March 21 marks the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, a day to reflect on racism in our communities and redouble our efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
Although the Syrian refugee crisis had been building since 2011 due to the civil war that led millions to flee their homes, the haunting picture of a dead three-year-old boy lying on the beach in Turkey finally made the rest of the world aware of the tragic reality.
The Canadian Labour Congress was among the first calling on the federal government to respond and to offer the labour movement’s support.
In October 2015, the CLC established a special fund, in partnership with the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) to help support the settlement of Syrian refugees in Canada. That fund has raised more than $200,000 so far.
In December, the CLC launched an unprecedented partnership with business, faith and community groups to welcome and support the resettlement of Syrian refugees.
“We welcomed the Canadian government’s commitment to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees and understand that we now have a responsibility to do our part and support that commitment in every way possible,” said CLC President Hassan Yussuff, announcing the initiative along with the CCR and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce.
The joint statement read, in part: “Canada is a compassionate, caring nation with a long tradition of embracing diversity and showing humanitarian leadership. We must continue this tradition and demonstrate these values and principles in our approach to this crisis.”
Though the response from the public has been overwhelmingly positive, incidents of racism and xenophobia have also occurred. Myths were spread that refugees were looking to “abuse the system and get rich,” even though only a handful of refugees receive government assistance, for a very limited time, and all are expected to pay back the travel costs associated with resettlement.
A few times the CLC heard from members who argued that support for refugees unfairly prioritizes “them” over “us” and “our jobs,” even though the evidence shows that refugees actually create jobs in our communities.
Most disturbingly, several communities saw incidents of Islamophobic vandalism and violence arising out of the same xenophobic backlash.
In supporting refugees and condemning the backlash, unions are building on a long history of standing up to unfairness and promoting equality, drawing on the fundamental labour principle, outlined by J.S. Woodsworth: “What we desire for ourselves, we wish for all.”
As part of labour’s support, the CLC has released a resource kit for unions and labour councils to support their work with refugees on the community level.
The “Welcome Home” guide provides information on how to get involved as an individual and/or engage other members to support refugees. It covers options such as becoming a refugee sponsor, making donations, volunteering, and taking political action. It also gives tips on responding to the anti-refugee backlash through education, advocacy and fellowship.
The “Welcome Home” resource kit for unions and labour councils in support of Syrian refugees is available at https://canadianlabour.ca/welcome-home-resource-kit/.