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Inside The Perimeter

Writer and photographer Shannon VanRaes spends her days with the Manitoba Co-operator and her nights covering urban affairs in Winnipeg. Look for her in Metro every Tuesday.

VanRaes: Emerson refugees to test Canadian identity

How will Canada respond to the refugee influx? Will we make their cause our own?

Sunset at the Canada-U.S border in Emerson Manitoba, February 11, 2017.

Lyle Stafford/For Metro

Sunset at the Canada-U.S border in Emerson Manitoba, February 11, 2017.

Canada is heading towards a crisis and all it took was a few dozen people walking out of the U.S. and into the tiny town of Emerson, Man. each week.

It’s not that Emerson is being inundated, although local service providers are being tapped and in many cases stretched thin. And it’s not because volunteer organizations are running out of space to house new arrivals, although they are. And it’s not because federal and provincial governments can’t allocate additional resources to the deal with the recent influx of asylum seekers, because they can.

It’s because the unexpected refugee claimants who walk across the Canada-U.S. border each week challenge us to live up to Canada’s reputation, they force us to prove we are an open country that welcomes those fleeing uncertainty and persecution — not just when it is convenient for us, but as opportunities arise for them.

The crisis that Canada is heading towards is a crisis of national identity. As citizens and as a nation we are about to be tested.

We have women, men, children arriving unannounced on our doorstep. Not handpicked, repeatedly screened, sponsored and approved refugees that arrive to waiting support networks after landing at international airports, but migrants fleeing the United States in the final leg of a journey that often spans years and continents.

How will we respond? How will our friends, our neighbours, our colleagues respond?

Will we make their cause our own? Will the Canada that greets these asylum seekers be the same Canada that waived health requirements in 1959 to admit refugees suffering from tuberculosis? Will these late-night arrivals be met by the same Canada that changed its laws in 1968 to allow deserters from foreign armies to become landed immigrants? Will those who cross into Canada by way of snowy fields find themselves in the Canada that provided free transport to nearly 40,000 Hungarians fleeing government crackdowns, the Canada that was first to open the door to Tibetans?

Or will they encounter the ugly Canada that turned away the Komagata Maru and its passengers? The country that sent Jewish refugees back to Nazi Germany? The Canada that passed the Refugee Deterrents and Detention Bill in 1989 and attempted to strip refugees of health care in 2012?

According to Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada statistics, the number of refugee claims accepted dropped sharply after 1989, falling from an acceptance rate of 84 per cent that year to a low of 35 per cent in 2012. And according to the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canada took in less than one per cent of the world’s refugees in 2014.

Countries like Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Malta, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Switzerland and Germany all take in far more refugees than Canada on a per capita basis. Turkey is home to 12 times as many refugees than our nation and Germany accepted more than a million migrants in 2015.

Canada may have a welcoming reputation, but the hard truth is that often it’s a reputation we don’t deserve.