LETTER: Refugee issue – Learning from our history

On January 8th a crowd of Syrian refugees, who were being welcomed at an event hosted by the Muslim Association of Canada in Vancouver

On January 8th a crowd of Syrian refugees, who were being welcomed at an event hosted by the Muslim Association of Canada in Vancouver, were pepper sprayed by a man on a bicycle. Vancouver’s mayor, Gregor Robertson, deplored this act, stating that it was a “disgusting display of hate.”

This event is not a one-off.  Dishearteningly, everyday on my social media accounts I am exposed to prejudicial and hate-filled commentaries that perpetuate fear of refugees entering our communities.

Over 10,000 Syrian refugees have arrived in Canada already and there are plans to resettle 15,000 more.  These refugees are women, men and children, who have been displaced, fleeing terror and war.  They have spent months, if not years, searching for safety and a new home.  In light of this, we as a community need to decide how we want to respond to this search.

Reading about such debates on how to react to perceived “others” in our community is not new to me.  As a local historian, I have read and coded every single weekly newspaper in Abbotsford, Mission and Chilliwack published during the Second World War (1939-1945).  Those years, much like today, were ones of heightened tensions and fears around safety and freedom.  During wartime, those in the Fraser Valley who were seen as “threats” to the cohesiveness or the safety of the country were ostracized from society.

In Abbotsford and Chilliwack, in particular, the Japanese-Canadians and the Mennonites were the targets of such reproach.  In the Abbotsford, Sumas & Matsqui News, it was written that Japanese-Canadians were an “evil, treacherous race” who should be first removed from British Columbia, and after the war, sent back “home” to Japan.1  Because of their perceived threat, by February 1942, Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Canadians were interned in Vancouver.  Shortly thereafter they were forced away from the coastal region and into work camps, with deplorable conditions.  All of their possessions were sold without financial compensation.  Not one Japanese-Canadian was ever charged with an act of disloyalty.

Similarly, many in the Fraser Valley saw the Mennonites as a danger to the community.    Following the First World War, A wave of Mennonites refugees immigrated to Canada, escaping Communist persecution.2  Some of these Mennonites settled in the Fraser Valley.  The Mennonites were seen as “deeply disturbing” to the Abbotsford and Chilliwack populations because they seemed to be unwilling to assimilate to the “Canadian way of life.” Their conscientious objection to war, unremitting use of the German language, and their large family structures were continuously discussed in the local newspapers.  During the Second World War, as stated in the Abbotsford newspaper, it was believed that “these people [Mennonites] are not desirable neighbours, and will never be desirable citizens.”

Some say that the one of the benefits of studying history is learning how to not repeat it.  Over six decades later, we are met with similar deliberation.  How do we want to respond to Syrians?  Do we want to replicate local history, live in fear and continue to oppress groups that are perceived to be different?  Or, do we want a community that is centered on love, freedom for all, and affirmation of diversity?

The choice is ours.

If you are interested in helping local Syrian refugees, please visit:  http://canadian.redcross.ca/syrian-refugee-crisis/

Kelsey Siemens (MA, CCC) is a local historian, researcher and clinical counsellor.