Now Is the Time for Blame: Alan Kurdi and the Myth of a 'Generous' Canada

People in power sit back and watch them slaughter us Mr. President I assume it was negligence The streets upside down, I'm here to represent this -- Nas

Apparently nobody wants to know that contemporary history has created a new kind of human beings--the kind that are put in concentration camps by their foes and internment camps by their friends. -- Hannah Arendt

The picture of the dead toddler cries out more words than any string of paragraphs ever could, but in an election season where memories are short and promises long, let us rehearse the facts: Tima Kurdi attempted to sponsor her brother, Mohammed, and his family to come to Canada. She managed to get a letter delivered to the Minister of Immigration, a feat all by itself, but she did not have enough money to bring her other brother, Abdullah. Like countless others, she waited, and then waited some more. But her brother Abdullah, his wife Rehan, and their two sons, Alan and Galib, caught between savagery and anarchy, could not wait any longer. Like thousands of other refugees, they boarded a boat hoping to get to Europe.

The waters were indifferent to their plight, and the boys and their mother drowned. "I was holding my wife's hand, my children slipped away from me," Abdullah Kurdi said. Alan Kurdi's corpse was later photographed on the beach, his body faced-down, the life sucked out of him. Had this picture not been taken, or had it been taken but not gone viral, Alan Kurdi's name, his beautiful face, would have remained anonymous to the world, like the 4 million Syrian refugees and 250,000 Syrian dead who have remained anonymous to us all.

Now, the Syrian refugee crisis has become the top issue in Canada's election campaign, and as with all election campaigns, the people who bear responsibility are doing what they can to confuse the public. Stephen Harper and his Minister of Immigration, Chris Alexander, have stuck to their propaganda point that Canada has the most generous asylum system in the world. Speaking to CBC, Alexander restated the claim as though repetition could reverse reality: "Well, I think Canada remains a model of humanitarian action"; "We also are the most generous country to refugees in the world"; "We also...have to accept that no one will be able to resettle all these refugees."

To hear Harper and his minister put it, Canada is a haven for refugees, a land welcoming the downtrodden and dispossessed. This is a myth common to most Canadians. However the Conservative government spins it, Canada failed not only Kurdi, but thousands of other refugees. More specifically, Stephen Harper, Chris Alexander, Jason Kenney (the former Immigration Minister), and the Conservative Party that governs Canada, failed them. But "failure" here is a peculiar word, because it implies at least an attempt to achieve the best (or indeed, next best) policy, yet the "strong, stable, national, Conservative majority government" that 39.62% of Canadians elected in 2011 put in place a refugee policy so languid, so callous, so bureaucratized that maximum inefficiency met minimal commitments. Whether this was a core design of the system or a mere glitch is irrelevant; it was the Conservative Party's policy that produced the results, and the ministers, prime minister, and their party, are ultimately responsible. The Prime Minister's anguish, and the pseudo-sympathy that caused Chris Alexander to suspend his campaign for less than 24-hours, do not warrant accolades; they warrant scorn.

The sobering truth of the matter is that Canada's refugee policy is not generous at all, neither compared to other countries today, nor compared to that most famous refugee destination historically, the Canada of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s.

Canada missed its initial target to resettle 1,300 Syrian refugees by last year. Of the 2,374 Syrian refugees who have been resettled in Canada, only 642 have been government-sponsored. In January, Canada pledged to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees, of which, just over a thousand have arrived. In August, Stephen Harper promised another 10,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria over the next four years.

Compare this to other countries: Germany has pledged to resettle 800,000 refugees by the end of 2015. Turkey has almost 2 million Syrian refugees. Iraq has 250,000. Egypt has over 130,000. Lebanon has 1.2 million. Brazil has issued 7,380 humanitarian visas to Syrians. The conditions Syrian refugees live in, especially in the region, are often squalid. The United Nations refugee agency is short of money. But these refugees have gotten out of ISIS's terrorist state and have escaped Bashar al-Assad's war on civilians. Meanwhile, our business partners in the Gulf have taken in zero Syrian refugees. Our friends in Japan, Singapore, and South Korea, have also taken in zero. The United States has taken in only 1,500. To call Canada generous here requires setting the bar quite low.

If Chris Alexander and Stephen Harper made their claims two decades ago, they would have been true. As Sean Fine of The Globe and Mail wrote: "Canada airlifted 5,000 people from Kosovo in the late 1990s, 5,000 from Uganda in 1972, and 60,000 Vietnamese in 1979-80." 642 government-sponsored Syrian refugees is a pittance compared to the historical record.

