Tomas Rocha, seasonal worker from Mexico working in southern Ontario
Last blog I told the story of my esteemed friend, Dr. Al-Guneid, today I want to extend that conversation to other political and economic migrants and refugees who find themselves living and working in Canada and abroad.
I want to talk about the dignity of communities and nations hosting refugees.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s leader, has been hailed as a leader who saved the continent’s “collective dignity” with her open-door immigration policy. And, now, under the leadership of Emmanuel Macron, France may follow suit. Will others?
Even when the doors are open, as they are in countries like Canada, it’s a struggle to sustain that dignity at the front lines. In Red Deer, Alberta, Principal Dan Lower and teachers at Lindsay Thurber Comprehensive High School worked with RCMP to diffuse an anti-Muslim protest after someone posted a video on social media of a fight between a small group of Syrian and Canadian students. Wielding authority could have been an option for Principal Lower, but the tone of his response honoured the dignity of all students at the high school. Yes, all the students involved in the fight—four Syrians and four Canadians—were suspended for one week, and the facts were clarified:
Principal Dan Lower, Red Deer Alberta, Linkedin profile photo
“From that video a post was put on Facebook and was sent around stating that the Syrians are allowed to go around whipping Canadians and that is because of their religious beliefs,” Lower said in an interview. “That is the genesis behind this outrage. And that is simply not the case.”
Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a beach, credits to Nilufer Demir, DHA Agency, Turkey
It was this photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background drowned on September 2nd, 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea that blew open the hearts of Canadians to the fate of Syrian refugees. Kurdi’s family had reportedly been trying to reach Canada.
It’s impossible though to relate to each and every migrant trying to escape from the hell of their own home country. Yes, we care. Many of us pause, and our hearts sink, when we hear the news stories—in May, more than 30 migrants, mostly toddlers, drowned when 200 people without life jackets fell from a boat into the sea off the Libyan coast before they could be hauled into waiting rescue boats. Tracking the stats—7,000+ migrants plucked from boats in international waters off the western coast of Libya in a week; 1,300 people died this year on the world’s most dangerous crossing for migrants; more than 50,000 migrants have been rescued at sea and brought to Italy in the first four months of 2017. At G7 Summits, and other international gatherings, countries, like Italy, who are directly affected by these mass migrations and International Aid Agencies push to put migration, Libya’s stabilization and African development at the top of the global agenda.
Even with open hearts, up-to-date statistics, the power of laws and strong allies, many of us really don’t know how these mass migrations will end, and we aren’t very certain of our role in the solutions. Canada is a country built on migration; we’re a poster child for the theory that immigrants have the capacity to make a country stronger, at the same time we are overwhelmed.
Stephen Hawking, photo credits to NASA
In a December edition of The Guardian newspaper, Stephen Hawking issued a stern warning. Claiming that this is “the most dangerous time for our planet,” Hawking, acknowledging his own status as an educated elite cautioned: “Don’t ignore these outpourings of crude populism; economic inequality is widening, and we need to work together, more than ever, to break down barriers, retrain people, and even encourage global development as the only way the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.”
Hawking concludes with an appeal to bring a sense of oneness and humility into our exercise of power. He’s asking us to take the time to recognize the dignity of every human on this planet, and cautioning us of the consequences of our failure to do so.
Dealing with diversity in our world has always been daunting. In the current reality where we have an unprecedented surge of refugees from war-torn countries and President Trump’s attempts to keep foreign Muslims out of the U.S., how can we heed Hawking’s advice, and figure out ways to see the dignity of every refugee, child and adult, and at the same time, sustain the dignity of our citizens and as a country?
What’s it going to take? Better statistics, stronger laws, more money, further innovation, fiercer strategies for social media, strategic alliances? Yes, to all of this! But, all this won’t be enough until we make this dignity quest quite personal.
What does that look like? Well, here are a couple of real-life examples. And, I invite you to share your own, via Instagram or as a comment to this blog. We’re all going to have to hone these skills.
I want to share a powerful story I heard, first-hand, from Canada’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, Beverley McLachlin, at the University of Calgary in May 2016. I was sitting close enough to snap this photo on my phone.
What’s the most challenging issue facing the world today, in the opinion of the very pinnacle of Canada’s legal system? “How do we deal with … the ‘other,’ with the person who is different in a majoritarian society?”
And, where lies the solution? “We cannot delegate the business of building an inclusive society to government or the courts. They can help, but they can never be the foundation…In the ongoing process of building an inclusive society, it is individuals who are on the front line with their day-to-day actions.”
