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Migrants crossing Greece’s border with Macedonia: Canada can, and should, do more, William A. Macdonald contends. (ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)
Migrants crossing Greece’s border with Macedonia: Canada can, and should, do more, William A. Macdonald contends. (ARMEND NIMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

There’s a big risk in doing too little for Syria’s refugees Add to ...

Munich – we did not face up. The Holocaust – we looked the other way. History may not repeat itself (Europe today is not the Europe of 1938, and the West is more aware of the interconnectedness of peoples and countries than it was back then), but sometimes, as the old saying goes, it rhymes – that is, it takes a different route and still winds up in much the same place.

Canada is struggling to cope with an influx of 25,000 Syrians, and so many more refugees from Africa and the Middle East have reached Europe already that its welcome mat is wearing thin.

The situation calls for more than compassion, on one hand, and vigilance, on the other. The full context is much bigger than that, and more complicated and urgent after the Paris attacks.

The danger lies in doing too little. We don’t want to wake up and find, once more, that we failed to meet the challenge, and stood by as Europe broke down and mass tragedy struck again.

Humanitarian and geopolitical

The lack of response at Munich to Hitler’s aggression against Czechoslovakia came at a high cost and almost ended with the suicide of Europe. Today, Western nations cannot back down; they must confront the geopolitical and humanitarian implications of the refugee challenge, as well as the implications for domestic security (the Paris attackers were homegrown, after all).

That challenge presents two serious problems: potential actions by terrorists who get through the screening process and the many hazards posed by a destabilized Europe. There is no Hitler, no Stalin, backed by a national army. So, while Europe is multi-challenged, overt threats to its inclusive order cannot as readily lead to world war.

But no one knows how far Russia under Vladimir Putin may try to go – and stability is already an issue. The refugee crisis has the 28 members of the European Union divided, and threatens Chancellor Angela Merkel’s governing coalition in Germany – a very dangerous development, given the existential crisis that has begun in the eurozone (the 19 countries that use the euro). Having a common currency is stressing the social contracts of EU members with weaker economies, and we cannot foretell how the crisis will unfold.

Meanwhile, the situation is being aggravated by a host of other factors, from high youth unemployment, antagonism over migration between EU countries and the risk Britain may withdraw from the union to the crisis in Ukraine and, of course, the carnage in the City of Light.

Canadian voters helped

None of this may seem to apply to Canada, which has just gone through an election in which its tradition of mutual accommodation prevailed yet again. In a way, what Canadians voted for was almost more important than who won. Some 65 per cent of voters opposed attempts to stir up Islamophobia (such as discriminating against women who wear the niqab), and supported the three parties that favour a stronger refugee performance.

More Muslims than ever cast ballots (their participation rate may have been higher than that of the population as a whole), and a record 11 Muslims were sent to Parliament. Also, the campaign was affected by the refugee crisis, beginning with the famous photographs of a little Syrian boy washed up on a Mediterranean beach. The ensuing compassion was fuelled day by day with images of migrants as they boarded flimsy boats and trudged through Europe.

Parts of the election were far from uplifting. We had a prime minister falsely charging that his two main opponents planned to bring in hundreds of thousands of refugees with no security checks, proposing a law against “barbaric” cultural practices, encouraging citizens to spy and report on each other, and using cultural and religious differences as a vote-getting wedge issue.

But two-thirds of voters rejected these divisive themes. Polling strategist Michael Marzolini told me many years ago that a majority of Canadians favoured capital punishment but did not vote for a candidate who did. They wanted leaders less extreme than themselves. This election showed that they haven’t changed .

Where there’s a will …

In any event, the great danger to Canada is not its own refugee security, which can be managed. Rather, it is the geopolitical situation – the stability of Europe and containment of the instability in the Middle East.

Munich was a failure of will and collective action, at unimaginably great cost. And it could happen again, in a different way.

In a recent Financial Times column, Martin Wolf discussed why Europe could not have escaped the current crisis. “The last thing the EU wanted to deal with was a tide of refugees …,” he explained. “The desperate human beings landing on European shores pose daunting moral, political and practical difficulties. But a way has to be found to manage them without sacrificing the values on which modern Europe was built.”

The same is true for the entire West – and most especially for Canada, which has long known that it and the rest of the world are inescapably interdependent.

Serious thought must now be given to the disruptive, large-scale human mobility that may lie ahead. Canada needs to figure out in the short term how much it can realistically do and the logistics of how to do it. Paris has made the goal of accepting 25,000 Syrians even more challenging. Longer term, the government must engage in a broad, substantive conversation about how to make the influx a success, both for the refugees and for Canada. As well as assistance, newcomers deserve recognition for the strength they showed in leaving home and respect for what they can bring to Canada.

At the same time, varying attitudes toward (and fear of) anyone different are inevitable and must be taken into consideration. If done well, reaching out is good for us all.

We are all migrants in a way

The story of humanity is about journeys: Some of us choose to leave home and everything we are accustomed to, while others are forced to do so. A successful transition always requires two things: We must come to stand on our own two feet, and we need some help to do that.

Refugees rarely choose to come. They are driven by fear into a decision that is less under their control than it is the product of chaos. Which is why they may go back if the danger subsides.

