Refugees are a strength for Canada, not a threat, York symposium told

October 19, 2016

By Brenna Baggs, University Affaires |

Canada is a stronger country thanks to the millions of refugees who’ve made their homes here, said former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson. But, she added, we must do more to help them integrate with dignity.

Ms. Clarkson delivered her remarks in a keynote address at the Re-imagining Refuge Symposium hosted by York University and Universities Canada in Toronto on October 17. As Canada’s 26th Governor General, Ms. Clarkson’s story is well-documented. She came to Canada as a refugee in 1942 with her family and became one of Canada’s most prominent personalities and public servants – a CBC broadcaster, author, and the first person of colour to hold the vice-regal position.

Drawing on her personal experience, Ms. Clarkson claimed that the trauma faced by refugees makes them more resilient and “able to look at complexity in a very different way.” Having had to rely on the kindness and openness of others, refugees “understand what it is to be kind” and become generous and community minded citizens. Refugees in our midst strengthen the fabric of Canadian society, she said.

But, while celebrating the communal spirit and trust that characterizes Canadian society, Ms. Clarkson also acknowledged that many refugees in Canada face indignity and isolation.

She offered two practical suggestions for how to improve the resettlement process for refugees in Canada: first, by making it easier for refugees to bring their families to Canada; and second, by calling on professional associations to recognize international credentials more readily. Skilled immigrants in Canada often abandon their past professions to take on lower-skilled work because of the difficulties of getting accreditation in Canada.

The panel discussion following Ms. Clarkson’s remarks picked up on this theme: despite Canada’s record of welcoming approximately 12,000 refugees per year – and the federal government’s commitment to settling 25,000 Syrian refugees last winter – panelists agreed that there is much more to be done in the face of the global refugee crisis.

Jennifer Hyndman, director of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies, reminded the audience that asylum seekers who reach Canada and other countries for resettlement are in the minority. More than three quarters of global refugees are “stuck” in long-term refugee camps in a state of deep insecurity.

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