Joe Gunn

October 11, 2010

Even before this summer's boatload of 492 Tamil refugees docked on Canadian shores, government ministers in Ottawa were threatening firmer measures to deal with "traffickers." In Quebec, the provincial government has introduced legislation banning the niquab and other face coverings from public-sector venues.

At the sanctuary house for women where I volunteer, the number of refugee applicants has fallen dramatically since the safe third country agreement with the U.S. was implemented. A newly minted conservative policy organization referred this month to "the dysfunctional nature of the refugee system," while advocating major change to Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Canada accepted about 250,000 immigrants and 170,000 temporary foreign workers last year. Some fear that the new arrivals are not assimilating adequately into mainstream society. Will getting tougher with newcomers help us feel more secure?

People of faith recognize their Church communities as places of encounter with and support of, newcomers.


As the Canadian bishops wrote in March 2004, "People have come to Canada from all over the globe, bringing with them their talents, hopes, dreams and aspirations. To them we say: 'Welcome! Our lives and our history are blessed by your presence, and our common future dawns brighter with the promise of even fuller interaction among us.'"

That 2004 statement went to state that, "In Canada today, governments should renew their efforts to defend and welcome refugees and migrants."

I've worked with refugees in Canada and abroad for decades, and I'm reminded that there were times when we could have closed our doors, and our hearts - but decided that was not the Canadian way.

On Sept. 11, a violent act took place that cost the lives of thousands of innocent people, including Canadians. It was Sept. 11, 1973, when the democratically-elected government of Chile was overthrown by a murderous military coup d'état.

Thousands of Chilean refugees came to Canada during the later 1970s. The country was ill-prepared to receive them. Refugee policy was really in its infancy, and governments weren't ready to meet the needs of these people.

In 1974 and early 1975, some 68 families, well over 100 Chilean refugees, landed in Regina. A young graduate of Campion College, on his first year at the job with what was then known as Manpower and Immigration, was given the file.


Neil Gavigan, who later rose to head up several programs in the federal civil service, remembers that the government then wasn't into rules and regulations that blocked the reception and settlement of refugees.

Gavigan describes this work of finding jobs for the adults, inventing a rent subsidy program to allow the refugee families some financial security, and getting the kids into schools as "people just worrying about how to help these folks out." For him, these times were "my best years in government."

If we really want to make pluralism and diversity values rather than threats in our communities today, what can be done?

In 2004, Statistics Canada used census data compiled in Canada's 27 largest cities from 1980 to 2000, and discovered that 35 per cent of recent immigrants lived under the poverty line. This was more than three times the poverty rate of the general population, and immigrant poverty had risen by as much as 60 per cent over those 20 years.

(Newcomer advocates suggest that newcomer poverty would actually be closer to 50 per cent today if temporary workers, refugee claimants and non-status persons were included in the statistics.)

In other times, newcomers to Canada (like my mother) were not destined to remain in poverty forever. We might recall that when economic times get rough and unemployment rises, newcomers often become the targets of resentment. Action to change the structures of our labour markets so that they facilitate access for newcomers rather than block their financial success is urgently needed.

Recent scholarship, such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett's book, The Spirit Level, makes a strong case that the quality of social relations deteriorates in less equal societies. They show that the percentage of people agreeing, "most people can be trusted" is higher in more equal countries.

Thus, it would seem to follow that narrowing the growing gap between rich and poor can provide the additional benefit of decreasing tension expressed towards newcomers.


Next year, Canada will celebrate the 40th anniversary of this country's multiculturalism policy. To celebrate diversity and pluralism in Canadian society, we might follow the advice of our bishops that interfaith dialogue and respectful contact with people of other religions are privileged ways for Catholics to promote more just relationships. We might also do all in our power to eliminate poverty and narrow the gap between rich and poor at home and around the globe.

(Joe Gunn is the Ottawa-based executive director of Citizens for Public Justice,, an ecumenical social advocacy organization.)