This year the world was shocked by violent attacks in Europe, and disheartened by the undeniable indications that the conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, North/South Sudan, Iraq and Libya (to name a few) are unlikely to be resolved anytime soon. All of these wars have led to indiscriminate killing and maiming of ordinary children, women and men. All this amidst the backdrop of global inequity and massive human-forced displacement on a scale not seen in Europe since the second world war and Canada’s own new intake of Syrian refugees. These events have undeniably altered the social, political and cultural landscapes around the world and led to drastic changes in rhetoric and policies on how sovereign nations approach the “tired huddled masses” that these volatile conflicts have generated. Particularly concerning is the rise and growing social acceptance of far right-movements in former socially progressive European states, more recent open-door-policy reversals in the Nordic states and the rise of Trumpist xenophobia in the United States.
In the midst of political uncertainty and acrimony, it is easy for us Canadians to congratulate ourselves on our internationally celebrated refugee policies. After all aren’t we are a model of tolerance? In the words of our prime minister “In Canada we see diversity as a source of strength not weakness”. (Justin Trudeau, UN general embassy Spt 21, 2016). However, any Canadian historian would be hard pressed to accept this as an epitaph of Canadian culture. They would have to overlook a history of cultural genocide against Indigenous Canadians, Japanese interment camps, boat loads of desperate refugees turned back to their deaths, and only recently revoked policies that limited the ability of refugees to access health care in Canada. Our legacy as a state that values equity and human rights is much more precarious than the current zeitgeist might suggest. Even in the midst of policies oriented at alleviating the terrible suffering of civilians in protracted conflicts, there are countless missing aboriginal women in Canada. Shameful little has been done to combat this and third parties have observed a discouraging trend of race based discrimination in institutional approaches to these missing women (Gilchrist, 2010; IACHR, 2014).
With this in mind it is important to test our feelings of pride and satisfaction against the facts. The reactionary policy changes in the Nordic states to terrorist attacks in Europe provide an excellent example of feelings of fear and paranoia leading to regression of socially progressive factual policies and international human rights norms that have painstakingly been established for the benefit and protection of all human beings. Perhaps much could be gleaned from taking a minute and conducting a thought experiment, “What would have to happen for me to want Canada to stop taking refugees?” Yet there are some who argue that the immediate costs justify policies oriented towards nationalistic self-preservation, while others point out that many experts feel the long-term benefits of taking in refugees and migrants provide a net benefit (Jacobsen, 2002).
The enduring question raised by these realities is how do we as individuals, as members of a university, and as Canadians pursue pragmatic and morally competent policies. The first step is dialogue. On October 21st and 22nd of this year the Health and Human Rights Conference will bring together policy experts and practitioners to share ideas and challenge current and past approaches to providing health and security in the midst of conflict in our communities, country and globe. We hope you will join us!
Daniel Korpal, HHRC 2016 Co-Chair
Special thanks to Sonal Marwah for her valuable insight into the ongoing refugee crisis.
Gilchrist, K. (2010). “Newsworthy” Victims? Exploring differences in Canadian local press coverage of missing/murdered Aboriginal and White women.Feminist media studies, 10(4), 373-390.
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). (2014). Missing and Mmurdered Indigenous women in British Columbia, Canada. Retrieved from http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/indigenous-women-bc-canada-en.pdf
Jacobsen, K. (2002). Can refugees benefit the state? Refugee resources and African statebuilding. The Journal of Modern African Studies, 40(04), 577-596.