In the wake of Trump’s executive order, Canadian leaders should be matching their compassionate words with real action on the refugee file.

Day ten. Watching the administration of Donald Trump unfold stirs such alarm and anger that it’s hard to think clearly or go about one’s day.

In the two frightening days following Trump’s vile, anti-immigrant, anti-muslim, authoritarian decree, I also had moments of amazing pride and optimism.

On Saturday, I woke up early to attend a pro bono clinic hosted by the Refugee Sponsorship Support Program (RSSP) at Ryerson University. I was one of 20 or so lawyers who spent the day helping groups of Canadians complete private sponsorship applications. It was an antidote to everything that was happening in the world (and it forced me away from my exploding Twitter feed).

I assisted a woman who, together with her family and a few others, is sponsoring a remarkable young man, a refugee from an African country. I got to know this man over Skype. We discussed his experiences and filled out the forms that will, with a bit of luck, allow him to one day start a new life in Canada.

The energy at these clinics is amazing. I am so proud of my profession and how it has responded to the refugee crisis. (To the lawyers out there – not just immigration lawyers – I encourage you to sign up and receive training to volunteer at RSSP’s monthly clinics.) The more engaged we all are in these programs and on these issues, the harder it is for our politicians to look away.

But, as energizing as the clinic was, the program was dealt a blow late last week, and it wasn’t Trump’s executive order. On Thursday, in a quiet press release, the Government of Canada announced that after exempting Syrian and Iraqi refugees from the requirement to have UNHCR or government-issued refugee status documents in order to be privately sponsored, the arbitrary cap placed on this exemption had been reached. Most of the millions of Syrians and Iraqis in the region, like many refugees around the world, have no way of accessing these documents. Accordingly, they can no longer be sponsored by groups of five or community sponsors.

As the press release put it, “Applications received after reaching the limit will be returned.” Well, the limit has been reached.

A few sponsorship groups who had planned to attend the clinic didn’t even bother coming after they were informed of the announcement. Why go through the trouble of filling out the forms if the government won’t even read them? Some other groups decided to come anyway, hoping the government would eventually reverse its policy in the face of public pressure, as it has done before.

Saturday evening after the clinic was a blur. There was a feeling of jubilation over the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) heroic legal victory, obtaining a court-ordered stay that blocked the deportation of those stranded in US airports as a result of Trump’s executive order. This was quickly followed by the sinking reality of the stay’s limited scope, and the thousands not yet on American soil for whom the win rang hollow.

The emotional roller coaster continued Sunday morning. My wife and I visited our friends, a young couple, and their four smart and curious little girls. Our friends are Syrian refugees who came to Canada late last year, sponsored by the lawyers, staff and friends of my law firm, Goldblatt Partners LLP. They hosted us Sunday morning with the warmth that we’ve become accustomed to – tea, sesame cookies, fresh baked cakes. Their eldest daughter, in grade 2, showed me the “citizenship” award she received last week from her school. It was awarded to her for her kindness in helping her classmates – just three months after immigrating to Canada and starting to learn English. Her father played me a video of the award ceremony held at the school gym, with pride.

We piled onto the TTC and spent the day at the Aga Khan Museum, a remarkable celebration of Islamic history and art in the heart of Toronto. At the temporary exhibition on Syria, the mother explained the beautiful photographs to me and told me that, one day – gesturing with her hands to say, not soon – I must visit. We ran into another young Syrian couple who had arrived in Toronto shortly after them. The families recognized each other from the Canadian consulate in Ankara and marveled at how small the world can be.

But, as uplifting as this visit was, we also talked about Syrian refugees overseas, loved ones of Syrian Canadians, who had planned and hoped to reunite through private sponsorships, only to learn that the government’s limits would make this difficult or impossible.

I learned of Syrians with US visas who watched the weekend’s events in horror, their lives turned upside down with the stroke of a pen.

And then, Sunday night, I learned of the shooting and tragic deaths at a mosque in Quebec City. As if the sadness weren’t already enough.

These are dark times, but they are not without hope.

We need to come together and vigorously defend the values we cherish. Civil society’s response has been nothing short of inspiring.

And I hope our leaders match their compassionate words with real actions:

  • Withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement with the US. This agreement, which requires people to make a refugee claim in the first “safe” place they arrive (Canada or the US), was flawed from the outset. If there was ever any justification for Canada to close its doors on asylum seekers travelling through the US, that justification falls flat under a Trump presidency. At minimum, Canada should immediately invoke its right under Article 10 of the agreement to “suspend for a period of up to three months application of this Agreement”.
  • Dramatically increase the number of refugee sponsorships targeted for 2017, above the very modest numbers of 7,500 government-assisted and 16,000 privately sponsored refugees. Something, anything, to alleviate the senseless cruelty of Trump’s decision to cut the US annual cap by more than half, from 110,000 to 50,000 – abandoning 60,000 men, women and children who will no longer find refuge in the US this year.
  • Convene a forum of like-minded countries to develop a multilateral refugee protection strategy in response to Trump’s anti-refugee policies. Canada can provide global leadership when it’s needed most.

Standing together with marginalized people everywhere will give us a little more reason to hope.

Photo: Syrian refugees Jamil Haddad (left to right), Tony Batekh, George Louka and Edmon Artin have some fun while they attend French classes at a school Wednesday, February 17, 2016 in Montreal. The Canadian Press/Ryan Remiorz


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