Canada Day 2015 has come and gone, with events around the country as people celebrated what it means to be a Canadian. With World Refugee Day just over, perhaps it was also a good time to consider the responsibility that this country and its citizens have towards people fleeing their own homelands. A small but enthusiastic group of people did just that at the University of Winnipeg on June 20.
World Refugee Day has been an international celebration for 15 years, ever since the United Nations General Assembly established the observance in 2000. The choice of June 20 coincided with African Refugee Day, which had already been celebrated in several countries before that time.
Specific observances of the day vary from one community to another, but most celebrations, such as the one hosted by the University of Winnipeg Students’ Association (UWSA), focus on the experiences of refugees and other immigrants coming to a new country. The UWSA event featured the accounts of four immigrants, each of whom spoke of the struggles they faced in leaving their homes and the experiences of learning to live in a new country.
Listeners also heard from representatives of organizations that work with refugees and try to promote awareness of the issues facing newcomers. The university itself promotes work with refugees through a student levy (a portion of students’ fees to the UWSA is allocated to the World University Service of Canada, which helps refugee students studying at University of Winnipeg), while events such as the World Refugee Day rally help to raise awareness of the issues.
One of those issues is the increasing number of refugees. According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, 59 million people have been forcibly displaced worldwide.
Magaly, a participant at the local event, spoke of the trauma that many refugees face and noted that helping them is everyone’s responsibility, because all people are “living on one planet—we have the same house.”
The trauma that newcomers experience before they arrive in Canada is not always alleviated when they try to get through the immigration system, as one of the speakers noted. Not only are fewer refugees being allowed into the country than ever before, but Bill C-51 (which gives the government new control over immigration based on an applicant’s perceived risk to national security) has the potential to make them afraid to speak out against abuses of power, and Bill C-24 has created two tiers of citizenship by allowing the government to take away Canadian citizenship from those who are dual citizens or immigrants.
Still, as the speaker noted, the recent doctor-led demonstrations against cuts to refugee health care show that “people can make a difference.” Although the solutions are sometimes difficult to see, the activities of World Refugee Day were clearly a call to action.
The World Refugee Day rally took place on the same day as an Aboriginal Day rally which also happened on the university grounds. According to one of the rally’s organizers, there is a strong connection between the arrival of newcomers in past centuries and the need to welcome people who are now trying to make their home here.
The crowd was small, and troubles with the sound system made it difficult to hear the speakers at times. However, if the event helped to alert participants to the struggles of refugees, it was worth the effort.
As you reflect on Canada Day, how will you welcome newcomers to this country?