By early 2014 — well before ISIS was a blip on the media’s radar — roughly 2.5 million Syrians were displaced worldwide. No more than 10 Syrian refugees had been admitted to Canada at the time.
Not much attention was paid to refugees languishing in squalid and inadequate camps, and most Western nations had no proposals to resettle them. This all changed when the refugees at the periphery decided they had had enough and crossed into Europe — and our consciousness.
The photo of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s body lying ashore provoked horror and concern for refugees. After it was revealed that members of Kurdi’s family were actively denied entry to Canada, Harper’s government found itself on the defensive. In response, it framed the issue as one of security, not humanitarianism.
Such a strategy has a precedent in Canada’s refusal to admit European Jewish refugees during the Second World War, largely on racial grounds. In defending Canada’s policy towards Jewish refugees at the time, Prime Minister MacKenzie King explained that a “country should surely have the right to determine what strains of blood it wishes to have in its population.”
Between 1933 and 1945, Canada reluctantly admitted fewer than 5,000 European Jewish refugees escaping Hitler’s wrath — the worst record for any Western government, and a paltry and unjustifiable figure compared to that of other smaller and less well-off nations. Argentina took in 50,000, while Bolivia and Chile accepted 14,000.
The main architect behind shutting Canada’s borders was Frederick Charles Blair, director of the Immigration Branch from 1936 to 1943. He was a highly influential civil servant under King’s government and bragged to his colleagues that he was responsible for keeping Jews out of the country under intense pressure from lobbying groups and various governments.
Moreover, he regarded Jews as inherently unassimilable and expressed strong personal distaste for “certain of their habits.” In one instance, he explained that that Jewish refugees were conspiring to “bring immigration regulations into disrepute and create an atmosphere favorable to those who cannot comply with the law.”
As odd as it seems, even for the time, expressions of empathy for the plight of the unfortunate were politically astute and indeed commonplace. Despite his patent anti-Semitism, when Blair was pressed, he expressed regret over the fate of millions of Jews trapped in Europe awaiting their death. Similarly, Prime Minister Harper and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander have also expressed profuse regret for Syrian refugees when asked. Eulogy is a political skill.
We’ve come a long way from the days when public officials could openly express their resentment for one minority group or another. But this could also mean that we’re more invested in the appearance of progress.
Harper is surely not the first to frame a humanitarian issue as a security issue. For instance, King’s government had placed 2,284 European Jews in internment camps under the logic they were “enemy aliens” because they had escaped enemy territories in Europe, despite the fact they had been trying to find refuge well before the Nazis were declared the enemy. None of them were found guilty of any crime.
The Jewish refugee issue was a nuisance to be avoided at all costs for King’s government, which repeatedly regurgitated the mantra that Canada was doing more than enough. It insisted ad infinitum that the point wasn’t to welcome the refugees, but to defeat the Nazis. Of course, by the time the war was over, six million Jews had already perished.
Harper’s government manages to take such brazen deflection to new heights by falsely claiming that Canada is “the largest per capita refugee receiver in the world” (it’s ranked 41st) and that in order to help the refugees, ISIS must be defeated. There is no mention of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who killed more civilians this year than ISIS did by sevenfold and has done so since 2011, before the 2014 emergence of ISIS as a major player in the civil war. But, of course, “secular,” clean-shaven men in suits do not exactly fit the right-wing fantasy of the perfect bogeyman.
Remembrance of things past
Immigration Minister Chris Alexander was pressed to account for denying Aylan Kurdi’s family entry into Canada, especially given that they have a relative in B.C. Citizenship and Immigration issued a statement saying that the application “did not meet regulatory requirements for proof of refugee status recognition.”
This response echoed the same cold, heartless bureaucratic rationale that Blair offered when 907 Jewish refugees on board the MS St. Louis were turned away from docking in Halifax in 1939: they didn’t qualify as refugees. About a third of those on board didn’t survive the war in Europe.
This particular incident is memorialized at a monument in Halifax, The Wheel of Conscience. In light of Canada’s current record of resistance to refugee resettlement and the government’s misrepresentation of that record, we should ask about the purpose of memorials dedicated to the memory of European Jews who had the misfortune to be shut out of Canada when seeking urgent refuge.
Undoubtedly, Canada (and the West) has come a long way since then in upholding decency, tolerance and humaneness as paramount values. But one fears that such self-evident progress serves as justification for complacency and inaction today.
Such tendencies are exemplified in the self-congratulatory triumphalist vector with which memorials function today: what is memorialized was then, and we have moved along towards a more compassionate, diverse society. Let us then heap praise on ourselves with the aid of that mirror we christened The Past. As the late historian Tony Judt succinctly made this point, memorials have “become part of the past, not a reminder of it.”
We become further alienated from the past — with the aid of memorials — when the identity of the victims is constantly emphasized and elevated above their political status as refugees and persecuted minorities. Identity is transformed into a site where victimhood is particularized and displaced. The result is a distillation of the past into a set of tropes and stereotypes: Jewish suffering, Irish suffering, Polish suffering, Chinese suffering, and so on.
Such projections only serve to isolate such suffering from perennial forces that persist to this day: fear of strangers, fear of difference, and fear of change. It thus follows that the compartmentalization of victimhood into distinct identities provides the unmistakable impression that we should be alarmed only when the usual groups are targeted. This tendency is very much perennial.
There’s something deeply cynical, insidious and hypocritical about the insinuation from political figures that ISIS members might be embedded with the refugees. This is an expression of closet racism, not comprehension of what the organization is capable of. As Matt Perriss observes, “ISIS is a high tech, media savvy, multi-billion dollar organization that is operating on a global platform against the most sophisticated counter-insurgency operations on the planet . . . [A]irports are top of the list. If Jihadists are coming, and perhaps they are, then that’s where they would come. Complete with plastic surgery, ceramic Glocks and state of the art forged passports. First Class tickets. Trained professionals. Not up to their knees in cow shit begging for water off a Serbian peasant farmer.”
It’s unlikely that CSIS and other leading intelligence agencies aren’t aware of this fact. The insistence on the part of the informed political leadership that the refugee issue is a security issue is nothing but a euphemistic insistence that “none is too many.”
Those were the words of an anonymous immigration agent in 1945 in response to how many Jews should be allowed to settle in Canada. Sadly, when it comes to refugees we seem to have learned little from these lessons of history.