There’s been a lot of handwringing in the Canadian press over the last forty-eight hours after the photo of Aylan Kurdi dead on the beach went viral. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about and don’t want to see a picture of a dead toddler but also want to know what happened, click here.) A lot of “what can we do” stories. All of the major political party leaders currently engaged in our federal election discussed the issue; Justin Trudeau of the Liberals was clearly and honestly upset, Thomas Mulcair of the NDP was almost crying. John Tory announced that he will personally sponsor a Syrian family for refugee status. There is a sense that Something Will Be Done about this.
SPOILER ALERT: nothing will be done about this. Nothing substantive, anyway.
Mulcair was promising if the NDP win the election they’ll immediately allow an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees into Canada. Trudeau upped it to 25,000. Those numbers would represent a vast improvement over Canada’s current and nearly non-existent contribution (2,300 as of last week). Those numbers also represent a pathetic, nearly non-existent response to the Syrian refugee crisis. They can be both at the same time.
Stephen Harper also spoke yesterday on the Syrian refugee crisis and, because he is Canada’s answer to Richard Nixon, lied through his teeth in order to provide a sense of righteousness to Canadian voters. Using misleading metrics he pretended that Canada takes in a disproportionately high number of refugees, which it does not – and then, of course, he explained that the crisis just demonstrates how necessary Canada’s participation in the military action against ISIS is, because so far as Harper is concerned everything demonstrates how Canada’s participation in the military action is terribly important, down to and including his breakfast grapefruit.
All of those responses – Mulcair and Trudeau’s well-intentioned but wholly inadequate promises, Harper’s misdirection to re-emphasize that the real problem is the one he wants to deal with – are a result of one simple fact: this country does not care about poor Syrian refugees, and the entire political class knows it.
Canada accepts far fewer asylum seekers per capita than most first-world countries. As an counter-example, Germany plans to accept over eight hundred thousand refugees this year. Granted, Germany’s population is two and a half times that of Canada’s – but proportionally speaking, Canada could accept 200,000 refugees and still not be accepting as many per capita as Germany is. We take in a paltry amount of refugees, which is all the more embarrassing because Canada used to be at the forefront of refugee homing; in 1986 we became the first country to ever be awarded the UNHCR’s Nansen Refugee Award, typically given to individuals – we’re still the only country that has ever received it – because we housed so many refugees (including over 110,000 Vietnamese boat people).
And the reason we don’t any more is that at some point, Canada The Good fundamentally stopped caring about other people.
Yes, everybody is horrified by the picture of Aylan Kurdi and the idea of drowning children, but the Syrian refugee crisis has been international news for months now and a large part of that story has been the fact that thousands of refugees were drowning while trying to travel by sea to potential safety. Aylan Kurdi is not the first drowned Syrian child refugee; he will not be the last drowned Syrian child refugee. He’s not even the first drowned Syrian child to be photographed; here, for example, you can click on a story from almost two years ago and see a drowned Syrian child refugee. And in time, Canadians will manage to forget about that photo of Aylan Kurdi.
Trudeau and Mulcair know full well that 10,000 and 25,000 are amazingly inadequate numbers for dealing with this crisis. They’re not stupid. Stephen Harper knows it too, and as much as I dislike Stephen Harper I do in fact believe that he feels awful about this. But they all also know that if they proposed a truly proportional response to the Syrian refugee crisis – or the Rohingya refugee crisis, or the Nigerian refugee crisis, or the Congolese refugee crisis, or the Malinese refugee crisis, or even the hey-they’re-white Ukrainian refugee crisis – and said “Canada can reasonably afford to settle several hundred thousand refugees here,” they would be political toast. A large and politically active number of Canadians have become able to care about other people only to the point where the costs of caring about them do not significantly impact them: whether that impact comes in the form of slightly higher taxes or depressed home values because all these Syrians moved in across the street doesn’t really matter. Hell, I’m doing it right now because I was refusing to post a link to the picture of the dead kid, so you know what, here you go. Click on it and look at it, because morally speaking, you probably deserve to look at it.
I don’t know what the answer is; I’m not even going to pretend to guess. But Canada has become a grasping, selfish country. Some might say it’s the result of decades of conservatism or neoliberalism or whatever; I think that gives those philosophies too much credit. I think it’s simple: if you give people an excuse to be selfish, then as a general rule they will be. We’re pack animals, maybe, but pack animals don’t think in terms of the species, only the immediate pack. And we have trouble even managing the latter.