Chairman's Desk

Three lessons from Toronto’s refugee crisis

More than occasionally, opposition criticism is nothing more than hyperbole. An exaggeration here. An embellishment there.

The recent failure of the federal government to provide adequately for the predictable arrival of refugees and asylum seekers sleeping on a street corner in Toronto is not one of them.

Every denunciation was richly deserved. And it’s undoubtedly why the federal Liberals swiftly coughed up the cash the city demanded. Simply put, the Trudeau government couldn’t withstand the damaging accusations swirling around them: their rhetoric was empty, they professed generosity but provided only hardship.

The dust on this issue is far from settled. Mayor Olivia Chow has indicated that federal funding is insufficient and that much more is needed until Toronto can properly accommodate further refugees.

But now that these newcomers have found shelter (after volunteers in the Black community stepped up) and the corresponding media storm has died down, it’s time to do what it’s never too early to do — recognize what we can learn from this.

  • The first lesson is one that every Canadian, but especially our political leaders, must come to terms with: this issue is here to stay. It does not matter who is mayor or what parties govern at any level. Geopolitical conditions, turbocharged by climate change, mean that Canada will continue to be a country of choice for asylum seekers and refugees worldwide. That’s not just a good thing, it’s a great thing. That means our country is peaceful, stable, free and, to adopt the old cliché, the envy of the world.

Countries either have a lineup of people trying to leave, or a lineup of people trying to get in. Canada is blessed to be one of those rare countries that is the latter. But keeping it this way requires visionary leadership we have yet to have the courage to adopt.

  • The second lesson is that a serious, long-term plan involving all three levels of government is needed to meet this challenge. This episode uncovered systemic issues that no one level of government can solve on their own. While the feds should take the reins, to make this work, all levels must collaborate on, to name a few, housing, labour and educational strategies.
  • The third and final lesson: loud and persistent public pressure is necessary to guarantee that this plan is built and executed.

Obvious to anyone paying attention to the latest municipal campaign is that this event only underlined and exacerbated pre-existing areas where Toronto is falling desperately short. Indeed, its genesis lies in the startling fact that Toronto’s shelter system is at full capacity virtually every night, that of the 9,000 people who rely on the system, about 35 per cent are refugees and that the number of asylum seekers in Toronto’s shelter system has grown by 500 per cent in 20 months.

These numbers represent an emergency, a level of human suffering that cannot and should not be tolerated. And yet it took this particular story — justifiably highlighted by our media — before we woke up.

The positive side of this coin is that once Canadians witnessed these images, action was demanded, then taken. The negative side is that it was not until this story exploded in the media that we did.

But that reveals a hard truth: how many major issues affecting so many disadvantaged sectors of our society have we ignored until the TV cameras show up? How many communities continue, for decades, on boiled water advisories because we just can’t be bothered to continue to care?

And so enough. It shouldn’t take last-minute emergencies. It shouldn’t take the glare of the media light. It shouldn’t take the arrival of a Hollywood celebrity for us to care. Instead, we should care because we are Canadians. Because we, as Canadians, have values.

Not just when they are convenient.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on July 23, 2023.

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