“In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity and mutual respect.”
—former U.S. president Bill Clinton
Canada has a good reputation for receiving people from other parts of the world. Generally speaking, we are compassionate, polite and accommodating to others. If you ask Canadians what the country’s cultural distinctives are, you may get the response that (apart from ice hockey) we don’t have any. We are proud of the fact that our country isn’t a homogeneous population that eats, dresses and prays the same way. Our biggest cultural distinctive is our multiculturalism. However, before we become too proud of ourselves and our heads outgrow our tuques, let’s not forget that the cultural history that has been woven in Canada’s multicultural tapestry is a checkered one.
Canada is humbled by a past history of wrongs committed against particular groups, including immigrants, refugees and racial minorities. In 1885, Chinese immigrants were subjected to a head tax and then to an immigration prohibition act designed to exclude people of Chinese lineage. During the Second World War, we placed Japanese Canadians in internment camps and extradited many more. We also turned away Jews who were fleeing persecution at the hands of Nazi Germany.
The Canadian Government has apologized and tried to remedy many of these past wrongs. However, we must learn from these atrocities that nations and governments, just like individuals, have the potential to behave wrongly, even when our reputation is mostly upright. We’ve made mistakes before. Can it happen again? That is the worry of some Canadians with the passing of Bill C-31 in the House of Commons. By the time this column is read, the refugee bill will probably have passed through the Senate. The Conservative Government is lauding the bill as an important move in the war on human trafficking. They also say it will make it easier and more efficient for those people seeking asylum in Canada.
However, the Opposition argues that the bill does nothing to combat human traffickers and that it will only provide further victimization to some of the world’s most mistreated and vulnerable people. They say Bill C-31 gives the Government the authority to keep refugees in custody with no legal proceedings. Critics also argue that the bill discriminates against refugees based on their country of origin by empowering the minister to designate so-called “safe countries” to which he can arbitrarily repatriate people.
Listening to the two sides debate the matter in Parliament, I began to think about what a Christian view might have to offer. Certainly The Salvation Army would be interested to hear about any initiative that would reduce human trafficking. But like many counter-violence efforts, especially in a post-9-11 era, the question is always: At what cost to the innocent do we try to administer justice to the guilty? While that is not an easy question to answer, I do believe that the Bible offers us some guidance on our attitudes toward “outsiders” that might help.
One of my favourite Christian concepts is hospitality. It is a word that shows up numerous times in the New Testament and in the life of the early church. But it is also a philosophy and practice that is dominant in the Hebrew Scriptures as well. More than providing cookies and punch to your Bible study group, the Jewish concept of hospitality is based on the ethical supposition that the Israelites were to show openness and compassion to foreigners because the Israelites themselves were strangers in a strange land. Think of Abraham welcoming the three travellers in Genesis 18:1-8; Manoah welcoming the man in Judges 13 as an angel of God; or the Shunammite family welcoming Elisha in 2 Kings 4 and having their son raised from the dead as a result. Hospitality was to be extended especially to the poor, the stranger and those of a lower social status.
The Salvation Army opens its shelters, community feeding programs and corps buildings every day to those on society’s margins. Why? Because we are citizens of heaven (see Philippians 3:20) and we live under the reign of Christ in the kingdom of God. We know what it is like to be strangers in a strange land. So we show hospitality to the poor and ostracized. Why would we not show favour and kindness to international strangers in our community? Let’s not forget that, aside from Aboriginal Peoples, we are all immigrants and refugees, or their descendants.
So, is former president Bill Clinton right? Are we a hospitable country? Time will tell. But The Salvation Army certainly can and should be.
Major Juan Burry is the executive director of Victoria’s Addictions and Rehabilitation Centre.