Yikes. This woman who knows more about the legal system than nearly anyone else in the country is pointing to me, and to you, to fill this gap!
And, then, she explains why she thinks this way and my heart opens wide.
And, I believe I can do this.
Chief Justice McLachlin grew up on a ranch near Pincher Creek, a stunningly beautiful small town in southern Alberta. During centennial celebrations at her hometown, a few years ago, a First Nations man by the name of Eric approached her, shook her hand and quietly put a gift into her palms, a pair of earrings handcrafted from mother of pearl. She didn’t know Eric, and when she chatted with him, Eric explained he was giving her this gift out of respect for her parents. And, then he explained why.
Decades earlier, when the Chief Justice was a girl, on a hot Sunday in July, Eric was sitting in a car outside McLachlin’s home discussing some business with McLachlin’s father, Ernest. Eric’s wife and young children were also in the car, sweating in the heat, when McLachlin’s mother, Eleanora, came out to the car and invited Eric and his family into the house for tea and cake to celebrate Ernest’s birthday. Eric never forgot that day; it was the first time he’d been inside the home of a white person.
This experience affected the Chief Justice, profoundly. Quoting Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen, from his book The Idea of Justice, McLachlin argues that a just society needs three things: just laws, strong institutions, and actual justice in the lives of its citizens. In her opinion, the most basic responsibility for creating an inclusive society rests with individuals.
Sitting there in that auditorium at the University of Calgary, listening to the story of Eric’s family and hospitality, my thoughts went to my own mother, Eleanor, and the way she engages with seasonal agricultural workers from Mexico who live and work on our family farm.
Employing temporary foreign workers is controversial, especially at times of high unemployment among Canadians. These men have been coming to our farm for many years – and although technology has made separation from their own families a little more bearable (their first priority is hooking up high speed internet, to Skype with their wives and kids at home), they still get homesick. My mom, and the entire family, invite these men into their lives in ways that extend beyond work. Mom often cooks and bakes for them, celebrates their birthdays, talks to them about their families, takes them grocery shopping every Friday and opens up her garden to them.
This is my mom, Eleanor. She turns 80 this year, and is still keen to plant flowerbeds and vegetable gardens.
When I was younger, I worked planting and picking tobacco alongside workers from Quebec, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Jamaica, Nigeria, France and Poland. Tillsonburg, a southern Ontario town at the heart of the Canadian tobacco industry and memorialized in a song by Stompin’ Tom Connors, is a twenty minute drive from our farm. And, yes, my back does still ache when I hear that word….Tillsonburg!
Canada’s seasonal agricultural workers program was launched in 1966, and 51 years later, we rely on temporary foreign workers to support the Agriculture sector in this country. In 2016, a Government of Canada Standing Committee reviewed the Temporary Foreign Worker Program and proposed changes to reduce the risk of exploitation of these workers. Advocates for migrants’ and workers’ rights want more focus on the negative mental health impacts of isolation and precarious working conditions. Many of these seasonal workers spend four to six months on farms in Canada, separated from their families, and with limited opportunity to establish roots in their part-time communities. The feeling of living in between communities is challenging for some – I saw the same with coworkers in the energy sector who worked on rotation, their families living in Canada, and their workplaces in remote communities across the globe, including Nigeria, Yemen, Newfoundland, Trinidad and Indonesia. Some of my colleagues thrived in this yo-yo, pulsing, lifestyle and enjoyed the tax-free income. Others hated the nomadic lifestyle, felt they were disconnected from all community. Thankfully, many had the option to decline this work; not all Mexican seasonal workers coming to farms in Canada have the same choices.
The question of who needs who comes to mind.
Seemingly, we in the ‘land of opportunity’ have the benevolence to give ‘these people’ a home. The truth; and the dignified perspective, is that we are ALL ‘these people’. People who share more similarities than differences in that home, security and relationship are key to our well-being and similar in that the threat of persecution, if allowed, will cause conflict. Protectionist and isolationist philosophy is not only no longer feasible as a ‘fix’, it is not, in my opinion, advantageous to the collective. On the other end of the continuum, it’s also not effective to turn all migrants into powerless victims.
The words from our Chief Justice’s speech, the “most basic responsibility for creating an inclusive society rests with individuals”, are a rally cry to find understanding and the assets of new-comers (as well as our neighbors of all backgrounds) and like the two Eleanors, create a space of hospitality that makes home a much bigger place.