Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Taking a chance on each other

My great-grandparents in Russia
October 2018 -- This post bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating. With war, dictators, famine, and climate refugees so much in the news these days, we need to remember our own roots, and the generosity of those who welcomed our ancestors when they arrived in Canada.

I’ve been noticing way too much anti-immigrant/refugee commentary here in Canada, and it’s really bothering me. Yesterday it reached the tipping point in my head and spilled out in a grumpy, miserable moodling that I’ve toned down a lot. Even so, this may get a bit messy:

With the exception of our Canadian-from-the-very-beginning Indigenous sisters and brothers (who are still handling the effects of long-term Canadian racism -- another huge problem that still needs to be addressed), we, the people of Canada, are made up of immigrants and refugees from all over the world. Most of us came from other places to belong to a country that wasn’t ours to begin with. None of us really own our homeland, but we have helped to shape it into a country that strives to be open toward and tolerant of our human differences -- with varying rates of success.

My own great-grandparents were Russian-German farmers and blacksmiths who left their land near the Volga river during the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s. They came to Western Canada simply because their lives had been caught between the Red and White armies battling for control of Russia after the era of the Tzars. Their homes and families endangered, my ancestors fled to safety in Canada. Eventually they learned English, though the punchlines of jokes were usually in German, much to the chagrin of my third-generation cousins and me!

I suspect that most Canadians whose ancestors arrived in the first quarter of the last century (or much earlier) would say that they are also descendants of immigrants who came to Canada for the promise of good farm land, freedom, and safety for their children. Yet some of the descendants of these same immigrants now self-righteously act as though they own Canada and have the right to determine who is a “true” Canadian.

How quickly we forget our own history!

My great-grandfather came across on a boat, praying with his family to survive the long ocean crossing. He stood in a line at Pier 21 in Halifax, like thousands of others waiting to be documented, and I wonder if he got down on his hands and knees to kiss the ground once he'd scrawled his signature on the dotted line. Then he and his wife and children boarded a train that took them across the country, searched the Saskatchewan prairie for the iron stake that marked their homestead, and built a sod house before winter set in. The new immigrants had to work hard physically -- longer, harder days than many of their great-grandchildren ever will. It goes without saying that we are grateful for the Canadian birthright they worked for and handed down to us.

In a similar fashion, today's immigrant or refugee may have been driven to put his family on a boat -- belonging to a human trafficker -- because it was safer than facing terror, genocide or war where he once lived. He and his family prayed to get across the sea safely, and arrived on the other side to be herded into a truck that took them to an overcrowded refugee camp where they waited for three or four years in squalor  -- with no school for the children, no privacy, no real healthcare, and nothing to call their own but the clothes they wore. They had to scramble for money to pay foreign people to fill out reams of paperwork so they could to come to Canada, where they now have to navigate a very complex and, unfortunately, racist society. And the worst of the racists are usually nth-generation descendants of immigrants from years past.

From conversations with my immigrant friends who have come to Canada more recently, I know that they are more than willing to uphold Canada's laws and support their new country in good and bad times, to learn a new language, and to contribute their many significant talents to society while working, worrying about family members back home who might also hope to come to Canada, and helping their children to feel as though they belong here. They just want to make a good impression, to be welcomed, to have friends.

So it makes me angry when some people -- who probably don't even personally know (as friends) any of these newcomers -- decide that our new arrivals to Canada don’t deserve to be here because they’re not adapting quickly enough. The thing is, life is so different now -- in many ways that we barely even realize. While it’s true that today’s immigrants and refugees don’t have to build sod houses or plow virgin prairie, they struggle like our ancestors did to build new lives, but in a world where land, home, employment and citizenship are harder and harder to come by for lots of different reasons.

And it disturbs me to no end that some of today's nth-generation children of immigrants use the "history" of their European ancestors' military service in fighting for Canada in the World Wars as an example -- to insinuate that recently-arrived Canadians are probably terrorists from other countries who would never dream of lifting a finger to defend the Canadian lifestyle into which they and their families have been welcomed. The critics are forgetting that many of the new Canadian soldiers in the World Wars (who fled wars in their lands of origin) were conscripted. And isn't it a bit unrealistic to expect people who have fled violence for peace and security in Canada to turn around and enlist in our armed forces? Most of the Canadians-to-be that I know are just struggling to understand and fit into their adopted country’s language, culture and traditions while still treasuring their own, just as my great-grandparents did. My immigrant friends have left war, desperation, hatred and divisions behind to fully embrace their new homeland with an incredible gratitude, even as many life-long Canadians take our country for granted.

To people complaining about our newcomers I want to say: Sure, immigrants and refugees might dress differently than you and I do, but that's okay, really, it is. Their customs and traditions might seem a bit unusual at first, but everything new takes some getting used to. Their skin might not be the colour we're used to, but they're just as beautiful if you really look, and though it might be hard to understand them at first, communication will become easier with practice. And I am almost certain that anyone who lives a week in their lives or walks a hundred miles in their shoes will have nothing but respect and admiration for them, just as they respect and admire Canada for welcoming them.

Diversity means resilience and strength in nature. And diversity in our country is one of our strengths too. So while our family histories as longer-term Canadians are something that, yes, we can be proud of, they are also a reason to cut our newcomers some slack, to give them some time to settle in without facing undue criticism or racism. We need to realize that offhandedly spouting racist remarks (or copying them on social media) about not accepting people different than ourselves isn't helping anything -- rather, it's increasing bullying, prejudice, injustice, and worse, creating conditions for violence.

Instead, let's make time and opportunities to get to know more immigrants and refugees and let them share with us their goodness, kindness, generosity and friendship. And let's reciprocate! We’re better off taking a chance on each other than ignoring or denigrating potential new friends. After all, we are brothers and sisters in one human family, and in this country, we are all on our way to being Canadians together.


  1. As a grand-daughter of the people in this photo - I cannot agree more with every word in this 'moodling'. You put words to so many of my thoughts. We have been part of a small group of people to sponsor a family who lost everything - everything! when they left Mosul. It took us almost two years to bring them to Canada. They speak English well enough that we totally enjoy being with them, they have taught us so much about gratitude for everything we have and I count there presence among us as one of the most joy filled experiences of my life. Yes, as the descendants of immigrants, I can say for sure "we do not own Canada.! " It is is a privilege to be here. To refuse refugees is to refuse our own grandparents and therefore those of us who follow their lineage, the right to enter and live in Canada as well. I have learned to be a very grateful Canadian.

    1. Your last two sentences are the perfect summary, Auntie Lucy! Thank you.

  2. Your post oozes depth and passion. May more like you see the light, see ourselves as humans beings.
    Thank you for sharing these thoughts.

  3. Brilliant. So well said, my dear friend.


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