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.