Marchers make their way to Queens Quay after a rally outside city hall.

Marchers demand ‘open door to refugees’

Protesters ask Canadian government to do more to help displaced people

Loly Rico knows too well the importance of the Canadian refugee system. It could be said she owes her life to it.

During El Salvador’s brutal civil war, Rico was a human rights advocate and critical of the government. A paramilitary death squad attempted to murder her family one night in 1989, and they were on a plane to Canada the next day.

Rico has been a champion of the displaced ever since. She is the co-president of the Faithful Companions of Jesus Refugee Center and president of the Canadian Council for Refugees. Both organizations have had their work cut out for them in recent months. With the world now focusing on the worst refugee crisis in history, groups like these have been lobbying the Canadian government to take action and assist Canadians struggling to come to Canada. That is why they took to the streets to voice their concerns.

On Sept. 17, a march drew more than 100 protesters moving from Nathan Philips Square to the waterfront. Protesters chanted and held signs challenging Canada’s refugee policy, which activists argue are too restrictive and rife with delays. It was a national day of action organized by various groups, most notably Amnesty International Canada.

Loly Rico (centre) addressing the crowd.
Loly Rico (centre) addresses the demonstration supporting refugees. (CAMERON AXFORD/TORONTO OBSERVER)

“We recognize that the Canadian government has given a big amount of money (to Syrians in aid), but what we are saying is that the policy being implemented is delaying Syrians coming over and reuniting with their families.”

Canada has historically been a haven for those fleeing persecution. In 1986 it became the only country to ever receive the Nansen Refugee Award from the United Nations. But to those who have been long time advocates, there seems to be an obvious decline in Canada’s humanitarian goodwill. Since the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Canada has taken over 2,000 refugees. This pales in compassion to the hundreds of thousands brought over during cold war conflicts, and is insignificant when considering there are 12 million displaced Syrians.

“I’ve been working with refugees for 28 years, and I’ve seen the gradual closing of doors, implementing of different laws to keep people out, particularly asylum seekers,” said Anne Woolger, founder of Matthew House, a shelter for displaced people when they first reach Canada.

Matthew House is an organization which shelters newly arrived refugees and provides them with integration services.
Matthew House, an organization sheltering newly arrived refugees and providing them with integration services, took part in  the demonstration. (CAMERON AXFORD/TORONTO OBSERVER)

Many present blamed the Canadian government for this. When asked why she thought there was such a limited response to the crisis, Rico criticized shifting national priorities.

“I believe it isn’t because of Canadian society, it is more the government. The government is looking towards the economy, not humanitarianism. Canada had once been a leading country in helping humanitarian crises, but is not taking the responsibility they had before.”

Rico supports Canada’s military action in Syria and says ending the conflict is half a solution to the crisis. The other half is helping those who need it immediately. “The crisis is too big to do only one thing,” she said.

Some have stated that bringing in Syrian refugees would be a security risk. Social media has even gone so far as supposedly identifying Islamic State members among those arriving in Europe. Those at the national day of action claimed this was simply untrue.

“Every refugee that comes to Canada goes through a security screening, said Rico. “It is very easy to identify if they will be a security issue.”

In regards to the economic burden of humanitarianism, Rico thinks this too is a non-issue.

“The first thing refugees do when they come is start working,” she said. “They make contributions to society. When you take in refugees, we feel grateful to the country.”

Woolger invited Canadians to get a first-hand experience with refugees before casting judgement.

“Come and meet some refugees. Right now we have two layers at our shelter, doctors, people with PhDs, highly educated professionals. A person is a refugee only by virtue of the fact they fear persecution. Often they’re leaders of society who have opinions for which they’re persecuted.”