Now, however, what they need is Canada’s capacity to do what works and, through mutual accommodation, transform chaos into a stable way forward so they can meet the challenge all immigrants must face: learning to stand on their own in unfamiliar surroundings.

How well they fare is mostly up to them. Almost 40 years ago, our family participated in an effort to assist draft dodgers, who had left the U.S. illegally to avoid serving in Vietnam. When they arrived, many had a plan and showed strength, independence and self-esteem. But that did not last for some, who slipped into a pitiful form of dependence, pleading: “Please let me stay.”

How independent and self-sufficient Syrian refugees are will determine whether their adventure ends well. And taking in 25,000 is only a small part of what is needed from this country. Canada is in a special place to start collective thinking, which can lead to collective action on all three aspects of the problem: humanitarian, domestic security and geopolitical stability. The new government has members with a multitude of diverse experiences suited to the task.

We are all migrants in a way, but most of us are not fear-driven refugees. Yet many people who are physically safe in Canada still feel unsafe because of the multiple changes going on around them. They feel that Canada is somehow leaving them.

But life itself is a form of migration in space and time, and perhaps no one ever feels quite at home in a world where death comes to everyone. Death is the ultimate existential threat and mystery. Which is why the meaning of life has been fundamental to most people through the ages.

So it should not surprise us that sociocultural and religious differences can disturb us unless our understanding of the world has grown large enough to become more inclusive. These deep-seated feelings can be intense around war-zone refugees from societies where very small minorities become terrorists.

We all share death but we differ about what it means. As British writer Karen Armstrong, a specialist in faith and modern society, has put it, religious extremism comes from fundamentalist fears. It is one part of what fuels both Syria and the Paris attacks.


Of course, the newcomers may pose a security threat – a Syrian passport, either counterfeit or stolen and used to obtain refugee status, was found near one of the Paris bombers. But a bigger danger is the impact they may have on society at large: an outbreak of Islamophobia.

Over the past few months, we have seen three remarkable clips of Muslim women on television. On election day the woman who won the right to wear a niqab in her Canadian citizenship ceremony was shown, as she emerged from a voting booth, her eyes sparkling. A second clip featured a woman telling a CBC reporter that she too prefers the veil but instead covers just her hair because that makes Canadians less uncomfortable. Finally, another woman in a hijab was shown handing her baby to Justin Trudeau and promising to vote for him so her daughter will live in a country where she can make her own choices.

Each woman is enthusiastic for Canada and its values – and yet the lawyer who won the niqab case is receiving hate mail.

Islamophobia is part of the refugee challenge everywhere and it could get worse, especially if oil vulnerabilities become reality in the Arab Gulf states and their social contracts become unsustainable. This could be serious and mean even more migrants.

Now is the time to prepare and forestall. Every government, institution and individual must get involved. Realpolitik math – Muslims account for almost one-quarter of the global population – makes it vital that we head off Islamophobia at the pass.

A new Pearson moment?

The immediate challenge is doing what it takes amid the chaos of hundreds of thousands of Syrian migrants fleeing a war zone. Looking ahead, failed states and climate change will likely prompt global migration on a very large scale for decades.

These crises will require a collective strategic approach. Lester Pearson was right, as Canada’s minister of external affairs when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed, to want NATO to focus on social and economic challenges as well as military ones. The Vietnam War and various U.S.-led military adventures in the Middle East have validated the view that collective military action and social and economic action fare best when they go hand in hand. Too often, they do not, and in the fight against Islamic State, they must.

At present, the humanitarian aspect of the refugee crisis calls for compassion. But the geopolitical part will be a long and arduous journey needing consensus and patience.

Large-scale migrations will slow only when we have a better world.

Having a role that goes beyond military intervention may also give NATO a more certain future, and Canadian global leadership and skillful diplomatic effort can help to make that happen.

In the meantime, we must start talking about what we can do and what is needed next.

Recent terrorist acts – the Russian plane downed over Egypt, then the bombings in Beirut (45 dead) and Paris a day later – may bring an abyss moment leading to stronger collective action to counter IS (which has bitten off more than it can chew).

The new government faces tough decisions on the role Canada should play – and ordinary Canadians must consider what they can do.

While making his curtain call after performing in Hamlet at the National Theatre in London, actor Benedict Cumberbatch recited a few lines from Home by Warsan Shire, a rising young poet whose family came to Britain as refugees:

No one leaves home unless home chased you ... no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.

Then he asked the audience (including a British cabinet minister) to donate to Syrian-refugee relief on the way out.

It’s an idea well worth applying here. Why not have groups such as Lifeline Syria provide collection boxes, so that anyone attending a public event can contribute? Allowing them to express their generosity helps Canadians get involved.

Not that a good many aren’t involved already. In a world that often seems anti-immigrant, Canada provides some good news. Its resettlement-aid organizations are being overwhelmed with offers of people’s time and money – and both are badly needed.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., and has an extensive record of public service. To spark discussion of the nation’s future, he and associate William R.K. Innes have created The Canadian Narrative Project along with Trent University. See www.canadiandifference.ca

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