An op ed about my disappointment with current election coverage

Every day I have been going to the CBC’s main news homepage and every day the headlines leading up to the election are frustrating. Every day the headlines are politics that, in my opinion, appear to be an attempt to skirt around politics. Maybe it’s just that in this exceptionally long election campaign, suddenly everything is fair game – well, everything with the exception of actual important campaign portfolios and issues.

Since a photo of a dead refugee boy surfaced, all day every day the news is full of refugee headlines. I recently wrote about the refugee crisis, so I don’t mind all this new information. But it does feel like pandering.

Now there’s the Niqab. After the Federal Court of Canada ruled that it is unlawful to require new citizens to remove their face coverings during the oath swearing part of citizenship ceremonies. As Rex Murphy pointedly articulated in March, 2015, “it’s vastly overinflated, politically inspired, media driven and a diversion from issues of braoder consequence and genuine signifiance”.

The “so-called Niqab debate”, as Murphy puts it, is an absurdity in the middle of this election, where freedom of religion is seemingly posited against an assumption of guilt – that the future citizen would refuse to actually utter the oath under the secrecy of her hood. But this is not an election issue and my opinion on the subject is irrelevant because that issue is one of legal prowess alone. Leave it to the courts. It’s not an election issue.

Then we have the name calling. Today, we can read that Justin Trudeau was “subtly racist”. Journalist Desmond Cole seemingly exercised a preference to have flash in the pan fame rather than to ask the follow-up. Cole is a well-respected journalist and I don’t opine on his analysis. But a news story about his Twitter feed Storify where analysis is presented as solid journalism is frustrating and adds to the general tenor of this election: say what you want, when you want. What happened to all of the sides? All we get from Trudeau on this story is presented as a one-liner from the CBC. This isn’t on point. There’s no depth here.

Then there’s a story about Harper denying that his “campaign pledge to support the Terry Fox Foundation” was not done to garner traction in the election, but rather was to honour an agreement made with the charity.

We can read a story about Mulcair’s promise to freeze the same EI premiums that Harper is going to cut. We can also read a story about Mulcair having to apologize for using the term “Newfie” in 1996.

Meanwhile, all I want to know is what any of you have to offer. I don’t care who did what else. I do not care what somebody did 20 years ago. I don’t care about somebody’s awkward handling of discussions about a cultural realm that he has no idea how to discuss. I don’t care about a party leader manipulating a charity because ploy or no ploy, the charity will have more. What’s more: if people can’t tell by now that refugees and charitable work aren’t really the concerns of certain parties, it’s because you’re planning to vote with that Party.

It’s frustrating to read the news because instead of becoming informed about campaign issues and election platforms I feel like I’m watching three kids bickering and fighting for teacher’s attention. Not one of them has anything to say for themselves that would suggest they deserve to be her favourite pupil, they just keep piping in about how so-and-so did this, and so-and-so did that.

I’m dying to hear about some real campaign issues, so here’s my request: stop bashing each other and start showing why you’re awesome. Give the media something to write about so we can stop reading about the mean things you’re saying about each other. I’m sure you each must have some reason why you want to lead this country other than a desire to pummel the others.

…right?

The origins of our refugee crisis are not found in a photo

I first became obsessed with refugee law and policy when my friend Mary came home from a semester studying in New York. We were both going to the MUN School of Music at that time, but that semester Mary had taken a series of courses in human rights and humanities. When she got back, she started talking about this one course she had taken about refugees. She talked about a book she had read several chapters from: Human Cargo. I asked if I could borrow it.

Then my life changed. I didn’t become an opera singer, I didn’t know what in the world to do but it had to involve refugees. I decided to try law school, writing a personal statement that was, little to my rural-Newfoundland, opera-singing knowledge,  more about policy-making than practicing law. In any event, I got accepted to law school where I took a series of courses about human rights law and in particular focussed on refugee law and policy.

The United Nations 1951 Refugee Convetion defines a refugee as a person who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” The widely shared picture of a three-year old boy dead on a beach is known to be a Syrian refugee. This photo has clearly shaken even the sturdiest of souls. The photo is shattering. It shatters your mind, because you can’t stop seeing it in everything. It shatters a piece of your soul you hadn’t gotten to know yet. It shatters your heart. It shatters the little bit of hope you may have saved up for the world today. It shatters justice, because we must be damn full of certitude that this little person’s sole crime was being born in the wrong place.

