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Author Erna Paris calls Canada “mean-minded” toward refugees

Canadian mean-mindedness is back

ERNA PARIS

Special to The Globe and Mail

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A new edition of Erna Paris’s book From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth-Century Spain will be published in January.

In 1979 and 1980, the government of Canada admitted 50,000 Vietnamese refugees. Ordinary Canadians were invited to participate in the boat people program. My parents and our extended relatives and friends raised enough money to sponsor a family. They were diligent workers: Before long, they were driving a better car than we were.

We did this because we remembered that a meaner Canada had refused entry to a shipload of desperate Jewish refugees from Nazism 40 years before.

That prewar mean-mindedness is back. Canada’s refugee determination system needed updating, but the Harper government has gone much too far. It has been accused of breaching international law, breaching the Constitution, and – just as important – breaching the values Canadians have defined themselves by.

Some recent examples: Last month, a 65-year-old Pakistani woman who fled to Canada because she had been accused of adultery and faced death by stoning was deported. She had appealed to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which advised Ottawa to delay the deportation until it could review her case under the UN Convention Against Torture, which Canada signed in 1985.

According to Amnesty International, our government’s patent disregard for international law will weaken its claim to be a global defender of human rights.

In July, Justice Anne MacTavish of the Federal Court ruled that the government’s cuts to health care for failed refugee claimants constituted “cruel and unusual treatment.” Denying health care puts the lives of vulnerable people at risk in a manner that “outrages our standards of decency” and is unconstitutional, she wrote. Clearly piqued, the Harper government announced this week that it would appeal the judge’s decision. It also asked the appeal court to delay enforcement of the order to resume health care until the appeal had been heard. That could be months.

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Meanwhile, a Conservative private member’s bill was quietly introduced, restricting refugees from equal access to social services. It’s now up for second reading.

Finally, there is the case of the Jozsef Pusuma family, who have been living in a Toronto church in hopes of avoiding deportation to Hungary. The lawyer who represented them at their failed asylum claim is being investigated by the Law Society of Upper Canada for “professional misconduct.” He’s accused of neglecting to provide key evidence in their favour.

The family, including their young daughter, are Jewish and Roma – a dangerous mix in contemporary Hungary where both groups are under attack. Mr. Pusuma was a human-rights researcher for a prominent Roma member of the European Parliament, which increased his vulnerability. In 2009, masked extremists physically attacked the family in broad daylight. They fled.

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