As you know, Canada (in the form of our newly elected government) is bringing in 25,000 Syrian refugees as our part in the effort to lessen the humanitarian crisis that has swamped Europe. There is some debate about this, of course. Some say 25,000 is way too many, some say it’s way too fast, and a small number say any number if too many. This being Canada, of course, the debate is fairly muted and fairly polite.

While 25,000 newcomers does sound like a lot, it depends on your perspective, or to be more precise, your country of residence. Germany is allowing a million refugees, a staggering number that is beginning to look like a generous, but terrible, mistake. The United States has so far allowed fewer than 3,000 and cannot by law admit more than 10,000 this year. So, 25,000 sounds like a lot, but in a country of 32 million — and with the second largest land mass in the world — is it?

Here’s a little historical perspective. I got a book for Christmas called Canada 365, that contains historical tidbits for each day in Canadian history. As you might expect, some days are pretty weak in the history department; the best the authors could do for Jan. 17 was the appointment of Canada’s first female lieutenant-governor. Not exactly the kind of event you’d commemorate on a stamp, but this being Canada that may happen yet. But on Jan. 20, 1899, 2,000 Russian Doukhobors landed in Halifax. The Doukhobors were a Russian sect that believed in “radical pacifism”, who dissented from the Russian Orthodox church. That year, 7,500 Doukhobors landed in Canada, and 19th century Canada seemed to have room for all of them. They went to what is now Saskatchewan, where’s there’s always lots of room. There are still about 20,000 of them.

In a sidebar, the book listed other mass migrations to Canada, which gives some perspective to the Syrian numbers.

From 1891-1913, we let in 170,000 Ukrainians, more than a few of whom landed in Edmonton. From 1900-1914, 119,770 Italians came to Canada. Post WWII, we admitted 250,000 Europeans displaced by the war. In 1956, when the USSR crushed the Hungarian revolution, we let in 37,000 Hungarians that year alone. In 1968-69, when the good ol’ USSR invaded pesky Czechoslovakia, we admitted 11,000 Czechs. And the big one, 1979-80, Canada admitted a whopping 60,000 Vietnamese, the so-called “boat people” fleeing the country.

(A brief aside. I was a reporter at the Red Deer Advocate when the first Vietnamese refugee arrived in that small city. I interviewed him — I believe his name was Le Duc Tho, or something like that —  and he told me of how he escaped the country on a tiny, overcrowded boat He told me how he cried with joy the first time he saw snow. To be honest, I thought the story was so preposterous, I almost didn’t write it. The boat part, I mean, not the snow part. But right around the time I was writing the story, a wire service photo came into the Advocate showing dozens of Vietnamese refugees crowded into a tiny little boat — the ‘boat people’.)

So maybe 25,000 isn’t such an outrageous number. Properly vetted — and you know these people will be the most closely screened refugees in Canadian history — we’ve certainly got lots of room for them. The question of how well they will integrate into Canadian society is another matter, but as for the number, 25,000 doesn’t seem over the top.



5 thoughts on “A little historical perspective on the Syrian refugee numbers

  1. Great points Maurice. Some much needed perspective when looking at a number like 25,000 and thinking it is a big deal.

  2. I agree that Canada taking in 25k refugees should be put in perspective, My guess though is that the con opposition would like Canadians to be skeptical about these Syrian refugees. Canadians have ignored the cons and embraced the refugees. One group you didn’t mention was the 10 to 15 thousand asian Muslims, who came in the 70’s and whose leader is the Aga Khan . They lived in Uganda and also Tanziniers. Idi. Amin was murdering them , simply because he wanted to. The Aga Khan phoned Pierre Trudeau and asked if Canada would take them and Trudeau said yes. I remember when they arrived. Most were well educated and many were successful business people, It’s not an accident that The Aga Khan built the Islamic Museum in Toronto.The only one of its kind in North America. I haven’t seen it yet but plan to go. A bit of trivia. Naheed Nenshi’s, parents came from Tanziniers, with the group of asian muslims who came from Uganda. Naheed was born shortly after in Canada and of course as you know he’s now the mayor of Calgary. I hope after the 25k Syrian refugees arrive, that we will continue to bring in more refugees. They are victims of course and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. It is hard to imagine the nightmare they are living through. Sorry for babbling on. It’s the first time I’ve read your blog. I’ll definitely come back.

  3. Excellent comments Maurice; if we can’t who can??
    Laureen and I hosted a family of 4 the past 2 weeks; they’re now happily into an apartment in NW Calgary. We heard some tragic stories and much gratitude from the two boys and their parents. Now they’re anxious to get their parents out of Syria – a terrible time in their short lives and we’re giving them hope. Indeed we can assist these folks…

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