A Turkish rescue worker carrying the young boy. Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/if-these-extraordinarily-powerful-images-of-a-dead-syrian-child-washed-up-on-a-beach-dont-change-europes-attitude-to-refugees-what-will-10482757.html

A Turkish rescue worker carrying the young boy.
Source: The Independent (UK)

The Conservative immigration minister, Chris Alexander, was apparently quite moved in this, the “wake” of the Syrian Refugee Crisis. He has commended Canada’s immigration and refugee program to date, and has taken to blaming the Canadian Broadcasting Company for their laziness and apathy when it came to reporting on refugees, for failing to do their duty to make a better informed public.

I seethed when I watched him on a panel on the CBC blaming the public broadcasting company for this fault. I seethed with anger because I hate lies. I seethed with disbelief because the current government’s reign of rancid refugee law has been particularly cruel and unusual. I seethed with sadness that became so physical I felt it in my temples, behind my eyes, in my forehead. Somehow, somewhere, somebody must have told Alexander that it would be fine to blame someone else. They must have urged him: “Scapegoat. It’s fine. Don’t worry. Be sad, but you don’t actually need to take the blame.”

The refugee situation in Syria is not now in its “wake”. Waves have wakes, that you lazily roll around in after you’ve swam through the break and the crashing water. A crisis that is marked by 4,000,000 refugees presently known to the United Nations is not in its “wake”. It is a catastrophe. This is not the new outcome of a wave that crashed and broke. The world is up in flames. There is nothing new about this.

In 2012 I wrote a paper for my Immigration and Refugee Law Class about the then-new refugee legislation, Bill C-51, which received royal assent in June of that year. The legislation, Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, appeared to breach the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention. Under that Convention, Canada, as a signatory, has agreed to non-refoulement, or the promise to not return a person in need of protection to his or her persecutor. The legislation made lawful detention that was by all accounts arbitrary and thus contrary to the Charter, arising on account of a person being a refugee and arriving in a large group. Secondly, the detention was so excessively long that it became unrealistic and likely tortuous for a refugee to stay in Canada long enough to get status. Most refugee claimants can only afford one person’s passage at a time, and the lucky claimant is usually the father of the family. Is that person really going to stay in Canada for up to six months before even having a second review of his detention, when he has a family to protect? What if he’s gone for so long they believe he has abandoned them? Or worse, so long that they perish from the very cause from which they were trying to escape in the first place. These kinds of pressures seem likely to convince a refugee he would be better off returning to the place of his prosecutors. Et voila! Refoulement disguised as non-refoulemenet.

To now hear a conservative immigration minister opine that the real failure here is that of the CBC is offensive.

The refugee crisis did not begin with a shattering picture of a deceased child on a beach. Canada’s lineage of poor refugee choices is rich. There was the Head Tax of $50 imposed on Chinese Immigrants in 1903, which eventually reached $500 in 1918 (note that this range in current Canadian dollars would be approximately $1,078.81 to $10,788.14 (based on the Bank of Canada’s inflation calculator which goes back only to 1914)). By 1918, $18 million ($257,460,674.16) was collected from the Head Tax. In 1907, Japanese immigration to Canada was limited to 400 per year. In 1910, the Immigration Act was amended to prohibit the landing of immigration “belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada, or of immigrants of any specified class, occupation or character”. Between 1914 and 1920, only one Indian was admitted to Canada as an immigrant.

That all looks quite grim doesn’t it? Well, today, we have a government that skirts around non-refoulement and blames the media for our lack of awareness. We have a minister standing up at long last and saying there is an issue – but the truth is this: no matter how tragically, endlessly sad that photo may be, it is not the origins of nor the end of this crisis. We’re citizens in a country with a government that at least appears to hate refugees – provided they’re not dead. Our crisis is as old as confederation itself.

Human beings cannot be born with characteristics that may be unsuited to a particular place. Human beings are not cargo, nor collateral nor a Head Tax. Human beings shouldn’t be washed up on beaches trying to find a better life. How can we fix it? A good start will be on October 19, 2015, when we can vote for leaders that treat all humans like the important, equal beings that they are.

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You can join the cause by making a donation to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees by clicking here or click here for more information about the UNHCR and the work it’s doing.