There’s a big crowd waiting at St. Stephen’s door when I arrive. Before long, the crowd has morphed into a line-up that stretches to the end of the block and around the corner. Most of the people who have come out are private sponsors of Syrian refugees; chatter in the line is a mix of updates on families, frustrations with process, who knows what about the current state of Canada’s refugee intake plan. Some of the gathered crowd are on their phones doing business, talking supply chain and human resource issues. A camera team from the CBC loiters around, waiting for the show to begin.
Finally the doors open and we are let in. St. Stephen-In-The-Fields Church is an intimate space, with an open space for seats on the main floor and a balcony of pews above. A tall man of age and presence is arranging chairs on the floor; this is John Sewell, private sponsor, community activist and convener of tonight’s meeting. He has brought us together to discuss the frustrations of sponsorship groups with the government’s scaling back of refugee processing staff dealing specifically with the Syrian refugee crisis.
The space fills up quickly. I move from the main floor up to the balcony to make room, and eventually move to a position at the back of the dais. By the time the event begins every chair is taken, there are people standing against the walls, spilling onto the stage and bunched at the door. Looking out over the crowd, I see visual confirmation of what the WelcomeHomeTO team’s research has already told me; the private sponsor community is predominantly white, older and economically comfortable.
Eventually, John calls the room to order. He summarizes the mood of the room quickly – the government asked Canadians to be part of our national efforts to help Syrian refugees, and the private sponsors in the room have done just that. Countless hours and more than a few dollars have been spent filling out forms, securing resources, preparing all the details necessary to set up new Syrian Canadians for success. And now, it seems like government is putting the entire enterprise on hold.
The sentiment has been expressed several times by several sponsorship group voices – where are our Syrian refugee families? Why has local processing capacity been scaled back? What can be done about this? John is laying out his plan for the evening when someone else comes up on stage to introduce himself. Arif Virani is the Member of Parliament for Parkdale-High Park, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, and a former refugee himself. Arif’s family fled their native Uganda to escape the brutality of Idi Amin.
What happens next is as fascinating as it is telling. John refuses to give Arif time to make introductory remarks. “I know how this works,” he says. “Government comes in to forums like this and hijack the agenda. We aren’t going to let him. We’re going to work out what we want before he speaks.”
There are some heckles from the crowd; people want to hear what Arif, as the face of government and the Ministry responsible for refugees specifically, has to say. They have questions they want him to answer. John pushes back, insisting that the audience needs to create a list of demands first, and suggests those demands need to be put into a letter to the actual Minister himself as well as Prime Minister Trudeau. John all but ignores Arif, who patiently takes a seat on the stage.
I look at the CBC camera at the back of the room and wonder how this looks through its lens. The White Elder Statesman has just told the White Upper Middle class audience that government hijacks conversations; the brown guy with lived experience as a refugee and the people’s pipeline to government is being denied an opportunity to engage with the crowd. Definitely not the best optics.
John’s process involves traditional break-out groups developing lists of asks to be put together at the end. There are some guffaws in the room; given how packed it is, but John is insistent. Ad hoc groups form and discuss ideas, possibly writing them on their phones. I can’t see the specific activity on the floor from my vantage point, but I can see the crowd forming around the seated Parliamentary Secretary, peppering him with questions.
Eventually John invites representatives from different groups to come forward with their recommendations. Chief among them was the removal of limits to how many refugees could be privately sponsored. They also want “their families” brought to Canada sooner, as quickly as possible. I suddenly note that, sitting front-row-centre is Mahmoud Allouch, a Syrian Canadian who works with the Arab Community Centre of Toronto and somehow manages to be out for all such events. I wonder how he is processing this information.
Through the demands come questions of the kind the audience hopes the government representative can answer. Finally, Arif is given an opportunity to speak. His first words are of gratitude, thanking the audience for their commitment. He had been writing down questions as he heard them and quickly reads them off a notebook and answers as best he can.
Arif also reads off an email he had received while in the building from the Deputy Minister stating that all private sponsorship applications for Syrian refugees received by March 31st, the next day, would be accepted, though we shouldn’t expect to see those families arrive until the new calendar year. The crowd isn’t happy, but they do seem to appreciate Arif’s presence. A few heckles from the crowd are shut down by the audience itself.
The evening ends with John Sewell committing to get the suggestions from the crowd to the Minister and the Prime Minister as quickly as possible. The government’s on-site representative is essentially ignored, though as the meeting breaks he and his staff are surrounded by people with questions.
For me, the evening ends with mixed feelings.
It’s incredible to see so many Canadians stepping up to help fellow human beings in need, embracing an Yes In My Backyard attitude. The constant use of terms like “our refugees” is a bit troubling. I have heard some stories of a few private sponsors who have acted almost parental to “their families” upon arrival. Good intentioned or not, paternalism is not appropriate and can actually hurt integration.
And while I completely understand John’s attitude towards government – it used to be exactly as he described – times are changing and government’s approach to engagement is attempting to change as well. If top-down governance and civic disillusionment is to be addressed, voices like Arif’s are going to play a crucial role.
The meeting was called in response to frustrations with sponsorship – that was just phase I. Phase II, integration, is where the greatest risk lie and where success will truly require all of us to work together.
Craig Carter-Edwards is a founder of WelcomeHomeTO.