I have written a fair amount about refugees, for reasons that are easy to explain. These are ordinary people who, by virtue of plain bad luck or in some cases from sticking to their convictions, have been forced into unimaginably vulnerable positions, often into extreme danger—their needs so immediate as to even negate attempts at pity. They are also a warning system of sorts to a complacent world: you know something truly awful is going on when people start fleeing their homes and everything they know. And so when we turn our backs on them it strikes me as a particularly deplorable affront to our common humanity.
Well, we have been turning our back on them a lot lately—or at least our government has, and so, too, the rest of us by association. This month we did it again.* I have tried writing about this particular item a couple of times, but I can’t seem to find the right words. Not that this time it’s any more or less deplorable than anything else we’ve done, it’s just that it’s all beginning to feel absurd. How do we talk rationally in the face of such irrational behaviour? How do we talk sensibly about the nonsensical? How do we talk about compassion in the face of such contempt? It becomes an exhausting and utterly depressing game of catch-up.
For a long time I have avoided the elephant in the room. And the elephant is this: that our government hates refugees, plain and simple. I’m a fairly reasonable person—it is important for you to understand this. I choose my words carefully, and I am not prone to hyperbole. But this is the conclusion I have come to. Our government hates refugees, and they are doing a heck of a job convincing us to hate them, too.
We have let them convince us about a lot of things. We have learned that refugees are not using the correct, legal channels to enter our country. That they aren’t playing by the rules. That they are jumping the queue (indeed, that there is a queue). That some deserve assistance and some do not. That alarming numbers are fraudsters, even criminals. That they are taking advantage of our generous system. That they are a drain on our economy. That they receive better health care than Canadians. That cuts to their benefits are not only justified but will save us money. That our old system was threatening to make us the doormat of the world. That Canada is taking in its fair share of refugees.
Flat out lies. All of it. Each one is a big fat lie.
But the problem with exposing lies is that it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. It is getting us nowhere because the government is controlling the conversation. They have taken control of it, in fact, systematically and deftly. And here we are, running around, trying to defend a system as it falls apart around us.
We need to control the conversation and turn things around. We need to set the agenda. This is not a discussion about who deserves what. And there is no economic argument. These things aren’t even relevant. It’s like trying to explain the religious significance of a Fudgsicle. It is irrelevant and it is absurd to do so.
Our response to refugees must instead come out of, and be a part of, a discussion about who we want to be—as national and global citizens, as members of community, as moral and ethical beings. Who do we want to be? Who do we really want to be? What kind of a society do we want to live in? What values are important to us? Do we, on a fundamental level, want to be governed by greed, or by compassion? The essential equality of all human beings and our responsibility to each other—these need to be the touchstones against which all policy is tested. Not economic benefit, not merit, not fear. Those are just Fudgsicles.
When we go to court to prevent pregnant women and young children from receiving medical treatment, we cannot, must not, ask ourselves if it is worth spending our money on them. It is imperative that we ask ourselves, instead, if we really want to push people into even more vulnerable and marginalized lives. If it is worth putting their lives at risk. If it is worth dismissing their basic humanity.
This has be our approach to anyone who is marginalized, whether a refugee, or Indigenous, or suffering from a mental illness, or driven into poverty or crime or addiction, or of a gender that confuses us or an ethnicity that frightens us.
We cannot think in terms of “us versus them.” It is a cancer. Refugees are not merely refugees—they are human, and they are just like us. It is a very simple concept that we can’t seem to get through our frighteningly thick skulls. If we cannot help them, then we are incapable of helping ourselves, because the two are fundamentally interchangeable.
Earlier this November, the federal Conservatives made an astoundingly reckless gamble, risking—and narrowly avoiding—being found in contempt of court. Why? Because they’ve refused to comply with a Federal Court order to reinstate health care for refugees. Earlier in the year the court deemed the Conservatives’ gutting of the refugee health care program “cruel and unusual,” and unconstitutional, and ordered the policy reversed. The Conservatives responded by appealing the decision, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money to do so. They eventually agreed to comply (temporarily, pending the appeal), and to be fair they did restore some of the cuts. But for the most part they were just lying through their teeth. They only restored some benefits to some categories of refugees, quite selectively.
The government’s breakdown of what they restored and what they didn’t is a bit wonky, so I made up my own. For starters, mine actually indicates the three main categories of refugees. The government, insisting on preferential treatment to the bitter end, begins their breakdown with the two categories of resettled refugees, then tucks their least favourite category—the main one, ordinary refugees—further down the list, calling them “non-designated country of origin refugee claimants,” whatever that means.