Tom Denton
Panelist, Plenary
CCR Consultation, Winnipeg
November 20, 2003

25 Years of Sponsoring

My friend Rivka(1) refers to herself as an "historical member" in a CCR sense, because she's been around from the beginning. I can make no such claim for my years with the CCR, but I can just about make that claim when it comes to refugee sponsoring. I know I was doing it in 1979, and it may have been 1978 when I started my wheels rolling. I guess that puts me back at the beginning, an "historical member", and brings me here tonight to tell a yarn, and perhaps suggest some lessons learned, or "learnings" as the current newspeak would have it.

Back at the beginning, I knew absolutely nothing about refugee sponsorship, and I'm not sure the phrase " settlement" had been invented. Certainly there was no real settlement sector as we know it today, with all the experience and professionalism that has developed around it. But there was surely people who wanted to help. Lots of them. I was making my living as a business consultant, mainly in corporate acquisitions and finance, running around North America like a headless chicken. The horrific pictures of "boat people" were on the television everywhere, and Canada mobilized to do something about them. I got caught up in this country's wonderful response.

At the time I was a member of a Rotary Club in the small community of Selkirk, near where I lived, just north of Winnipeg, downstream on the Red River. One Monday evening, after our regular dinner, I pitched my fellow Rotarians on the idea of sponsoring a family of Vietnamese "boat people". Good fellows all, that they were, they went for it. God bless them!

But the initial details were up to me. There was nothing about "SAHs" or "CGs", or all that lingo and structure then. If there was, I knew or heard nothing about it. I just telephoned the immigration offices in Winnipeg, expressed our interest in sponsoring a family, and got an appointment to come in. How simple. How easy. How straightforward. How satisfying. Shortly thereafter, as I recall, I came into Winnipeg and signed some papers. I remember doing it, but I don't know what I signed. Yet I certainly knew that the Rotary Club of Selkirk would be responsible for the reception and settlement of the Tran family. And that was fine with us.

[Isn't it interesting how bureaucracies - any bureaucracy - seem to have a perverse capacity to take something simple and make it increasingly complicated, surrounding it with layer upon layer of rules until the initial goals are subverted, frustrated.]

My other memory of the signing occasion, in a tiny Dilbert-like cubicle somewhere in the downtown area, wherever the perambulations of the immigration department had currently taken them, was the pleasant reception I got from the immigration person. It was a joyful occasion. Believe it or not from the reality of your own experiences and perspective, that aspect has not changed in Winnipeg, and the people with whom the sponsoring community deals at CIC Winnipeg, are and have remained through the years, both pleasant, committed to the work, appreciative of our efforts, and helpful. God bless them too!

My fellow Rotarians literally took over at this point, rented a newer bungalow in a good Selkirk neighborhood, furnished it, and we all awaited the big arrival with much anticipation. I don't recall that it took very long. Not like the interminable waits of two, three, four years - or even more - that we are experiencing now. Upstairs in the political parts of the government system today there is nothing like the commitment to refugee rescuing and resettlement that existed in the era of the boat people. Thousands were sponsored and thousands came. It earned Canada the Nansen Medal. It was a wonderful, fulfilling time. It challenged Canada and it encouraged volunteering. Today the refugee sponsoring system frustrates and discourages. What a pity. What a waste. What a tragedy. I firmly believe that the goodwill would still be there, and abundant miracles would still be performed, if the political will was there to fund adequately, to kick bureaucratic ass in Ottawa and to reverse the processing decay overseas. But refugees are no longer a popular item, let alone a priority, in the developed world's paranoid and mean spirited agenda. That's another theme for another time.

Meanwhile, we got word that our family was to arrive one morning at the Winnipeg airport. We also got last minute word that our family had relatives in Winnipeg, with an address in an apartment building on Edmonton Street, just around the corner from Central Park. The Rotarians organized a couple of vans and a welcoming delegation of members and wives to drive in from Selkirk. I decided to proceed independently and pick up the local relatives so that the Winnipeg welcome would be complete.

