Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"Has the human spirit fallen so much in the last 2400 years?"

hans, as usual, brilliant.

Jason Kenny and the Conservatives Write Bad Fiction

"As the boatload of refugees pulled into the harbour, there was one young boy who was particularly eager for a glimpse of this land toward which they had spent weeks journeying. He’d lost several relatives, including a younger brother, in the turmoil before they fled their homeland – due to poverty and disease, mostly – and all that was left of his little family was crammed aboard this filthy vessel.

A distant relative of his mother’s had apparently settled here several years earlier, and on this all their hopes were pinned. His father was a failed merchant: everything he’d tried his hand at had gone bankrupt in the economic collapse of their homeland. Penniless, destitute, poor, hungry and bedraggled, their slim hope lay in being accepted to this land they were sailing into. Of course, sharing that hope were the hundreds of equally poor refugees crammed into the hold or on the ramshackle boats accompanying them.

The young refugee’s name? John A. MacDonald.

As we all know, little John did survive, and indeed thrived. Although his family stayed poor and his father’s efforts continued to meet failure, MacDonald became an infamous lawyer by defending American terrorists who had participated in the ongoing US efforts to destabilize the government of then-British Upper Canada. Despite his efforts, they were mostly executed with barely an excuse for a trial, but at least one of them gave MacDonald all the money in his pockets, as a token of gratitude that MacDonald had had the courage to speak up and defend these almost universally reviled American terrorists. This recognition helped him in becoming the first prime minister of Canada and getting his face on the 10-dollar bill.

Of course, had Stephen Harper and the Conservative government - the very party MacDonald played a role in creating – been in power when he sailed into the harbor as a refugee from Scotland’s economic collapse, he would probably not even have been permitted to stay. He would have been publicly demeaned and reviled, treated like a criminal, and then been sent home at gunpoint, probably to die in the land he had fled. So much for Confederation.

That’s only one of two tragic ironies reflected in the Conservatives’ increasingly elitist, racist response to the arrival of a boatload of Tamil refugees in British Columbia about three weeks ago.

The other tragic irony lies in the public apology Stephen Harper issued to the Chinese community in 2006, over the Canadian government’s turn-of-the-century anti-Chinese-immigration policy. While that apology was the product of long, hard and admirable work on the part of the Chinese-Canadian community, the Conservative actions demonstrate just how hollow and hypocritical their apology really was, and how much they didn’t really mean it.

Let’s talk about the Chinese head tax apology, for a moment. In the 1880s, the Canadian Pacific Railway was under construction. Over 15,000 Chinese were invited to Canada to build it (and then paid a fraction of what the white Canadian workers were paid). Canada became, naturally enough, a place of interest for both the Chinese working on the railroad, as well as many other Chinese who saw the ads or heard about it through relatives.

The Canadian government panicked at the thought that the Chinese workers it was exploiting in near slavery conditions might actually decide to stay in Canada, and even bring their families, and so it began charging a $500 head tax to Chinese seeking to settle here. The federal government collected close to $2 billion in today’s money from these mostly poor Chinese immigrants. The goal, of course, was to deter Chinese immigrants from coming to Canada (the government, meanwhile, continued to encourage white immigrants from across the other sea – in Europe – to come. No head tax if they were white.). This only ended when the Canadian government banned Chinese immigration entirely in the early 1920s. In the 1980s, descendants of these Chinese began a movement to make the federal government issue an apology for its terrible and racist treatment of Chinese immigrants. In 2006, Stephen Harper finally issued that apology. Let us quote briefly from that apology.


Stephen Harper: “...a group of people - who only sought to build a better life...these immigrants made the difficult decision to leave their families behind in order to pursue opportunities in a country halfway around the world they called “gold mountain”. Canada turned its an attempt to deter immigration...

And while Canadian courts have ruled that...immigration prohibition, were legally authorized, we fully accept the moral responsibility to acknowledge these shameful polices of our past. For over six decades, these race-based measures...were implemented with deliberation by the Canadian state. This was a grave injustice, and one we are morally obligated to acknowledge...

And even though this...lies far in our past, we feel compelled to right this historic wrong for the simple reason that it is the decent thing to do, a characteristic to be found at the core of the Canadian soul. Mr. Speaker, in closing, let me assure the House that this government will continually strive to ensure that similar unjust practices are never allowed to happen again. We have the collective responsibility to build a country based firmly on the notion of equality of opportunity, regardless of one’s race or ethnic origin. Our deep sorrow over the racist actions of our past will nourish our unwavering commitment to build a better future...

Clearly, the sorrow was neither deep enough nor the commitment unwavering enough to prevent them from using the arrival of a boatload of Sri Lankan (Tamil) refugees in August as an opportunity to talk rough, act tough and – just like they did with the Chinese 100 years ago - claim they had to “send a message” to refugees the world over – to stay away from Canada.

And this week, Canada’s Minister Responsible For Keeping Foreign People Out (aka ‘Immigration’, aka Jason Kenney) is attending a meeting in Europe which has been described as “part of a widening fight against human trafficking and bogus asylum seekers” .

