Saturday, February 4, 2017

Immigration Stories

I have noticed that some of those who are critical of our current refugee programs are saying that we should not try to justify them by talking about early immigrants, because those immigrants were not supported by government funding or handouts. I would like to share a couple stories from the early twentieth century in my local area, which I hope will help to illustrate a couple of points. First of all, I do not think we should romanticise the struggles and hardships of early immigrants. We may admire their perserverence and spirit, but we should not want to return to a situation where people had to work so hard for so little. Secondly, I would like to point out that early immigrants did get help from the Canadians who welcomed them, so far as they were able in a time when there was little money to go around. I believe Canadians who welcome refugees, whether by directly raising money to sponsor them, or by advocating for them, are fulfilling the dream of many who came before them that wished they could do more to help.

My father-in-law, Bob Kennedy, immigrated to Edmonton as a small child. After a few years, his family fell on hard times. At that time there was a relief program in Edmonton, but only for men who would do labour in exchange for the money. Here in Canada, that meant things like shovelling snow off the streets. Bob signed up for this program. At age ten, instead of attending school, he worked a full time man's job in order to support his family.

In 1929, around the same time that Bob was working in Edmonton, Frank arrived in Fort Saskatchewan. He had come from Yugoslavia, and hoped to earn enough money to send for his wife and two sons to join him. He managed to get work at a farm near Josephburg, but the money he was able to save accumulated slowly, and he was worried about his family's safety. He convinced his employer, Charles Thomas, to give him extra money in exchange for putting in extra hours at night, digging a ditch. He dug a two mile long ditch by hand, but still did not have enough money to send for his family. By now a decade had gone by and his sons were teenagers. Frank received word that they were going to be conscripted into the German army. At this point Charles raised the money that was needed, and loaned it to Frank. Thanks to his help, the family was able to leave Europe just before outbreak of war.

Frank's story is told in more detail by Helen Lavender under the title "Ditch of Dreams" in the anthology Under the Wide Blue Sky. If you live in Alberta, you should be able to get a copy by way of the TAL library system. But I actually want to recommend a different book.

When we talk about the dangers of letting possible terrorists into the country, by and large the people that cause the most concern are young men. We need to remember that so often, just like Frank's sons, the young men trying to leave troubled countries are doing so in order to avoid being forced into military service against their conscience. When we help a young man to avoid being forced to fight for the Islamic State, we are not just showing kindness to him, we are denying them a soldier.

So because it deals with exactly that theme, and because I think it would be nice to make a point through humour after depressing everybody with real life stories, I would like to recommend Harry Harrison's book The Stainless Steel Rat Gets Drafted. It is a bit dated, but still a good read, with the trademark dry humour that distinguished all the books in that series. And even if you find the whole thing completely unrealistic, you may still be left with a feeling that Mr. Harrison had his heart in the right place.

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