I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees Part V: Conclusion

Mike Molloy’s book, co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, may be a captivating read, especially surprising for a volume on the working of a bureaucracy, but, also surprising since it is the best and most accurate record of what actually took place such that it will serve as a source book for many subsequent historians. However, there is too much repetition, indicative of a book with multiple authors that was inadequately edited. There are also a very small number of errors. Happily, not one of them detracts from the main theme and the unfolding narrative.

As one example, there is the story of how the record of the past can influence the present and how the scholarship of two Canadian academics – Irving Abella and Harold Troper – actually influenced Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration, to take the bold initiatives that he did. Relying on memory is a dangerous historical (or legal) device. That becomes clear when Molloy cites Ron Atkey who purportedly recalled that Jack Manion, the Deputy Minister, sent him the manuscript of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948by Irving Abella and Harold Troper (a book that won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category, the Canadian Historical Association John A. Macdonald Prize, and that was featured in The Literary Review of Canada as one of Canada’s 100 Most Important Books).

The volume depicts the callous Canadian government response to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. In the Preface to the 2012 edition published by The University of Toronto Press, the source cited of this information is the review of the 1982 edition by Roger Robin that appeared in The Literary Review of Canada. What could be more authoritative than the Preface of the book? Further, this version has been repeated many times. The last I read before Molloy’s was by Sean Fine in an article on the Indochinese 1
refugees published in 2015.

The core story is accurate, but since the book was not published until 1982, then by Lester and Orpen Dennys, it was highly unlikely a manuscript could have been circulated. I was told at the time, by Ron Atkey no less, that he had read an academic article that he circulated to his top staff with a note saying that he did not want them (or him) to go down in history like Frederick Blair, the then Director of the immigration branch, who did his utmost to exclude Jews from entering Canada. Blair, or some other unnamed official, was the originator of the phrase “None Is Too Many”.

Blair was not alone. Most of the elite in Canada did not utter a peep to oppose such a position. Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and Church officials openly and actively rejected proposals to allow Jewish refugees entry into Canada. The article that Atkey cited was: “‘The line must be drawn somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees 1938-1939,” Irving Abella and Harold Troper, The Canadian Historical Review, 60:2, June 1979, (178-209). As Atkey told it to me, it was he who had Manion distribute the article. But then, on this, my memory could be faulty as well.

Molloy notes the chance confluence of detailed administrative preparedness and the new trend towards a revival of the social activism and engagement of the sixties. Molloy claims the two groups united around an idea. (81) But it was not “idea” as a sense of purpose, but “idea” as a suggestion as to a possible course of action. Instruments are not ideals in the sense of goals. The legislation, the preparations and the activism of the civil service “gave Canadians the means to convert their concern for the refugees into direct action.” (81)

The December 1978 story of the people on the Hai Hong (2,500) escaping Vietnam and paying gold bars to do so turned into a narrative of suffering and rejection in the media. The Mennonites, as indicated in an earlier blog, had set a precedent. But the lengthy preparations and actions of the civil servants were now matched by continuing and heart-wrenching tales of the exodus in the media. The latter motivated a group to come together in my living room on 24 June 1979 to write a letter to our Minister of Immigration, Ron Atkey, who also happened to be our member of parliament and a former academic colleague of mine at York University.

The meeting was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon after church services were out. Molloy does not tell the story of how Atkey heard about the meeting. When I had asked him, Atkey said he did not remember. But he did send two immigration officers, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, on a Sunday no less, to my house. They arrived at the door and requested permission to attend the meeting. It was they who suggested that instead of writing a letter, we initiate some sponsorships. We soon readily agreed that witnessing would be preferable to advocacy.

Serendipity then took primacy of place. A graduate student of mine had attended the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail, billed as Canada’s national newspaper. He fed the story to Dick Beddoes, a columnist, who the next morning dubbed our “movement” Operation Lifeline. Within eight days, our constituency had organized fifty sponsorship groups. Within two weeks, there were sixty chapters of Operation Lifeline across Canada. (117) However, though the will to act had been built up and then facilitated by the media, little would have actually happened if legislation and regulations had not been in place and politicians and mandarins also in place to both communicate and implement commitments.