Now I’m generally a fan of good science fiction, but not when it gets accidentally labeled as government policy. “Bogus asylum seekers”? There’s nothing bogus about it – they’re trying to seek asylum. That’s why the Tamil refugees risked their lives to cross the ocean in a leaky boat. Whether or not Canada gives them asylum, is up to the Canadian government to decide. But...bogus? What’s that supposed to mean exactly? That when they’re offered asylum they’ll turn around and say “Haha! Fooled you!” and then go back home?

A far more likely interpretation is that *they’re* not the bogus ones. Instead, the bogus ones are the Conservative government (and, yes, their allies in other countries which are also trying to keep foreigners out of their respective countries) who don’t want to admit that they really just want to keep foreigners out. After all, that smacks of racism. So instead, a fictional language is created which describes refugees as “victims of human trafficking” and asylum seekers who have no money as “bogus”.

The Tamils who arrived in Vancouver were not forced by anybody to board that boat. Except, perhaps, the Sri Lankan government which bombed their villages and killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians as part of a decades-old civil war, and which is still keeping thousands of them in what have been described by some observers as concentration camps. But, since the Canadian government supports the Sri Lankan government which bombed and slaughtered tens of thousands of its own civilians during the recent civil war...the asylum seekers become “bogus”.

But the sci-fi language doesn’t stop there. When Jason Kenney isn’t describing them as “victims of human trafficking”, he’s describing them as “queue-jumpers” who are trying to butt in line ahead of other refugees. Well, which is it, Jason? Are they the victims of slave-driving human traffickers? Or are they trying to skip the line? Again, I *like* good science fiction. I *don’t* like contradictions and plot holes.

And that doesn’t even address the question of how exactly a refugee or asylum-seeker becomes a “queue-jumper”. I mean, when you’re fleeing an army of tanks and jet bombers that are trying to annihilate your village, what sort of line are you supposed to wait in and not get killed? It’s sort of like suggesting that if your house is being broken into, you should expect the cops to wait until they’ve dealt with all the phone calls they received earlier in the day, before they come to stop the burglars trying to knock your door down. Plot holes, Jason. Plot holes.

And yes, certainly, there are a lot of bad human traffickers in the world. And we need to stop them. But we don’t do that by vilifying the victims. When a group of hapless seniors loses money due to internet or phone fraud, we pursue and prosecute the fraud ring. We don’t march the seniors into big black tents, interrogate them at gunpoint and propose new laws to restrict the ability of seniors to have bank accounts. We don’t call it “Canadian generosity” when we give them back the money that was stolen from them.

This is getting sort of long, isn’t it? Well, it’s cuz bad writing makes me angry and if anybody writes bad, it’s Mr. Jason Kenney.

Okay, so we’ve deconstructed his seriously bad story. What’s the alternative? Open up all our borders and let all the refugees come pouring in?

Well...actually why not?(note my far more skilled segue-way here. Yes you can borrow this technique Jason. See I’m not your enemy.)

Of course, whenever I suggest that we should just...stop freaking out about the arrival of 500 refugees in a country of 35 million which could actually hold a couple billion...the response tends to be something along the lines of: “What?! But if we just opened our borders...we’d be overrun!!”

Uhm...well okay. Really? Like...where? Have you ever BEEN to the Northwest Territories? Or even most of Ontario? And seen all the big empty places there? Are you really THAT worried that we’ll be overrun by people who will knock on your door asking to sleep on your sofa and who will eat all the food in the groceries? If refugees arrive, we will grow more food and that will make more jobs. We will build more houses for them and that too will make more jobs and maybe those refugees will get some of those jobs and then they’ll pay taxes and pay for the services they use and then we’ll all have a lot more interesting people in the country and a lot more jobs and a lot more restaurants and call me na├»ve but I sort of like the idea. Irrational fear is a good plot technique and all, but...I want more jobs and restaurants more.

And we should be able to deal by now with this irrational fear that the world will end if we let people who arrive here stay here – regardless of how they came. After all, we’ve dealt with lots of other irrational fears. We’ve learnt that Europeans can marry Africans and the world doesn’t end. We’ve learnt that women can marry men or men can marry men or women can marry women or people who aren’t even decided whether they’re men or women can marry each other...and the world doesn’t end. In fact, people don’t even have to get married, and the world doesn’t end! People can eat fish on Fridays, or pork on Sundays, or beer on Tuesdays, and the world doesn’t end. More to the point, people who don’t eat fish on Fridays can live next door to people who don’t eat pork on any days and across the street from people who do drink beer on every days, and the world doesn’t end. Win for the world!

We’ve learnt that lots of things we thought might cause the world to end, don’t actually cause the world to end, and that’s a really good thing. And one of those things that won’t cause the world to people who show up here, being allowed to stay here like all the rest of us. The next time somebody says to you [usually in a lowered, breathless voice of panic] “but if we let everybody who comes here as a refugee stay...everything would fall apart!” just repeat to yourself the mantra “ world goes on.” And then take a deep breath and realize everything will be fine.