The numbers themselves tell only part of the story, however. Three years ago, the Conservative government passed Bill C-31, drastically limiting Canada's refugee policy. The law stripped refugee claimants of health care services, which the Federal Court eventually struck down with virulent language, calling it "cruel and unusual" treatment under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and stating that it would "potentially jeopardize the health, and indeed the very lives, of these innocent and vulnerable children in a manner that shocks the conscience and outrages the Canadian standards of decency." The Conservative law required mandatory, unreviewable detention for refugees who were deemed "irregular arrivals," including children. The Federal Court struck this down as well.

This law was entitled "Protecting Canada's Immigration System Act." Minister Jason Kenney said it was intended to combat "criminals." When brown and black people are involved, words like "protection," "criminals," and in Chris Alexander's multiple statements about niqabis, "terrorists," are dropped with frequency. The individuals themselves are stripped first of their humanity, then of their rights. Their names dissipate, as do their bodies soon after. Middle-class migrants have their applications expedited. But those who are poor or dark-skinned are forgotten by the system put in place by Canada's government.

Much can be gleaned from a government's messaging, and this is especially true of the Conservatives. A Government of Canada billboard--paid by you, dear taxpayer--in the Hungarian town of Miskolc read as follows:

An announcement from the Government of Canada: To deter abuse, Canada's refugee system has changed. Asylum claims are evaluated within weeks instead of years. Applicants with unjustified immigration claims are sent home faster.

This is just the start of it. According to one migrant activist group, 87,000 migrants have languished in Canadian prisons without being charged with a criminal offense. The University of Toronto Faculty of Law's "We Have No Rights" report documented 7,000 migrants who were incarcerated in Canada last year alone.

Ottawa has spent over $265 million rounding up refugees and putting them in steel cages. One of these inmates, Masoud Hajivand, tried to slit his wrists when six officers from the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) dragged him out of his jail cell and took him to Pearson Airport in Toronto for deportation to Iran. A mentally ill Somali man named Abdurahman Ibrahim Hassan died in CBSA custody in June, after three years of detention. If this is what a "generous" country does, one should shudder at the thought of what cruelty would look like.

A "generous" country does not put up billboards in an impoverished town halfway around the world warning refugees not to apply. A "generous" country does not try to strip refugee claimants of health care. A "generous" country does not throw refugees into shadowy prisons while parading on about its own magnanimity. How many refugees could Canada have taken in if it did not waste so much time and money imprisoning them?

Stephen Harper's first response to questions about Alan Kurdi's death was to reiterate the bombing mission against ISIS. Daesh, ISIS, ISIL, IS, whatever name that band of brutes goes by, should be bombed, but bombing them (or leaving them alone) creates more refugees, some of whom will be lost in the horrid bureaucratic machinery described above. And what of Assad, whose barrel bombs have created most of the refugees in the first place? A Conservative government that is proudly a hawk on ISIS turns out to be a dove on Assad and a vulture on refugees.

The country's indifference towards refugees is not the result of some unalterable law of nature. It is not the result of some nebulous political process. It is not the result of some mistake on an application. It is the result of duly enacted legislation, of precise policies drafted, debated, and implemented by the Canadian people's representatives in Ottawa. It is the result of a gross apathy that pervades this country, where matters politic are left to grey-haired career politicians and their twenty-something aides hundreds of miles away.

If by saying we "failed" Alan Kurdi we mean we enacted a policy, which in consequence if not intention, ignored, excluded, rejected, dehumanized, and incarcerated previous Alan Kurdis, this then is not a failure. It is a sustained success for a country itself built upon the plundering of Aboriginal bodies, the pillaging of settled land, the cultural genocide of an entire people. To call this extraordinary is to buy-in to the myths of democracy and multiculturalism which sedate the ordinary Canadian from the time he is in middle school. He grows up drinking from a poisoned chalice--intoxicating to both his mind and his heart because it tells him that his country is the greatest and nicest on earth. We are not a sick people but a people who have come to believe our own lies, and in believing them, we have become chained to them.

To the Canadians Googling "How to Sponsor a Syrian?": Your motives are honorable, but do not forget that we are in the middle of an election campaign, which means that we, the citizens of a country replenished and revitalized by immigrants, have a choice to make in forming our collective destiny. If you live in Ajax, vote to throw Chris Alexander out of office. If you live elsewhere, vote to change this decrepit status quo. Exercise your right, demand that your MP answer your questions, and turn out in 44 days if you want to change this organized travesty.

But do not weep for Alan Kurdi, because the world of politics is agnostic to your tears; in fact, it preys on them. The world of politics responds only to action, to direct challenges, to mobilization. If your pain has not been anesthetized by propaganda six weeks from now, you must participate in this project of democracy, if only because there were Alan Kurdis before this week, and there will be more Alan Kurdis, and Galib Kurdis, and Rehan Kurdis tomorrow. On this single issue alone, this government loses, hopefully at the ballot box, but if not, certainly in the registers of history.