Not all actions are justified

April 07, 2020

As I work from home, my youngest, Maya, sneaks in quietly. We chit chat, she draws on my “think” board, and tries to steal my candy (yes, I have my own stash because with 3 kids I’d never get any). I go back to answering emails, then glance over at her drawing.

“That’s beautiful.” I say, seeing the word Mama written beside the character.

“You’re a princess.” She answers, going on to tell me an elaborate story about my many princess adventures. It becomes clear I do more than sit in a castle. I’m somewhat of a warrior. I fight dragons, rescue people, and I have several magical powers. Momentarily I get lost in her story, surprised how articulate a five-year-old can be, describing a world and events she’s made up entirely in her mind. My eyes then catch the words written above my princess rendition – CCR – Borders Open – Health Services for All – Settlement [Services for All]. It’s a couple days before Refugee Rights Day and as President of the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada’s largest refugee rights advocacy group, I’ve been asked to address advocates during a national call. What do I say to them? How do I speak about rights in an environment where Canada abandons its international commitments and turns refugee claimants away, a decision which took effect March 21st? Many claimants have already been turned away without a guarantee that the US won’t send them back to face torture or death. This is unacceptable.

We’re living in a whole new world today, a world vastly different than the one that existed a month ago, let alone a week ago. In some cases, fear is driving out compassion; there’s a profound desire to control all the conditions in order to minimize the risks, and many people feel actions once unimaginable are now justified. While many of the changes we are making are significantly altering our lives (closing school, prohibiting gatherings, shutting down businesses etc.) for the sake of our health and the health of others, we are complying – something I am deeply thankful for and agree with.

But some actions are unjustified, no matter how afraid we feel. Closing the border to refugee claimants is one such action. It abandons the rule of law, and it is the rule of law that is keeping the world from spiralling into chaos. The rule of law restricts the arbitrary exercise of power by agreeing that power is less important than adhering to well-defined and established laws. People and nations agree that this code protects everyone: those with privilege, power, and resources, and those without. This assures safety and a chance of survival to everyone, not solely to the mightiest powers.

In the midst of our focus on the value of human life and taking courageous and difficult action to ensure the health and wellbeing of everyone, we cannot forget people escaping persecution. Our actions have far reaching impacts, some of them on the lives of people we have never actually even met in real life. Our shared hope is that the compassion that evokes heroism in many of us would mean taking actions that save the lives of refugee claimants not unlike the actions we are taking to save the lives of our neighbours, friends, and family.

Surviving this global pandemic isn’t more likely if we use power or privilege. It is possible if we chose to cooperate, share resources, look after and protect one another. It requires humility, kindness, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to listen- to truly listen to one another and to value what is being said. And practically, we know how to do this while keeping everyone healthy. It isn’t one or the other; we can and should do both. People’s lives literally depend on it, just as they do with the health of our population. We can’t shut out those most in need while saying that we are focused on saving human lives – there is no integrity in that.

April 4th is an important day for refugees seeking Canada’s protection because it commemorates the anniversary of the Singh decision. Essentially, the Supreme Court found that refugee claimants (those who enter Canada by any means necessary in search of our protection) have the right to an oral hearing. The highest court in our country said that refugee claimants are human beings and as human beings they’re entitled to life, liberty, and security of the person. Refugee claimants are protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, despite the fact that they may have no status in Canada. Their humanity assures them the opportunity to share their story and we are obligated to listen to them.

So you see, Refugee Rights Day isn’t just for or about refugees. It’s about humanity, which means it is a day that celebrates justice for all of us, because it celebrates our human right to share our story. The Supreme Court didn’t guarantee an outcome, a positive or negative decision of the refugee hearings; it guaranteed every refugee claimant would have a chance to speak their truth.

Bringing our story to life by sharing it verbally with others restores a bit of our dignity. Even if just momentarily, when we articulate what we’ve experienced, when we put into words our suffering, we place those words, the memories, and the stories in the hands of another person. For that moment, the weight is lifted, and we can breathe new life into our being.

At IRCOM, as of March 15th (according to our House demographics) there were 436 people with just as many stories living in our buildings. People whose stories contain unimaginable trials, but who have nonetheless believed in our shared humanity and spoken their truth. People who have chosen compassion over fear, hope over despair, and who’ve trusted strangers to save their lives.   

Maya told the story of a princess who wasn’t afraid, who fought dragons, rescued people, who lived with her arms wide open and her heart filled with love. That princess lives in all of us- a courageous spirit full of conviction. It’s a choice to be brave and to blindly trust one another. It is also a choice how we respond to COVID- to close our borders, our communities, our wallets, and our hearts or to work together, unite, protect each other, and listen to what is being said. Our borders must remain open to our brothers and sisters, because as Lilla Watson so beautifully said…

“If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

#DistantButTogether #StrongerTogether #RefugeesWelcome

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