However, public relations and the role of the media were critical, as Molloy’s book makes clear. Sometimes, the inept handling of a conundrum can have very detrimental effects. This was the case in the face of the oversubscription of private sponsorships from the number targeted (by about ten thousand, one-third higher than the original target of 21,000). A new policy announcement was also a result of the Cambodian refugee humanitarian crisis overseas. Flora MacDonald, the Foreign Minister, carried away by the need, pledged $15 million instead of the $5 million authorized by Cabinet for the Geneva pledging conference. Atkey concurred. But it was the Foreign Minister who announced the cancellation the matching formula. Money saved by the government for government-sponsored refugees would be used to make up the shortfall in monies available for the Cambodian crisis overseas.

This action fed into the trope of many churches and organizations that the matching formula all along had been created as a device to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector. The private sector was up in arms. But Flora did not have to cancel the matching formula. Among the options presented to her by the civil service, she could have simply announced that, given the large number of private sponsors, they would take priority over government-sponsored refugees so sponsors would not be frustrated by having to wait. Excess numbers to fulfill the matching pledge would be shifted to 1981 given the already heavy burden on civil servants. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate at York University, and I was then the chair of Senate responsible as her escort, Flora told me that, in her rush from her constituency office in Kingston to get to Ottawa, she had failed to read the civil service brief. Instead of putting the decision positively as a way of fulfilling the matching formula, she mistakenly announced its cancellation.

Media relations are also crucial in combatting a backlash. Molloy documents how both Ron Atkey and the private sector responded to and undercut that backlash. Supporters of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the voice of that backlash, were enlisted to threaten the withdrawal of their financial support if the NCC continued its negative campaign against the Indochinese refugees. The NCC campaign stopped.

Molloy stressed another reason for the decision to cancel the matching formula – the fear of a backlash by the Conservative government if the total numbers exceeded 50,000. The NCC anti-refugee campaign had left its scar, especially among those wary of the 50,000 target in the first place. They believed the backlash would mostly come from Conservative supporters. They had no faith that their anti-racist wealthy supporters would take action let alone be effective in silencing the NCC. Perhaps they did not even know that Operation Intellectual Kneecapping, the name of the effort to stop the NCC campaign, had taken place and had succeeded.

What is the final take? With respect to refugees, books can focus on the plight and experiences of the refugees. Others with possible solutions such as settlement in first countries of arrival or repatriation. (The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights, and Repatriation, Katy Long (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)). Miliband claimed that, “Those who do not qualify for asylum (in Europe), because they are not judged to face a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned home, need to be safely and humanely returned to their country of origin, as a vital measure for the integrity and acceptability of the asylum process.” (115)

However, the actual reception of about a million refugees in Germany indicated that the asylum process could not be and was not the main route to entry and that another route posed no threat to Convention refugee determination. Further, my own book written with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia University Press, 2011) argued that most refugees are members of minorities. Unless their side wins, the vast majority will not be able to be repatriated.

Countries of first refuge are usually overwhelmed and also usually least able to cope with the influx economically. Burden sharing through resettlement is critical to helping refugees. That will not be accomplished through determining the rights of those refugees through a Refugee Convention process.

Miliband claims that, “by upholding their rights…you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (119) If one had insisted that “rights” had to be the foundation for helping refugees, a very much smaller percentage of the Indochinese refugees would have gained entry into Canada. Rights cannot be and should not be the benchmark for sharing problems. Nor duty. For some may see it as their duty to keep refugees out. The ability and willingness to help is and should be the measure. Further, as Molloy documents, “integration is (NOT) up to all of us.” (Miliband 118) Making it a universal obligation undercuts the effectiveness of integration. It is sufficient if a minority make it its task and the government facilitates such activity.

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