And the process to bring refugees here needs to move fast, as in earlier crises.
Four million people have fled Syria, and nearly eight million more are internally displaced. Canada by itself cannot erase these statistics. But that is not what we are asked to do.
The Talmud says that whoever saves a life saves the entire world. The Quran says the same: Whoso gives life to a soul, it shall be as if he had given life to mankind altogether. Canada cannot accept all the world's refugees. But we can take many. And if we save one life, and then another, we save the world.