Postcards from the Edge


By John Thompson

Canadians have a tradition of accepting refugees. After all, what were the United Empire Loyalists but political refugees from the American Revolution? So were a lot of the Six Nations and other native peoples who migrated north in the following decades to get away from the United States. We were the terminus for the Underground Railroad and became the destination for many other uprooted people.

In recent memory we have been enriched by Poles left without a home after Stalin took over in 1945, Hungarians fleeing the 1956 Soviet crackdown, Tibetans in the 1960s, Ismaili Muslims fleeing Idi Amin in the 1970s, Iranians on the run in the 1980s. It's a long list but after a while, we started to realize some people were playing us for suckers.

It is one thing to be generous, and it's almighty vexing to find that generosity abused.

The first Sri Lankan Tamils were genuine, but by the mid-1980s agents of the Tamil Tigers of Tamil Eelam had followed them here and were milking new refugees both to extort new funds for the war. It was a shock in the early 1990s to find some Somalis arriving in Ontario with a full understanding of our welfare system - and making multiple claims to help keep various warlords back home in Kalashnikov bullets.

Never mind, a lot of Canadians take great pride in our acceptance of refugees and get a warm fuzzy feeling when they contemplate our generosity.

Most such Canadians live nowhere near the crowded inner parts of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Among the down and out types, things are getting almighty crowded for shelter space and the bottom end of the housing market. The current flood of refugees crossing the border from the US are really putting a really severe strain in an already dysfunctional and inadequate system.

The housing strain has concentrated the drug-users who, in their despair are turning to even more potent substances. Their concentrated market has sparked competition among their suppliers (hence much of the recent ferocity in Toronto's gang scene) and the homeless are spilling out to the parks and the alleyways.

Even some of the staid pink-red partisans of Toronto's Cabbagetown are getting restless. The gunplay is echoing in their streets, human dung is rife in their parks and their alleyways are full of needles and used condoms. A barely adequate system has become over-stressed by thousands of refugees.

Perhaps, should all these new refugees be stashed in Ottawa's Glebe, Sandy Hill or New Edinburgh neighbourhoods, the Ottawa elite might start to learn to stop feeling so morally superior while somebody else pays the price.

One's sense of toleration for our diversity might also take a beating with some other sights in Toronto's less affluent neighbourhoods (such as mine). One new neighbour is a man from some 'Stan' in his 60s with a new wife who doesn't look a day over 13. Another likes to take his motor-scooter out and about, sans helmet for himself or his son clinging to his back as he motors about just as if he was back home in Ismailia or Islamabad.

One wonders just who is enforcing the traffic laws? But then one might wonder who is chivvying the beggars off of Toronto's subways or out of the exits from Loblaw's stores. Panhandlers are an old sight in Toronto, but genuine authentic Middle-Eastern style beggars (a la Karachi or Khartoum) is an example of colourful ethnic diversity we can do without. Besides, the competition is making our older Panhandlers much more aggressive too.

I have to wonder about the man who is carefully trimming a switch down in the Don Valley so it is supple and less than the thickness of his little finger. A friend who spent a year in Khartoum told about having to listen to the sounds of the wives in her building being beaten regularly, especially after Fridays.

Normally, one might not have much sympathy for a slum-landlord but the complaint about recent arrivals from Mogadishu or al Mukalla who prefer to rip out the toilet seats and squat directly over the plumbing is a new one. Public conveniences in Toronto's restaurants and parks face a different hazard, as the footprints on the toilet seat often attest. There are only so many times per day that a minimum wage employee in a Tim's or Mr. Subway is prepared to mop up the resulting mess.

Immigration to Canada from the Islam World is not new; even refugees are welcome. We did very well with the Ismailis chased out of Idi Amin's Uganda in the 1970s, and with those who fled the Mullahs in Iran in the 1980s. People who went through the Immigration process from the educated elites in the rest of the Muslim World have been fine -- saving the Salafists, Wahabis, Deobandis and whatnot.

But to feel smug about ourselves, and deliberately invite the same problems that currently bedevil Europe? Anyone prepared to feel generous at the expense of others is welcome to move into Downtown Toronto. Or they can just wait.