14 Jan 2016

Peter Goodspeed on The Atkinson

Some stories just won’t leave you alone.

I’ll always remember my first foreign assignment as a reporter, covering the Falklands War from Buenos Aires. I can still taste the combination of coal smoke and fear that sometimes clung to winter mornings in Soweto during South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle in the late 1980s. Then there was the sullen silence that engulfed Beijing, for days, after the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the gentle sound of hymns that filled the night and drifted like smoke up the earthquake-shattered hills of Haiti in 2010.

As a journalist, my career was frequently marked by catastrophe and disaster. I worked as a professional witness on a daily deadline for almost 40 years. But the last assignment of my career was different. I won the Atkinson Fellowship in Public Policy for 2013 – 2014 and had the luxury of spending an entire year researching and writing on a topic of my own choosing.

When I submitted my proposal to the Atkinson selection committee in January of 2013, I had a vague idea of studying the refugee experience in Canada in the context of the country’s new asylum determination procedures and a massive increase in international migration.

The topic seemed ripe for reporting. I’d spent 30 years covering wars and disasters and I was still slightly bewildered that refugee policy remains one of the most controversial topics of Canadian political life. The war in Syria was also just ramping up and the xenophobic rhetoric of Europe`s far-right political parties was creeping into immigration discussions worldwide.

In Canada, passage of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act in 2010 and the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act in June 2012, had just created a new asylum system.

I felt it was important to look at how the new system was operating. I proposed to look at the ideas, the interests, the institutions and the rhetoric that surrounds Canada’s refugee system and I wanted to put a face to that story by telling the stories of the people who were caught up in the chaos and change that surrounded a growing refugee crisis.

But, if there is anything I should have learned from four decades of reporting, it’s to beware what you wish for.

I quickly realized my ambitions far outstripped my knowledge. Within a matter of months I was struggling to get a handle on my topic and worrying about producing a coherent series of stories for the Toronto Star.

That’s when I rediscovered the “Vietnamese boat people”.

Three months into my Atkinson Fellowship, I was invited to participate in a conference at York University on the Indochinese Refugee Movement of 1979-1980 and I had a chance to review the fascinating story of Canada’s successful resettling of 60,000 destitute and desperate people from Southeast Asia.

I was amazed by the stunning acts of generosity performed by tens of thousands of individual Canadians, families, churches and neighbourhood groups who rallied to rescue 60,000 total strangers.

In just 18 months, Canadians rescued and resettled ten times the number of  Indochinese refugees that their government had originally planned to help.

Tiny church congregations of 100 people lined up to sponsor as many as six families; employers promised jobs; small grocery stores volunteered free food; communities everywhere rolled out their welcome mats.

In 1979, Canadians surprised the world and themselves by opening their doors and their hearts to refugees. And we did it, almost without thinking, just because it seemed the right thing to do.

Canada’s outpouring of kindness in 1979 was a defining moment for this country, one recognized internationally in 1986 when the people of Canada became the first and only nation to ever be awarded the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees’ Nansen Award in recognition of  our “essential and constant contribution to the cause of refugees.

But as I worked on my Atkinson Fellowship, I couldn’t find any echoes of that devotion to helping the desperate in our then government’s refugee policies.

Our immigration policies had, over time, become more demanding, more selective and more self-serving. Arguments raged over how to differentiate between persecuted refugees and opportunistic economic migrants. Border control had become the focus of “law and order” politics with a stress on security over human rights.

As a result, I found it was harder for refugees and asylum seekers to come to Canada. Resentment, uncertainty and fear had shifted the rhetoric surrounding refugees to a point where refugees were being depicted as economic freeloaders and refugee resettlement was regarded as an optional act of charity instead of a moral obligation or vital national interest.

That dramatic shift in attitudes and policies came starkly into focus when I looked at Canada’s response to the Syrian civil war — the worst refugee crisis the world has seen in a generation.

At the time, innocent Syrians had been suffering for four years. They’d been imprisoned, bombed, gassed, shot, raped and tortured and driven from their homes and their country.

Four and a half million Syrians are in exile and eight million others are displaced inside Syria.

Yet, at the time, Canada was committed to resettling only 200 government assisted refugees and was asking private sponsors to help another 1,100 Syrians. And Canada was having difficulty even meeting those targets.

My research told me the Syrian crisis underlined a harsh new reality – there was a growing gap between Canada’s rhetoric and how it actually treats refugees.

As a nation, we appeared to be less tolerant and caring and more hostile to refugees. During my fellowship, Canada sheltered and resettled its lowest number of refugees in two decades, despite the fact refugee numbers worldwide had soared to an unprecedented 51.2 million people.

It didn’t have to be that way. Syria’s suffering offered Canadians an opportunity to reassert themselves, to decide what values we want to represent as a nation and to act on those beliefs in ways that could make the world – and our own country – a better place.

That’s exactly what happened last September, when Canadians were suddenly overwhelmed by the painful photograph of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi lying face down on a Turkish beach.

When I finished my Atkinson Fellowship and retired from journalism, I continued to be haunted by the refugee stories I’d covered and I went to work as a volunteer at Lifeline Syria.

It has been gratifying to see that as the Syrian crisis grew worse, Canadians have stepped up and acted to prevent a disaster from becoming a total catastrophe.

As a nation, we are rallying to assist the destitute and find room in our homes and communities for families who have seen their own homes and cities turned into rubble.

Canadians are now offering Syrian refugees hope instead of simply forcing them to endure horror.  As a nation we have renewed the legacy of kindness we first established 36 years ago during the Indochinese refugee crisis.

Some stories just deserve to live on.

Peter Goodspeed was the 2013 – 2014 Atkinson Fellow in Public Policy.  His series on Canada’s refugee system is called The Politics of Compassion.  

An award winning newspaper reporter with thirty-nine years of experience, Peter has worked as a foreign correspondent, a war reporter, an editor, a manager, a feature writer and a political reporter. He spent three years as the Foreign Editor for the Toronto Star daily newspaper and served as a Bureau Chief and foreign correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Hong Kong.

Peter has reported from 63 different countries, while covering 22 different conflicts, including the Falklands War, the U.S. invasion of Grenada, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, wars in Africa, Central America, the Middle East and Asia and the Second Gulf War in Iraq.

Information about how to apply for The Atkinson is available here.

< Back to Atkinson Field Notes