But there was a problem. The local relatives were a young, recently arrived refugee couple with a tiny new baby. Dad was at work, or school, or somewhere - and mom was home alone with the baby, in the apartment on Edmonton Street. She spoke no English. None. Well, almost none. How was I to make this work? I arrived at the address, there was no outside security in those days, so in I went, to the apartment door. So far so good. Remember I was meeting my very first refugee. Ever! I had never dealt with anyone who couldn't speak English. I knew nothing of Language Banks or other community refugee services. I was totally naive.

I knocked, the door opened, and there stood the young mother with her baby daughter in arms. How was I to explain that I wanted to take her to the airport, in chilly weather, in my stranger's car, to meet her relatives? I said the name of our arriving family, and proceeded to make like an airplane. Like this............! I kid you not. The young woman laughed and got it. I suspect she knew already that her relatives were arriving that day. I still marvel at her trust of a complete, and somewhat weird stranger. She donned her coat, bundled the baby, and away we went to the airport. The only thing she said to me, proudly and smiling, was "Canada baby". And indeed it was, born here in Winnipeg.

We walked into the airport, me carrying the baby, a pink bundle, to the bemusement of the Selkirk delegation, especially my wife. She still says she will never forget the moment.

The Trans arrived, and settled for a few years in Selkirk before moving on to BC. It all seemed to work out during our time of responsibility. As it happened, I didn't have much to do with their settlement because my job and my life totally changed in 1980 when my partners and I started the Winnipeg Sun, and one week later, with another group of partners, we opened a dinner theatre. And my wife was running our store in Selkirk. It was a crazy time, but my fellow Rotarians assumed the full settlement responsibility and did a great job. I didn't realize then that my first experience of refugee sponsoring was the prelude to my complete involvement, five years later, in what has become the most challenging and fulfilling twenty years of my life.

I want to go back to that episode with the "Canada baby", because the thing that has remained with me is the trust of that young mother in a complete stranger. We all had a lot of trust too - trust that we were doing the right thing, that our refugees would be OK people, that things would work out. There was a lot of trust in those days, and come to think of it, there still is. Refugee sponsoring works because there is commitment of course, but transcending that is the element of trust - the refugees' trust in us, and our trust in them. It's a wonderful thing, and when at times it becomes a burdensome thing, we need to remember that it is God's work we are doing.

It was suggested to me that I mention how things have changed over the years, and for an audience like this, that hardly needs doing. You all know how the numbers have declined, both Government Assisted and, especially, private sponsorships. You all know how processing times have lengthened. Last night at the airport Manitoba Refugee Sponsors had eighteen unannounced arrivals. Didn't know they were coming. Susan Ferguson(2) said to me, wouldn't this have screwed up all the arrangements that were in place? And I replied, not really. In the case of the ones I did (two unannounced arrivals last night) , that was back in the first six months of the year 2000 - 31/2 or more years ago. Anything planned around that time would probably have been irrelevant by now anyway.

So you know about all this, about the negative way refugees are viewed around the world, the hostility in Europe, in Australia. The way they're playing fast and loose with the Convention. You read all about it on the CCR list, thanks to the diligence of Janet(3) and our members. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that most of the refugees today don't come from Europe. But that's yet another theme for another time.

I want to talk about something else, and about Canada. Do you remember how we labeled the Right of Landing Fee, the "Head Tax"? Do you remember how we labeled the Safe Third Country agreement, the "None is Too Many" agreement ? Do you remember how we coined the phrase "faithism" to parallel racism and describe prejudice and discrimination on the basis of faith? Do you remember how we have talked about "systemic racism" when describing the manner in which Canada's immigration rules operate more harshly against those from poor and undeveloped - and non-white - countries? I think it's time to coin another phrase when we talk about our immigration system.

Everyone in this room tonight who works in the refugee and immigration area, has stories to tell - stories about the harshness of the system, about the frustrations and heartbreak of individuals, of families kept apart, of wrenching deportations, of hopes dashed, of lives destroyed. The entire length of this conference would not suffice to hear the stories that are fresh in your minds. And that would be only the tiny tip of a huge iceberg. Here's mine for tonight. And it's not a particularly wrenching story. It will eventually have a happy ending. It's a kind of gentle illustration of the phrase I want to introduce. In its very lack of extremism, it serves to illustrate the reality that has come to be a pervasive presence in Canada's immigration system. That reality and the phrase I think we should begin to use, is systemic cruelty.

