Having observed the jarring debates over immigrants in Brexit Britain and border walls in the United States, I found myself reflecting on how differently Canadians are responding to their own border crisis.
Is there a crisis?
It depends who you talk to, but yes, even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledges there’s a difficulty, particularly in the area of refugees entering Canada from the U.S. illegally through unofficial ports of entry.
And although he could stem the flow with a simple order in council, the prime minister, like many other Canadians, is somewhat unconcerned. “We have extremely low unemployment … it is a good time to reflect that we are bringing in immigrants who are going to keep our economy growing,” Trudeau has said.
Although there’s a growing backlash, it’s important to remember that Canada is a special country in the eyes of the world. We Canadians have a well-earned reputation for welcoming newcomers and embracing diversity.
Indeed, one of the most celebrated artists of the 20th century, the photography legend Yousuf Karsh (1908 to 2002), is a classic example of how unique and special Canada truly is.
Here are his impressions of arriving in Canada, cold and alone as a youngster almost a century ago:
“On the stormy New Year’s Eve of 1924, the liner Versailles reached Halifax from Beirut. Her most excited passenger in the steerage class must have been an Armenian boy of 16 who spoke little French and less English. I was that boy. …
“For the moment it was enough to find myself safe in Canada, the massacres, torture and the heartbreak of Armenia behind me; to feel, even then, that I was coming home.”
These are stirring turns of phrase given the difficulties this young boy faced in escaping the horrors of genocide and the obvious challenges he would continue to face as a stranger in Canada.
The fact that Karsh felt at home so immediately speaks to a special quality of Canadian officialdom: never at a loss when it comes to completing their paperwork, these Canadian bureaucrats are a beacon of light compared with most border officials.
That young boy not only adjusted to his new country, he thrived. He became, in time, one of the most famous artists of the 20th century. Karsh was an international sensation, producing iconic photo portraits of world figures during and after the Second World War.
Speaking about his most memorable portrait, that of Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill, he said: “It was Mackenzie King who made it possible for me to photograph Winston Churchill in December 1941, after the great wartime leader addressed the combined Houses of Parliament in Ottawa. The world’s reception of that photograph – which it was said epitomized the indomitable spirit of the British people – changed my life.”
But his international fame never diminished his love and appreciation for his adoptive homeland.
“Never, in all those years, have I been tempted to live anywhere except in the country and among the people who first welcomed me as one of their own. During the next half-century, this feeling was continually reaffirmed so that now (1978), with thanks inexpressible, I consider myself an old Canadian.”
From such humble beginnings, it’s almost impossible not to feel a sense of pride in the accomplishments of Karsh, the foundations of which were laid in Canada and soon spread around the world.
Yes, Canada is a land of immigrants and the fears and traumas of the newcomer have embedded themselves into the DNA of many Canadian families. There are experiences that are reflected in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.
As a backdrop to the disheartening rhetoric of fear and blame that populates the immigration debate today, particularly in the United States, perhaps it’s time to think of the enormous contribution newcomers of all backgrounds have made to this country.
And perhaps we should give ourselves a pat on the back for being open, inclusive and generous when so many people around the world face lives of abject misery while we have the capacity and opportunity to help.
Let us never lose that unique compassionate quality of being Canadian.
Robert McGarvey is an economic historian and former managing director of Merlin Consulting, a London, U.K.-based consulting firm. Robert’s most recent book is Futuromics: A Guide to Thriving in Capitalism’s Third Wave.