Hospitality Nation?

Many of us have been raised to think of Canada as a country built of refugees and other immigrants. When we think of the nation’s his- tory, early religious refugees come to mind, as well as waves of newcomers following the World Wars, the Vietnamese boat people, and others fleeing tragedy in their homelands. In recent years, Canada has gained an international reputation for allowing increasing numbers of sexual minority refugees to settle here. Considered around the world as one of the best countries to live, applauded for its diversity and multiculturalism, most of us like to think of Canada as a place of homecoming and welcome.
Photo: Terry Fincher, 1968
Photo: Terry Fincher, 1968
In recent decades, however, Canada’s image as a nation of hospitality has slowly begun to crumble. Some of this has been caused by exposing the truth of the past, such as the boats of Jewish refugees turned away during the Second World War. It is also a result of a series of changes to our national immigration policies. Tom Denton of Winnipeg’s Hospitality House explains that the biggest change occurred in 2011, when the federal government put a cap on the number of privately sponsored refugees they would allow into the country each year: just 6,500 privately sponsored refugees from coast to coast.
Under the previous federal administration, however, the number of privately sponsored refugees actually coming into the country each year was closer to 5,000. With 34,000 claimants currently in process, it would take six years for them all to arrive if no new applications were accepted.
On the door of Hospitality House’s cramped office at the Catholic Centre for Social Justice, there is a letter in red font explaining why they cannot currently accept new refugee applications. With such a backlog in the system and so much work to be done to process the ones currently on file, it’s futile to add more claims.
Only 2,000 new applications were accepted into the national system last year, and the staff at Hospitality House worry that flooding the system further will make it even more difficult for current claimants to get through.
Photo: CARE Canada, 2013
Photo: CARE Canada, 2013

This problem was well underway in Canada before the wave of Syrian refugees began to flood Europe and the world started to ask how it can aid so many in finding safe places to call home. What is the solution? For Tom’s colleague, Karin Gordon, the answer is simple: the federal government needs to replace the annual cap. Under this model, private sponsors would continue to pay the costs of supporting newcomers for their first year in the country, but if the money could be found, the people would be allowed to come.
In the next month, some families will be blessed by being ushered through the system at record speed, thanks to the new federal administration’s promise to bring an additional 25,000 refugees to Canada by spring. This number is in addition to any others already coming through, causing refugee resettlement organizations across the country to call all hands on deck, even suspending staff Christmas vacation time. Manitoba’s share is approximately 6% of this number, or 1,500 newcomers.
For the staff at Hospitality House, who are always concerned about the long- term implications of refugee policies, there are questions about how the government will respond when those 25,000 come to Canada and, in turn, want to begin sponsoring their own extend- ed families. Will the system develop an even more impossible backlog, or will this new government lift some of the current restrictions on numbers coming into the country?
Many refugees are turned away by immigration officials because they cannot prove their identity or their status as refugees. Proving who they are is a near-im- possible feat for a person who has been driven from his or her home. Hussein Sheik, for example, featured in the Rupert’s Land News’ November magazine, came from Somalia, which has not had a stable government to issue identification for decades. In a small act of mercy, our new government has agreed to allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country without full docu- mentation, although they still undergo screening.
For two Syrian families, now resettled in the West Broadway neighbourhood of Winnipeg, being chosen by Canadian immigration was like winning the lottery. For their 12 children, born amidst war, fear, and hun- ger, the yard where they play at Mulvey School every day is like a dream land. Unbeknownst to them, their presence enriches the lives of their Canadian neighbours, who must wrestle with the chaos of the world arriving on their doorstep.
Refugees grow our children’s understanding of the world, says Tom. Economically, they “are like a kind of fertilizer,” bringing with them great ambition and a desire to succeed. A return to greater numbers of refugees will mean a return to the Canada we stood at attention for in grade school. Who are the true Canadians? They are indigenous peoples and newcomers. There is no one else.

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