Joseph came here as a refugee claimant from Congo. His was a compelling story, and there was never any doubt in my mind that his claim would succeed. It did, but he waited eighteen months for his hearing. Shortly after he fled Congo, his wife, now a replacement target for him, was forced to flee with the five young children to another country where they live in comparative safety but extreme poverty. Ill health plagues them. The children are not allowed to go to school. Joseph supports them as best he can. Now Joseph has filed his application for permanent residence, his family included. That took $1,850 in fees that our sponsored refugees don't pay. Current practice is that Vegreville will take probably a year to process his application, if all goes smoothly, and again probably, not start the processing of the family until after that - likely another year gone. So with luck and no hitches, it will be four to five years from the time Joseph fled until the family is reunited, the kids get back their father, and can go to school. Lives don't stand still; they move onward. We all age. Notice that in this case, everything moved and is moving according to plan. Joseph was only two months getting to Winnipeg in his flight from Congo. As a university educated man, he wasted no time with his paperwork, in getting a lawyer, a work permit, two jobs, a church connection. He has received no adverse decisions. Everything about the length of the case has to do with process, with the functioning of the immigration system. I call that systemic cruelty. The people in the system aren't cruel. I know lots of fine, caring, hard working, people in CIC, and so do you. Indeed I know Canadians working in the Nairobi office that is the source of so many of our frustrations who are fine people, some from Manitoba. It is the seeming inevitabilities in the system that make it cruel. But it is of course more than that.

As I said, I deliberately chose a gentle example. You know of many more harsh ones.

I'll bet that you have had the same experience as I have with people who are outside immigration work and know-how, people you meet in your neighborhood or in church, who come abruptly into knowledge from friends or the media, about some immigration case that to them seem to defy logic or humanity, or both. They can't believe that Canada would do such a thing. They love this country, as do we all, and have a belief in the kind of goodness Canada is supposed to represent. The Maher Arar case was a reality check, but these kinds of checks happen to naive friends often. What do you say when you are confronted, as I am, after church or on the street, by someone who can't understand what Canada appears to be doing to good, perhaps wounded people? Do you find yourself apologizing for the immigration system? Or condemning it? Or just shrugging your shoulders because there seems to be no answer. When those Anglicans from Mauritius and India were prevented from coming to the Anglican's World Congress in Winnipeg last summer, one prominent woman of my acquaintance opined that there must have been some problem with them we weren't being told about. That's the way Canadians tend to think. The government must be right. Canada is such an upstanding country.

But in the immigration area bad things do happen as all of you will attest. It's not because bad people are doing them, it's because the system allows it to happen. Maybe it's under-funding for the Nairobi office. Maybe it's the lack of an appeal from a case processing decision, or lack of a "RAD". Maybe its simply rules that allow cruel processes to take place, like deporting someone convicted of a crime who has served his sentence and now must pay again, even though he left his place of birth when he was three. Whatever the reasons, the consequences do not jibe with our views of fairness, of compassion, and sometimes even of common sense. I call that systemic cruelty.

Janis(4) heard me on this theme the other day, and used the phrase in a TV interview. In usual fashion, her interview was clipped down to a few sound bites. But they kept the phrase "systemic cruelty". I think it can be a powerful tool for CCR and for all advocates for refugees and immigrants. It embodies what we believe and expresses it in a way that makes nobody want to be its target. It's the political level that we want to impress, to change, so that CIC can be adequately funded, and can have a clear mission statement that abjures cruelty in any area of the system.

I don't like suggesting that things were better in the good old days, because that is the clear mark of an aging mind. And Kemi's (5) review of our immigration history this morning showed how much there is in Canada's past of which we can feel shame, that would fail my test. But watching things unfold during these past twenty-five years leads me to the clear conclusion that systemic cruelty has become well rooted in our immigration practices, and we need to weed it out.

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1. Rivka Augenfeld, TCRI, Montreal.

2. Susan Ferguson, Working Group on Refugee Resettlement, Toronto

3. Janet Dench, Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

4. Janis Nickel, Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, Winnipeg.

5. Kemi Jacobs, President, Canadian Council for Refugees, Toronto