The Harper government has fueled the refugee crisis by supporting war abroad, refused to open the borders to refugees, and scapegoated and deported refugees who have made it into Canada. But an explosion of rallies from coast to coast show that people across Canada support refugees.
Alan, Galib and Rehana Kurdi should be alive today, and they should probably be living in the lower mainland. That was the message delivered on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery and through the streets of downtown Vancouver yesterday by a large, diverse crowd of refugee supporters in the city. The crowd had assembled at one of the many rallies in support of refugee rights held across the country over the weekend, organized by No One Is Illegal and other activist groups. The International Socialists also had members in attendance.
The three members of the Kurdi family tragically drowned in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Turkey when their boat capsized last week in a desperate attempt to reach the European Union by sea. The Kurdi family had escaped to Turkey from their homes in Syria following intense fighting between Kurdish militia and ISIS fighters around the city of Kobane. There they became ensnared in bureaucratic red tape between the governments of Turkey, Canada, and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Like far too many others, they were left to their fates by uncaring powers in distant lands.
In contrast, most Canadians are welcoming of refugees, and they showed that on Sunday. Impassioned speakers at the rally led the crowd of 600-700 in chants of “Refugees welcome!” “Freedom for refugees!” and “Alan should be here!” Local representatives of the host nations of what is today called Vancouver (the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh) and other indigenous activists welcomed the crowd, and bestowed a ceremonial gift of tobacco to members of the Kurdi family. A moment of silence was held for Alan, Galib and Rehana.
From there a boisterous march snaked its way to the Canada immigration offices at Georgia and Hamilton streets. More speakers led the crowd in criticism of Canada’s increasingly hostile position toward refugees, pointing out that Canada accepted over 60,000 refugees from Vietnam between 1978 and 1980, and in one 4-day period alone actually processed 1,200 refugee claims—more than the entire number of Syrian refugees admitted into Canada in the year 2013. Finally the march ended with song, as the crowd joined in the old spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with the lyrics amended to “Refugees are welcome here/mother earth is everyone’s home.” It was an inspirational moment for everyone, and those present left feeling determined to make all necessary efforts required to improve Canada’s abysmal record on refugees.
Approximately 300 people gathered for a lively rally in Ottawa, featuring speakers from Amnesty International and No War Paix. Amid calls for the government to let in more refugees, organizers urged the crowd to go out and vote in the upcoming election. Though some tension regarding various flags marred an otherwise peaceful event, media attention and the focus of the rally stayed on the subject of refugees, the ongoing crisis and our responsibility as Canadians.
The organizers, three strangers who met two days before the event was organized, have promised to keep the pressure on politicians during the election period—perhaps through another rally or event. Many in the crowd expressed their desire to sponsor, donate and above all help refugees. Though drawn together by shock and sadness at the image of the dead little boy, organizers and the crowd remained positive that change could be made—especially in an election year, when all eyes are on our politicians.