In September, 2015, the body of Aylun Kurdi washed up on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey. His family had been trying to get to Kos, a island in the Greek Dodacanese chain; they were fleeing Syria, as were millions of others. The boat that took them was inflatable, plastic or rubber, and capsized not far from Bodrum. The image of his body galvanised people around the world; it became a symbol of the migrant crisis. It also became a turning point in the Canadian election and voters turned their backs on the Harper Conservatives who fumbled and prevaricated, particularly then-Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander. Justin Trudeau seemed to speak for all of us (or most of us, enough of us in any case) when he reiterated the Liberal promise to bring in 25,000 Syrian refugees: “Canadians get it. This is about doing the right thing, about living up to the values that we cherish as a country.” Our own provincial Premier, not a woman known for her compassion or willingness to help the underdogs of our society (let alone any other), cried in public and announced a special fund to help settle migrant families in B.C. A million dollars out of thin air…It felt as though the human family was in the same boat, on the same water; our hopes and dreams were the same: to make a better world for ourselves and those we love.
Speaking of boats, my grandmother came to Canada in 1913, travelling in steerage from Antwerp to Saint John with five small children. Her husband had gone to Drumheller the year before to arrange for land for his family. They weren’t rich. They were, I guess, economic migrants. Everything I’ve heard of their early years indicates such hardship. That husband died in October, 1918 in the influenza epidemic. He left a wife and 8 children. My grandmother fended for herself for a couple of years and remarried, having two more children, one of whom survived: my father. My grandmother’s children all married – several married Ukrainians, one a Syrian. They raised families. Those children are part of the intricate fabric of this country. Over in Saskatchewan, my grandfather’s cousin, from the same part of Bukovina and probably raised by the same grandparents who raised my grandfather, also had a large family; one of his sons went on to change his name and earn a place in the Hockey Hall of Fame for his illustrious goal-keeping. That was Johnny Bower.
In the 1980s, there was a First Nations firebrand around who constantly called us on our complacency about the deep history of our province (and by extension, our country). His name was Bill Wilson. He spoke forcefully and powerfully of what it was like to be an aboriginal person living in a colonial enterprise. I remember reading a long piece in the Vancouver Sun where he detailed his family’s history, the history of the potlatch, and the various ways his family needed to both defend and protect their culture and legacy. The article concluded very powerfully:
Now at 63, with my father and mother and all but two of my immediate family dead, I look back on the last 150 years since B.C. was named. For my people it has been a constant struggle which continues today. My people and other tribes built this province despite being marginalized, ignored, trampled upon, incarcerated, abused and even killed. My reminisces do not leave me angry even though I have cried to myself in recounting them. Instead, I am proud of my family and their accomplishments. I have one of the highest ranking names in our Potlatch. In March of 1983, I helped draft and successfully argue for the entrenchment of the first and only amendment of Canada’s new Constitution. We have 18 university degrees in our family and best of all I have five granddaughters who by their strength and breeding will continue to make this province and this country a better place for all of us.
Hemas Kla-Lee-Lee-Kla (Chief Bill Wilson, BA, LLB)
And the beautiful continuation of this story told by Bill Wilson is that one of his daughters, Jody Wilson-Raybould, is now Justice Minister in the new Liberal Cabinet.
Now that terrorist attacks have shaken France, and the rest of us too, it seems that too many of us are willing to move to the other side of the boat. Brad Wall, the Premier of Saskatchewan, wants the Canadian government to suspend its plan to bring in 25,000 refugees. Our Premier, the one who cried, is now expressing grave doubts about security. I’m not sure of exact numbers of those who have fled Syria. The U.N. says more than 6 million have been displaced within Syria and at least 3 million have fled; more are leaving every day, every hour. So 25,000 is a drop in the bucket. Though it’s also a start. More than half of the Governors of the United States say they will refuse to cooperate with efforts to bring refugees into their individual States. (Authority over the admission of refugees is a federal responsibility but individual States would be responsible for welcoming and settling those who entered the country.)
In the middle of the night, these are things that keep me awake. I was listening to the news most of the day and was so distressed to hear the new rhetoric (although it’s also old rhetoric) about immigrants. In two days, it will be one month since we elected a new government to take our country in a new and compassionate direction. Wasn’t that the promise? And didn’t we love to hear it? Why is it so difficult now to believe that we can still be that country, the one that continues its tradition of welcoming newcomers? Those Syrians are leaving in huge numbers because they’re as afraid of terrorism as we are. No. Actually they have direct experience with it while we have the kind of fear whipped up by right-wing journalists, commentators, politicians who haven’t read enough history, their own and the country’s.
In my grandmother’s papers, there is a letter which a friend in the Czech Republic recently translated for me. The letter was written by my grandmother’s god-daughter and was sent from a village very near my grandmother’s own Horni Lomna. There’s no date but I feel that it was written sometime before the Second World War. By then my grandparents had moved to a very modest house in Beverly, then just outside of Edmonton, though now it’s part of the city. They didn’t have much. They grew potatoes, they had chickens, and an extended family, all of whom had done well enough by the standards of the day.
Dear godmother, a few years ago nobody would have thought we would live such a life because this is beyond description what poverty it is here in the old world, not only in our Czechoslovak Republic but in the whole Europe…I don’t have any other news except that Adam Gumda (illegible) from … died and that in Bukowec a Filanc shot Pacholek who was carrying 2 kilos of meat from Poland, he was dead on the spot. We come to live in times when they eat our food and take our lives. But there are things happening these days because the people have been revolting.
What would any of us do to make a safe life for our families? My grandmother was lucky enough to be able to leave, though I wonder if she felt lucky in the belly of the Mount Temple as it made its way across the Atlantic to Canada? Five small children. All her worldly possessions. No English (not yet, though she learned it as soon as she arrived, and even attended my father’s grade one class to learn to read and write). I’m sure there were times when she felt unwelcome, when she wondered if it might have been better to stay and take her chances in that old world of plum trees and gunshot, of grazing pigs and hunger. My father said his parents were proud to vote and they were proud to have raised children and although sometimes there wasn’t much more for dinner than potatoes, they were grateful. Why do we imagine others would be any less grateful? Or deserving? There’s a picture of my father that I treasure. He is riding a small tricycle through a bleak yard, which must be the yard of the house in Drumheller. He’s probably about the age of Aylun Kurdi. It’s not much, but so much more than others can even dream of. And it’s time for more of them to have those dreams come true.