It's the kids your heart goes out to. The kids who woke up in Canada, in their parents' arms, after such a long journey from chaos. The kids who made it, unlike the little boy on the beach and all the other ones who didn't. We can't save them all, but we can save a few. Thanks to us, they will grow up in a safe and prosperous land far away from war.
Canada's outpouring of support for the Syrian refugees is deep and wide and heartfelt. Quarrel with the details if you will. The truth is that we are a compassionate and immigrant-positive country. Millions of us are chipping in a bit of holiday money and time to help support refugee families. The newcomers are helping to remind us what really matters. It is a rare and unifying moment.
But let's not overdo the self-congratulation. This really isn't costing much. And it certainly won't disrupt our way of life. We certainly look virtuous next to the Americans, who have grudgingly agreed to accept only 10,000 refugees.
But Germany has taken in nearly a million refugees this year alone – the equivalent of more than 400,000 in Canada. Little Sweden, which is less than one-third our population, has taken in around 190,000. Small towns are being flooded with newcomers, mostly young men from extremely different cultures who have few language or job skills. Do you think Canadians would be so open-hearted if all these people had landed on our shores instead?
So it's a little rich when Immigration Minister John McCallum holds us up as a beacon unto the world. "None of us wants to repel people from other countries," he said the other day, comparing Canada with less enlightened countries. "Hopefully our example will encourage others to take a more positive view."
The truth is that our immigrant- and refugee-friendly ways are highly contingent on our capacity to absorb the newcomers – and their capacity to integrate successfully. Our lip service to multiculturalism is about a mile wide and an inch deep. We believe that people who come here are entitled to wear and eat and pray to whatever god they want. But in everything that matters, we expect them to behave like us.
We also need to be aware that our friends the Americans may see our behaviour very differently from the way we do.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau warmly greets a planeload of Syrians, we swell with pride at the image that Canada is projecting around the world. But a lot of Americans get worried. They worry that Canadians are soft on terror. They wonder if we've vetted these people properly, and how we can bring them in so quickly when the U.S. vetting process takes two years or more.
It's no good reminding the worriers that terrorists are overwhelmingly home-grown. In the wake of Paris and San Bernardino, they're in a jumpy mood. Around 40 per cent of Americans now think national security and terrorism should be the government's top priority, according to a new Wall Street Journal poll. More than one-quarter worry they or their family will be a victim of a terror attack. "The clear message is that America is on the edge," one pollster said.
A large number of Americans – especially Republican politicians – suspect that bad guys lurk in Canada (and undoubtedly some do). And if U.S. authorities ever become convinced that our national security isn't up to scratch, we'll be sorry. They don't need to build a wall along the border to make our lives miserable. All they need to do is slow the flow of goods and people to a crawl.
Our own attitudes could also change in a heartbeat. All it would take would be one Islamic State-inspired, Paris- or San Bernardino-style attack, a catastrophe that's unfortunately all too conceivable.
Compared with just a year ago, "the nature of the threat is more acute" today, RCMP commissioner Bob Paulson told the Ottawa Citizen this week. "That's not lost on us. … And that is really upping the stakes."
How resilient would Canadians be then? What would become of our famous open-heartedness? Let's hope we never have to find out.