Convocation address at Regis College, University of Toronto, November 2013

Janet Dench,  Doctor of Sacred Letters honoris causaVery Rev. Father Chancellor, representatives of the Toronto School of Theology and its member Colleges, Representative of the Chancellor of the University of Toronto, Faculty, staff and student members of Regis College, graduates, and family and friends of the graduates…

It is my great privilege to be here today with you, and especially to mark with you this important milestone for those graduates who actually earned the degree they are receiving today!

I am honoured to be able to share in this moment as you celebrate your achievement with your teachers, your fellow students, your family and friends.

Graduation is of course a significant step in your life - it is an opportunity to look back at what you have achieved and the journey you have taken at this college. It is also a time to look forward to the next phase in your lives.

I am invited here today, as I understand, as a representative of refugee advocates. So in thinking about what to say today, I have been reflecting on what I have learned from 25 years in this community.

I find myself drawn to the theme of silence.

I am sure many of you have also noticed how often silences speak louder than words, how the things unsaid are in some situations more revealing than the many things said.

Of course, it may seem perverse to choose the theme of silence, given my vocation as an advocate, in other words someone professionally called to give voice to injustice.

But advocates are also known for swimming against the current.

When I think about silence, I think first of all of the silence of those who have suffered in ways that go beyond the realm of words.

Suffering, as you know, wounds both through intensity and through duration - pain can be acute or chronic. Something that is really not very painful in itself can become devastating when it is long-drawn out. In fact, a short experience of lack - say lack of seeing a loved one - can be compensated, even outweighed, by the joy of reunion.

But when the separation goes on and on, the pain grows.

Refugees - and those who work with them - know a lot about long-drawn out suffering.

It seems to me that there comes a point where silence descends on those who have been in immigration detention too long, on those who have been separated from their families too long, on those who have lived in limbo too long. It is a point beyond rage - a point where something has been broken - where no setting free, no reunion, no status documents will compensate, where the relief of a resolution will go no way towards healing the wound.

I am thinking, for example, of a young man whose life was kept on hold for years, denied permanent residence thanks to kafkaesque immigration rules. When finally - beyond hope - he got permanent residence, he fell into a depression.

Or a couple - similarly trapped in legal limbo. The stress of their prolonged immigration nightmare tore their marriage apart - yet it also tied them reluctantly together in a cold, silent embrace.

You get to notice this silence in people who have waited too long. There are no words. And the silence makes their pain invisible to most Canadians, who nonetheless live alongside them.

Sometimes there is silence because there is nothing to be done, nothing to be said. Many years ago I was marked by an encounter with a young Somali man who I met in detention. He was about to be deported having been denied a fair opportunity to present the reasons why he should not be sent back to a country in chaos. I was upset at the situation - but he was calm. So young and yet apparently resigned to the idea that he would be buffeted between countries, with nowhere to be safe. After talking to me for a while, he politely asked to be excused so that he could break his fast, it being Ramadan. I had nothing to offer him. But he offered me a powerful and humbling lesson about the limits of intervention and about the dignity of those whose rights are being violated.

There is also the silence of the supplicants. At many moments a refugee’s life - and certainly life in its fulness - hangs by a thread, held in the hand of often unseen powers. Beware angering the beast.

I’m thinking of the mother who is fighting against a faceless bureaucracy to be reunited with her young children. Months, years have gone past. She has sent documents. She has sent letters that go unanswered. Requests come for the same documents already submitted. The children are crying for their mother, but the bureaucracy has no ears. The mother senses however that the bureaucracy’s hearing is peculiarly alert to any sound that might be construed as criticism.

With extraordinary dignity she continues to present her respectful petition. Finally her children arrive.

Those who advocate for refugees are also supplicants and must regularly silence their indignation if they are to serve the interests of those seeking relief from injustice.

I wonder if there is some corner of the universe where are stored up those suppressed cries of rage.

Then there is the silence of those whose lives are at risk or who cannot speak for fear of the consequences for loved ones back home. How often do we hear of situations that call out to be denounced, and yet the story cannot be told because to so might compromise still further the security of those involved?

A man is deported summarily and probably illegally from Canada, without having a chance to make a refugee claim, and detained on arrival in his home country as a political prisoner. Publicizing this in Canada might hold the authorities here to account, but it won’t help him back in his home country, and might even increase the risk to him. And so we had to keep silence.

There is the silence too of shame – the woman who dare not say what happened while she was in jail – the shame that properly belongs to our world that makes the woman bear the guilt for what is done to her.

Fleeing persecution often means being forced into illegality - using smugglers, crossing borders irregularly, living without status. Another reason to keep silent.

Three years ago a boat arrived on the West Coast bearing children, women and men fleeing human rights abuses in Sri Lanka. We heard the shouts of “terrorists”, criminals, smugglers, abusers, economic migrants. What we scarcely heard at all were the stories of the people on board the boat - their long and painful voyage, the experiences that made them take that risk, their hopes and fears on arriving in Canada.

For many refugees, the difficult period of flight and arrival is a passage, hopefully brief, between the life left behind and a new life painstakingly built here. There is often a silence about that passage, maybe in part because we as a society don’t make much space for those stories to be told. And no doubt in many cases there is too much pain in the memories. I wonder if sometimes the passage is felt as somehow apart - sacred - not to be spoken of too casually. Perhaps there is fear too of people’s reactions - will they be thought less of because they once were refugees? will they too be labelled criminal, terrorist, abuser?

What we lose in the silence is the realization that the experience of being a refugee is familiar to many Canadians.

And then there is the silence of the bystanders.

This, we know, is not a new silence. Centuries ago this silence was passionately denounced:

         The Lord saw it, and it displeased him

         that there was no justice.

         He saw that there was none,

         and was appalled that there was no one to intervene.

Isaiah, 59, 15-16.

This is the silence of those who feel that they don’t know enough to speak up, they don’t understand the technicalities. May we ask whether they haven’t learned more because they don’t feel enough common humanity with those forced to flee?

This is the silence too of those who do understand but who worry about the consequences of siding publicly with the marginalized and the unpopular - how, they worry, would speaking up affect their prestige, their budgets, their access to power?


And yet there is not only silence.

There are the courageous public testimonies of refugees, sometimes at known risk to themselves, who speak out to advance the interests not just of themselves, sometimes not even of themselves, but of others.

There are the many individuals and institutions, many of them from a position of faith, who speak out clearly and consistently in support of refugees.

There are the thousands of people across Canada, including many former refugees, who each day act in defence of the unpopular, the marginalized - actions that are mostly unsung, but which mean more than words. Some of them are here today. It is in their name that I receive the honour given to me.

For those of you graduating today - and for indeed for all others here - I wish you the deep satisfaction of working for a cause that you know is just and true, the chance to witness the strength of the human spirit and the riches of friendship born from working in solidarity.

Janet Dench

Read the citation from Regis College here