Of course, the fear is nothing new. Before the industrial revolution, in many European countries, cities adopted policies banning migration from one city to the next – within the same country. The fear was exactly the same as today: that if people born in one city were allowed to settle in their neighbouring city, the world would end. It would disrupt the flow of city life, the city would become uncontrollable, it would lose its way of doing things, it would become overrun by crime and vice, and so on and so forth. If people suggested allowing free movement between cities, others would laugh at them. Needless to say, the last laugh was on the laughers: today, the idea of restricting migration between cities within the same country is – unless you’re living somewhere like North Korea – utterly unthinkable. The thought of disaster ensuing if families from Winnipeg were allowed to move to Vancouver, is utterly laughable. Yet that was the logic – a logic of irrational fear – which motivated politicians 500 years ago. And it is no different – and no less ridiculous – than the logic of fear motivating the politicians of today in their efforts to control migration between countries.

Stephen Harper has lately been engaging in an equally bizarre little extension of this dance – pledging to preemptively track down refugees in their home countries and ports and prevent them from ever leaving those countries to come to Canada. Well, unless this is an oddly inspired plan to post Canadian imperial garrisons in third world ports around the world (you never quite know, with the Conservatives), that’s an equally flawed and pointless bit of posturing.

Mind you, international action DOES have an important place in all this. The fact that refugees are coming to Canada reflects, if anything, the failure of our own government on the international stage. Take the Tamil refugees, for instance. Last summer, thousands of people blocked highways here in Toronto pleading with the federal government to speak out against the slaughter being directed against the Tamil minority ethnic group in Sri Lanka. For weeks, the Sri Lankan government bombed and slaughtered Tamil communities and the Canadian government looked the other way and let them do it, without making the slightest effort to bring an end to the fighting and save the tens of thousands of innocent families that were being slaughtered. Even today, international observers are not permitted to collect information to find out exactly what happened – and in some cases, what is still happening. And Canada’s government remains silent, hiding in the sand. The poverty and desperation of Tamil refugees was caused, in part, by our own government’s silence. If the Canadian government starts assuming, for once, a responsible role on the international stage, then perhaps it will be able to contribute to the building of a better world, and it will no longer be necessary for everyone to feel they need to come to Canada to find it.

2400 years ago, in ancient Athens, the Athenian general and leader Pericles gave a famous speech following a battle where thousands of Greek soldiers had died defending their city against an invading foreign army. Far from using the opportunity to turn Athenians against foreigners, he showed that the courage which led to their victory, demanded no less than the courage to open their borders, fearlessly, to the world:

"The Athens that I have celebrated is only what the heroism of these and their like have made her...We throw open our city to the world, and never by alien acts exclude foreigners from any opportunity of learning or observing, even though the eyes of an enemy may occasionally profit by our liberality.”

The message, 2400 years ago, rings even clearer today: “People might take advantage of us if we’re too open and liberal? Big deal! The benefits we will gain from our openness far outweigh any advantage some few might take of us. And if we’re too afraid of our country’s fragility to have the courage to test it against the demands of the world, then what’s the worth of us, anyhow?”

Has the human spirit fallen so much in the last 2400 years?

We have a choice to make: whether we will hide behind walls of fear and act like the cowardly neighbourhood miser who pretends he doesn’t hear the neighbours knocking on his door to ask for help; or whether we will keep faith with the generations of Canadians who came before us, and welcome with open arms those who have come to build the Canada of tomorrow.

Addendum: A final word, for Newfoundland and Labrador. This shameful situation demonstrates more clearly than ever why it is so vital for us to take up our own self-government once again on the international stage. As a Republic, we will have the right to control our own immigration once again – and we can avoid the shame of being lumped in with this sort of Harper-driven racist fear-mongering. The need for immigration is vital to Newfoundland and Labrador. We need doctors, craftspersons, professionals of all sorts. Not only will they fill the vital gaps we’re struggling with in our infrastructure, but their presence will create even more jobs – which Newfoundlanders forced into exile will be able to return home to fill as well. Since Confederation we’ve seen our communities emptied and forcibly relocated, we’ve seen our population shrink, we’ve seen our services suffer. There’s only one solution: to repopulate the Spotted Island’s (RIP: 1970) and Open Bay’s (RIP: 1965) and Tikoralak Island’s (RIP: 1970) and over 600 other communities that now lie abandoned and overgrown. As a nation the majority of whose population are descended from “illegal migrants” (who settled here in defiance of British no-settlement laws 400 years ago), we’re uniquely positioned to recognize the hypocrisy of laws that try to control who can live where. If the majority of our ancestors had obeyed those laws, we would not be here today. And now, once again, our future hinges on overcoming the racist and exclusionary barriers that another colonial power – Canada – has imposed on us. Some nations seek independence in the pursuit of some illusory racial purity. Our Republic *must* be founded on the opposite ideal – that our independence reflects, honours and upholds the freedom of movement for all peoples, and guarantees them the same freedoms in whose name thousands of poor fishers settled here, in total defiance of the law, to help build the Newfoundland of today."

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