Immigration is the foundation of contemporary Canada. Every non-aboriginal Canadian has ancestors who were immigrants or refugees, if they are not either of those themselves. This is what makes the current situation of refugees from Syria arriving in Canada so notable. This is not an exception to our rules, this is what we’ve always done. A quick moment of retrospection on Canada’s social history reveals that people from every continent, race, and religion have arrived here since the colonial times seeking freedom and safety.
The federal government here is working toward the target of bringing 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February. This is hardly a radical move, but is really just another layer of bricks on a firm foundation that has deep footings in Canadian history, especially since World War II. In the 1940s and 1950s, thousands of people arrived here from Europe, many of them impoverished and displaced by war. They arrived at places like Pier 21, the former immigrant receiving station in Halifax harbor that is basically Canada’s Ellis Island. In 1979-1980, Canada let in 60,000 displaced “boat people” from Indochina (including Vietnam and Cambodia) in just 18 months.
As in the past, Canadian communities and individuals are doing a tremendous amount to welcome, help, and include Syrian refugees. Eastern Ontario and Western Quebec are no exception to this. In Ottawa, Refugee 613 (613 is the local telephone area code) is the combined effort of community organizations, health care providers, and religious groups and leaders from every faith. It describes itself as “Ottawa’s response to the global refugee crisis” and an effort to guide citizens on how to make the refugee sponsorship, fundraising, and settlement process in Ottawa go as efficiently as possible. Their website gives information on all of these things in addition on how to volunteer.
The fundraising and sponsorship of refugees in the city goes deeper than providing instructions on how to do it. It’s actually happening and the response has been overwhelming. Just recently, the agency helping government-sponsored refugees settle in Ottawa had to suspend accepting arrivals because all of the temporary housing spaces were filled. Space for up to 2,000 people is needed. The local United Way chapter is raising funds for its Ottawa United for Refugees campaign, but it’s the grassroots, bottom-up, goodness of their hearts folks whose efforts are most moving to read about. These are the students, neighbours, congregations, and associations of people from all lifestyles who have put aside their differences and rallied around their common concern and compassion for people in peril.
Syrian refugee support efforts are not limited to the big city. The smaller communities in the region are just as involved. Meetings have been held and volunteers have come forward to assist in tiny places like Finch and Morrisburg. Kingston, Brockville, Cornwall, Manotick, and Hawkesbury are the eastern Ontario communities all listed as officially accepting Syrian refugees.
On the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, over 200 refugees are expected to resettle in Gatineau. Just north of the city in Wakefield, a grassroots effort of local residents formed Wakefield for Refugees (Wakefield pour les Refugiés) and have raised over $55,000 and hopes to welcome two Syrian families to the rustic village on the Gatineau River.
According to Canada’s Department of Citizenship, Immigration, and Refugees, over 11,600 people from Syria have already arrived in Canada. That’s nearly half the target of 25,000 by the end of February. In perspective, Canada, with a population of just over 35 million, is adding the equivalent population to Brockville, Ontario or Watertown, New York. 44 flights have arrived at Canadian airports to bring these people here and 151 communities are officially accepting Syrian refugees for resettlement.
Canadians are a modest lot, though. We don’t brag about our achievements. The average response to a compliment is likely to be “Yeah, so, we’re just doing the right thing.”