Refugees and burqas aren’t un-Canadian; intolerance is

Canadians, most of who have benefited from acceptance, should show tolerance to others

Besides those of strictly aboriginal descent, Canadians can trace their heritage back to ancestors born in other countries who relatively recently migrated to North America. Because they were able to join Canadian societies, they made better lives possible for many of their children, children’s children, and so on. Today, as our country grapples with opposition to accepting newcomers—whether those wishing to wear headdresses at citizenship ceremonies or those seeking refuge from strife—we should remember how acceptance has helped so many Canadians.

After all, this acceptance has allowed many to thrive in a country where people are free to express themselves. It is ironic, then, that many have used their speech rights to denigrate newcomers and people from ethnic minorities. These critics’ access to free expression owes to their ancestors’ own acceptance in Canada.

Take my family story as an example. My great-grandfather was born into poverty in the early 1900s in Portugal. Instead of accepting his fate, he stowed away on a fishing vessel headed to North America. He was discovered aboard mid-voyage and was sent back to Portugal. However, he still refused to live a life of poverty and once again he stowed away on a vessel that brought him to Harbour Buffett, Newfoundland. That is how my family came to live in Newfoundland. Many others have similar stories.

Whether one’s family came from Ireland to claim land or to avoid the potato blight, or if they were Portuguese stowaways, it is unfair to treat one as an inferior because of whatever hope or desperation brought their ancestors to our country. Yet today, many are espousing misleading and often bigoted opinions targeting people who want to enjoy Canada and its freedoms.

I have heard, for instance, numerous conspiratorial theories of why Syrians are actually seeking refuge in Canada and other Western countries. In fact, even people I know have spread social media posts spreading hurtful speculation. Some believe Syrian refugees are ISIS soldiers who want to terrorize Canada and transform the country into an Islamic state. Some believe that refugees want to collect government benefits rather than work or attend school. And others seem to believe that Canadian governments unfairly favour refugees, offering them better health care than other citizens and granting special social treatment to women who cover their faces for religious reasons.

Posts like those mentioned are shared far too often. People start to believe that this is the truth that the government is hiding from us. The truth is that Canada is taking relatively few refugees in comparison to some other, smaller countries. The Canadian government, too, gives few resources to refugees, and newcomers come here to enjoy rights unknown in their home countries rather than take away Canadian rights. However the question of banning the burqa or any form of religious face covering owes to a fear-fueled, fact-blind impulse to defend the old ways.

By trying to ban ways of life they dislike, people exhibit the authoritarianism that they are accusing newcomers of harbouring. Not only this, they seek to destroy the welcoming aspects of Canadian culture that probably allowed their ancestors to have better lives.

Not only do those criticizing refugees fail to understand the irony of their claims, they seem to lack empathy. Those who wish to find safety in Canada have limited information, are torn away from their homes and possibly their families, have lost loved ones, and have lost their homes. Some have paid every single cent they had to strangers in hopes to start a new life only to be told that countries that could afford to shelter them have instead rejected them.

If someone tried to tell me that Canadians would not riot if they were put in such circumstances I will tell them that they are wrong. I have literally seen Canadian citizens riot over their cities’ hockey games, lose or win. Rather than devote their energy to intolerance, Canadians should consider the parallels between newcomers and their own family stories. Doing so may show them that a welcoming Canada is a better Canada.

Originally published October 2015.