On my morning walk I often pause a moment at this small statue, named Whatsoever* (by Timothy Schmalz) which sits outside of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Ottawa, which is wedged between the Bank of Canada and the Department of Justice, just within the precincts of parliament, the seat of power in this country … it challenges me, it challenges us all, I think, on many levels, and it reminds me that one of the defining characteristics of Canadians is a generosity of spirit.
There are political ramifications to that and consequences which must be considered by all of us, especially by those interested in politics.
But Canadians are not only generous, they are also pragmatic and political leaders need to keep both traits in mind.
I am often reminded of the words of the late American management guru Professor Warren G Bennis who said …
… Canadians, I think, expect politicians to lead and the government, the public servants, to manage.
When this image hit our newspaper front pages and TV screens in 2015 Canadians reacted with their characteristic compassion and generosity of spirit and they demanded that “someone” should “do something.” Prime Minister Harper reacted, somewhat characteristically, cautiously, as the prime manager when Canadians wanted action. Candidate Justin Trudeau promised action ~ he would bring tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Canada ~ but it was an ill considered promise which proved difficult to manage and remains problematical. Neither offered either real leadership or good management.
The Dutch and germans and Scandinavians are also famous for their generosity of spirit and they, too, reacted by taking in many, many refugees and other migrants. But, in too many cases, things have not gone well and this is now altogether too commonplace on European streets. Now the European took in more refugees and migrants than we did and screened them less but when, not if, some of the 40,000 refugees than Prime Minister Trudeau welcomed commit some outrage or just abuse Canada’s generous social safety net there will by a similar reaction here.
The correct response, for Canada, must be more nuanced than either Prime Minister Harper or Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau offered in 2015.
First, our reaction must be based on a firm understanding that refugees have fled their homes in real fear for life and limb. They did not flee looking for a new home or economic opportunity; they, mostly, want to return to their home … in peace and safety. In many cases our first reaction ought to be to ask how we can help to undo the situation which created refugees in the first place. Sometimes we can use diplomacy and other foreign policy tools to help broker some sort of solution; in some cases the only really good option is to use military force to change the political climate in a place. Sometimes we can do little or nothing that will make much of a difference to the situation which created the problem in the first place.
Next we must ask how we ~ a rich, sophisticated, capable nation ~ can do provide the greatest benefit for the greatest number … the old utilitarian principle. This may, very often, involve helping host nations in the troubled regions that are suddenly inundated with refugees to cope and to provide the essentials of life to these unfortunate people. Occasionally it will involve helping to resettle refugees into new, permanent homes ~ and sometimes the refugees will find resettlement very, very difficult and if that new home is in Canada then there may be Canadian internal security concerns, too.
Finally there is a lot of politics in the refugee business: local, partisan politics that might even pit one “community” against another here in Canada and grand strategic politics like the enduring Arab-Israeli situation in which refugees and refugee camps play a role.
Canadian politicians need to lead and manage well ~ better, anyway, than either Stephen Harper did or Justin Trudeau is doing ~ if they want to keep Canadians “on side” and use our natural generosity of spirit to do some good in the world.
The right policy for dealing with refugees must, first and above all, be generous. Next it must be clear to Canadians that the government has a plan that can and will work for the benefit of the refugees while, at the same time, protecting Canadians’ interests at home and abroad. Finally, the right plan must be practical and well managed so that Canadians can see that their government is both:
- Doing the right things; and
- Doing things right.
In 2015 Prime Minister Harper failed to “do the right thing” quickly enough; in 2015, 2016 and 2017 Prime Minister Trudeau has failed to do things right.
* From Matthew 24:40 which can be read as “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto me.”