With Cabinet shuffles come opportunities and the latest by Prime Minister Stephen Harper is no exception.
Jason Kenney has long held positions in the Cabinet that were focused on Canada's diversity. Beginning as the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Canadian Identity, he was elevated shortly thereafter to Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.
Mr. Kenney is a keen politician, a loyal Harper Conservative and workhorse extraordinaire. At first it seemed difficult to reconcile Mr. Harper's decision to place Mr. Kenney in this portfolio given Mr. Kenney's seeming lack of credentials for this job but, surprisingly, over the years he became the Tory rock star of Multiculturalism.
Indeed, it seemed there wasn't an ethnic event, faith service or multicultural carnival that didn't have Mr. Kenney showing up as a guest. From Kippahs to Kirpans, Mr. Kenney understood well the need to glad-hand and be seen. The ethnic communities lapped it up, even though policies enacted during his time as minister – especially on the immigration and refugee file – were devastating. It was as though Mr. Kenney's larger-than-life presence within communities blinded people to hard facts of draconian legislative policy that seemed to turn back the hands of time.
Canada, known as a welcoming place for the stateless and those facing mortal discrimination, has become a place of refusal as a result of Mr. Kenney's new stamp on refugee legislation. Not since the days immediately before the Second World War, when Canada became infamous for a refugee policy that purposely excluded Jews fleeing Eastern Europe, have we seen such a state of affairs.
Sadly racism and discrimination have a tendency to be muscular. As a Jew, I am all too familiar with refugee discrimination and the memory of suffering we have endured as a result of being powerless is long and deep. My mother escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe, coming to Canada to make a new life while my father – a Holocaust survivor – chose Canada as his home to heal following the devastation of genocide. And while Canada was not always the open society we would have hoped for, it seems that over the decades lessons were learned and compassionate changes made to welcome and absorb those who needed refuge.
Much of that changed with the Harper government's view on 21st century immigration. Tragically it appears that our government believes "None is (once again) too many" when it comes to refugees.
However the beauty of humankind is our ability to acknowledge mistakes and work towards correcting them. With the emergence of MP Chris Alexander as the new Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, a "new-think" can develop. Given his background there may be hope.
As Canada's first resident ambassador in Kabul, later as a deputy special representative of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Mr. Alexander has a profound understanding of the fear resulting from the ravages of war and displacement. He has an opportunity to stand strong, be courageous and bring Canada back to the immigration and refugee equilibrium we were so celebrated for in the past.
If I were to be asked by the new minister "what three things can I do today to change the paradigm?" I would respectfully suggest the following:
Remove Hungary and Mexico from the Designated Safe Country list. This can be done immediately and without legislative reform. These designations impact vulnerable communities – ethnic minorities, the LGBTQ community and women facing gender violence. The Minister can also propose an amendment to the law to provide for an expert human rights panel to assess whether a country might be safe, rather than allow designation by statistics. And he can seek to amend the law to provide an automatic periodic review after designation and add appeal rights to persons from designated countries.
Change the Order in Council to restore the same health care system that has worked well since 1957. No legislative amendment is required, it can be done immediately. Institute a means test as suggested by Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care.
Scrap the proposed regulatory amendment to lowering the age of dependency to 18 from under 22. This will affect every family applying for permanent residence in Canada. No family believes a 19 year old should be excluded from a family application and left behind.
There is more but this would be a good start.
I understand the complexities and difficulties faced by a minister with a new portfolio. However, even these small recommendations can help restore our faith in Canadian compassion and way of life. It can go a long way in returning Canada to that bastion of decency where all people are treated with dignity and respect.
Bernie Farber is a founding member of the Jewish Refugee Action Network. He is senior vice-president of Gemini Power Corp., where he works with first nations in developing sustainable industries on reserves.