After years of being largely ignored or unknown to many in our country, Syria’s refugees became a focus of Canada’s discourse this last week as tragic stories, images and varying reports of the circumstances blanketed TV screens and social media feeds, eliciting a wide host of reactions that often transcended the usual partisan lines in calling for a stronger and more compassionate response from our governments.

While Harper and colleagues predictably double down on defending their questionable record in questionable ways, and opposition parties challenge them to act and embrace their branded solutions, the public at large struggles to understand what it means for them.

One only needs to spend a couple of minutes reviewing the online response to any news outlet’s story on the matter to see that Canada is full of compassionate people and also nervous people and probably some less pleasant folks who turn that nervousness into something more sinister.

However, the common response I’ve found most predictable is that “we can’t afford to help the refugees” because we need to “look after our own.”

In an environment where people of all political stripes (or self-proclaimed agnosticism) often preach a gospel of fiscal responsibility, decry mismanagement and point to the neglect and failures that seem apparent to them in their own backyard, it’s somehow become acceptable argument to use these failures as justification to allow for more of the same.

If your response to the discussion about refugees is something about not being able to afford to look after our own, not only are you missing a much bigger picture, you’re enabling a way of thinking that allows self-serving governments to continue to not “look after our own.”

There is no bargain on the table. Nobody is sitting there waiting to make a deal so that they don’t have to deal with it. Denying help to Syrian refugees won’t bring you better healthcare or services or lower taxes, if that’s what you’re after. It won’t leave you safer or better off. It may, however, leave you with less…

If the entire way we talk about government priorities and economics always boils down to “We can’t do X because this other thing is important!”, all we are doing is accepting a fallacy that our government can’t or doesn’t have to change anything it does and that all accounts and budget lines are suddenly set in stone. We enforce a mindset that allows no room for creative problem solving or for any work to be done. In doing this, we embrace the status quo, and send the message that we’re OK with all the things that we usually say are so wrong in our country. It says we’re OK with the struggle of a single mom having to choose between paying the electric bill on time or buying lunch for her kids. It says we’re OK with the aging veteran not having easy access to the support they need and that we’re OK with at-risk youth not having adequate mental health care here in Canada.

Most people I meet have criticisms of their government’s priorities, but as soon as decisions are being made that affect other people, many of them quickly turn around and defend their government. Labour negotiations are a convenient example. Here in Ontario, the Liberal government is a frequent recipient of aggressive criticism of its spending priorities and perceived wastefulness and mismanagement. As soon as working teachers or their support staff are advocating for more pay or conditions they feel will be better for students or themselves, many of the same critics rush to label the teachers as “greedy” and suggest that we “can’t afford” whatever it is that they’re advocating for. They’re once again acting as if nothing the government does or budgets for can ever change, even if a day before, that’s exactly what they were screaming for. It’s a terrible double standard and it only helps unshackle those in power from the basic burden of accountability to their electorate.

We can afford to assist refugees needing safety. We can’t afford to constantly accept failure as payment for failure and make lazy concessions.

I do wonder though, how many refugees could safely live in Canada’s billion dollar spy palace?





Image: Syrian boys whose family fled their home in Idlib, at a camp for displaced Syrians, 2012. – courtesy of Freedom House via Flickr. – Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Musician, designer, developer, social media nerd, amateur writer + designer of games, tea drinker (recently turned coffee snob), comedy addict, reluctant activist/gov't policy nut. Sometimes the locals call me "Adam from the internet."