Refugees, Citizenship and Human Rights

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Over the coming months, thousands of Syrian refugees will come to Canada in search of freedom. That freedom, as the United Nations theme for Human Rights Day 2015 observes, is the freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.

Like all other refugees, they will adapt to a new climate, new communities, and a new culture. Like the refugees that have come before them, they will become part of a multicultural Canada.

Many of the refugees are likely to make Canada their permanent home, the place where they will put down roots, raise families, and contribute to our modern pluralistic society. They will, like so many refugees, immigrants, and newcomers before them, become Canadian citizens.

In doing so, they will learn of the rights that are part of their citizenship – rights that come from the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, our constitution, and the rule of law. They will also learn that citizenship is a two-way obligation, that it creates responsibilities to each other and to our country. They will also learn that respect for all is an underlying ideal of our multiculturalism.

Many of the newcomers will come to learn that rights are contested in day-to-day interactions, and that some Canadians who benefit greatly from citizenship often fail to live up to their responsibilities. Discrimination and racism will, unfortunately, be a part of their Canadian experience.

They will also learn, I am heartened to say, that Canadians are not passive and that they do not give up. At a recent conference in Saskatoon, post-secondary educators from across Canada made a commitment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, to Indigenous education, and to all students. I commend the University of Saskatchewan for its leadership.

At high schools in Prince Albert, just weeks ago, thousands of students and teachers listened to Holocaust educator and survivor Nate Leipciger. Mr. Leipciger relayed his horrific experiences in surviving the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination-concentration camp. He talked about the difficulties he faced immigrating to Canada, and he reminded students of Canada’s then anti-Jewish immigration policy where “none was too many.”

I am thankful that the Syrian newcomers will learn that, today, Canada is a country that learns from its past. That we can denounce the trauma of the residential school system at the same time as we look for opportunities to heal, educate, and work with Indigenous people. That we learn from deplorable immigration policies to do what is right and open our doors to people with so very little. And that fostering inclusion and belonging for all people is more than aspirational – it is our responsibility.

David M. Arnot
Chief Commissioner
Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission