This past May, the current President of the United States threatened to put an end to the Temporary Protected Status program for more than 60,000 Haitians living in the United States. This program was put in place in 2010 following the earthquake that devastated Haiti and led to 200,000 deaths. Having judged that the situation in that country had become safe, the decision was made to end the program. Faced with the threat of being sent back to their country of origin, thousands of Haitians decided to flee the United States to seek asylum in Canada. In June 2017, numbers showed that 6,500 persons had sought political asylum here compared with 5,500 in 2016. Federal agencies anticipate that asylum claims will double by the end of this year, reaching more than 12,000.
This massive influx of refugees, fleeing the United States in a panic, has elicited a number of reactions in this country, especially in Québec. The first reaction was one of astonishment at this political decision of our neighbour to the south, threatening the welfare of the thousands of Haitians targeted by the measure. We then saw several civic and governmental organizations mobilize to set up protocols to welcome and shelter families and individuals seeking asylum as well as helping them with integration into schools and access to employment. At the same time, this sudden arrival of refugees deemed “irregular” not only added to the global climate of uncertainty but also raised fears among a good portion of the population. The confrontations that have taken place recently between different groups of protesters in Québec City or elsewhere are telling signs of growing tensions in our society with respect to immigration.
A collective conversation is thus urgently needed so as to find a peaceful and generous solution to this situation, looking ahead with confidence to the promise of the future. Some facts are worth recalling in order to discern more clearly. Recent events have shown that our institutions have put mechanisms into place that we can depend on for welcoming and for the regulation of immigration. Moreover, it is reassuring to see that many civic groups pitched in by initiating services to provide support and help with integration. This rapid mobilization of our community shows that, over the years, we have developed a culture and expertise of welcoming and integrating immigrants, both individuals and families, especially refugees. We recall here the welcome extended to Chileans in the 1970s during the dictatorship of General Pinochet, and a few years later to the “boat people” during the civil wars in Vietnam and Cambodia. Since then we have lived through successive waves of new arrivals of refugees from Africa, from the Middle East (Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, etc.), from Haiti in 2010 and most recently from Syria.
As long ago as 2006, the Catholic Bishops of Canada proposed a few guidelines concerning immigration and the welcoming of refugees, in their pastoral letter entitled “We are aliens and transients before the Lord our God.” In this text, the Bishops remind us that the vulnerability and fragility that every human being faces throughout life ought to inspire us “to be attentive to migrants and in solidarity with them.”1
This pastoral letter, whose content remains relevant today, noted that countries must ensure that the rights of refugees be maintained and protected “as much as the rights of its own citizens”2. The Canadian Bishops expressed their gratitude to the parish communities involved for decades in the welcoming of refugees and highlighted the role refugees have played in the renewal of our Church. Finally, the Bishops’ letter invites us even today to change our perspective on refugees who are carrying the burden of more urgent and troubling situations: “Christians are to be in the forefront of international campaigns to promote just international development, cancel onerous debts, establish fair trade agreements and end child poverty…Unless the root causes of migration are addressed in terms of violence, ecological degradation and social inequality, more and more people will be forced to move.”3
This pastoral letter was echoed more recently in a letter published by the German Catholic Bishops before the “tide” of refugees flooded the country’s borders following the civil war in Syria. Among other things, the Bishops state that “Xenophobia and racism are incompatible with the Christian perception of humanity… The interests of the disadvantaged in our society and the needs of refugees and asylum-seekers must not be played off against one another… because we are concerned for the well-being of all of society.”4
We are aware that the welcoming of refugees is becoming a more and more permanent task in our society. It is becoming imperative that Christians become involved in a concerted way with other partners in society in order to meet this new challenge, not with a defeatist or alarmist spirit but rather trusting that this situation is an opportunity for wisdom and divine justice to be made manifest in this world.
Members of the Council on Church and Society
- Bishop Denis Grondin, archbishop of Rimouski;
- Bishop Claude Hamelin, auxiliary bishop of Saint-Jean-Longueuil ;
- Bishop Pierre Morissette, bishop of Saint-Jérôme;
- Bishop Marc Pelchat, auxiliary bishop of Québec;
Bishop Noël Simard, bishop of Valleyfield;
- Sr Élisa Fernandez, SFA (Sister of Saint-François d’Assise);
- Mr. Norman Lévesque, director of the Green Churches Network;
- Ms. Louise Cormier, secretary.
1 “We are aliens and transients before the Lord our God” (Pastoral Letter on Immigration and the Protection of Refugees). Episcopal Commission for Social Affairs, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. World Day for Migrants and Refugees, January 15, 2006, para. 1.
2 Ibid., para 6.
3 Ibid., para 20.
4 “Guidelines for the German Catholic Church’s commitment to refugees”. German Bishops’ Conference, February 8, 2016.