Welcoming refugees into our communities implies a responsibility to provide a safe environment for rehabilitation and integration. Yet this weekend thousands of our neighbours will be exposed to trauma in a spectacle many of us would do away with in the first place.
For many Torontonians the Canadian International Air Show is, at best, a nuisance. I have yet to encounter a neighbour who lives in an affected community with an even remotely positive opinion of warplanes making low altitude passes for days on end. The organizers realize this. According to their website, "Like all (...) events such as auto races, walks, marathons, bicycle rides for charity [the air show] may be seen as disruptive by some while being anticipated and enjoyed by others. We understand that the noise generated (...) may be a concern."
The air show is nothing like a charity bike ride. In a city with a large population of refugee newcomers and people who have experienced the trauma of war it is insulting, invasive, and violent.
Last week the world was presented with yet another heartbreaking image from Syria: five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, sitting bloodied, covered in dust, and shell-shocked after being rescued from the wreckage of an airstrike. Witnessing his trauma is made all the more painful by our inability to help.
Omran Daqneesh sits alone in the back of the ambulance after he got injured during an air strike targeting the Qaterji neighbourhood of Aleppo on August 17, 2016. (Photo by Mahmud Rslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
We can't stop the great power game of the Syrian Civil War. We can't rescue all the children suffering the horrors of aerial bombardment. We have, however, proudly and publicly resettled thousands of Syrians. About 10,000 refugees from around the world arrive in Toronto every year. In 2017 the total will be close to 20,000 given the increased quota for Syrians. The federal government recently announced a significantly larger proportion of refugee newcomers.
I work with a new initiative called The Together Project. One of our goals is to help build social networks between refugee newcomers and Canadians. Our first public event was a large picnic in Dufferin Grove Park. There I met a father from Homs (an utterly decimated city) who told me how it had taken his family several months to enjoy sunny days and open spaces. In Homs, cloud cover meant less risk of high-altitude bombardment. A colleague recounted a story of a family resettled from Lebanon who sedated their toddler before leaving for the airport because the mere sight of a plane made her hysterical.
Integration is a dynamic process whereby newcomers and societies learn, adapt, and grow together. Host societies aren't expected to fundamentally change to serve a minority group. But in Toronto, people affected by war are not an insignificant minority. This includes newcomers who aren't refugees, Canadians, and family members struggling with inter-generational trauma.
We accept the importance of trigger warnings to help fellow citizens avoid potential harm. For example, signs reading "Combat Veteran Lives Here: Please be Courteous with Fireworks" made the rounds of social media in the lead up to the Fourth of July.
Who is the air show for? Apparently, the organizers "understand that some people [ ...] may find some of the aircraft loud" but ask them "to consider the benefits of the Canadian International Air Show to its fans." Considering the undefined "benefits" accrued to "fans" as somehow comparable to the potential harm to members of our communities is simply indecent.
My original argument, published in the Toronto Star, garnered a great deal of backlash from the conservative end of the political spectrum. The response from humanitarian workers, people who work in newcomer services, academics, former refugees. and affected communities has been illuminating, if less public and bombastic. The article was shared by volunteers in Greek refugee camps located next to military bases and airports who recounted how at the arrival of planes "children start hysterical crying, screaming, praying [...] some adults NEVER leave their tents because they are so afraid."
Closer to home, the Parkdale neighbourhood is home to a significant proportion of people who came to Toronto as immigrants, including many from refugee-sending regions. It is adjacent to the CNE and waterfront where the air show takes place.
I was contacted by Maya Bastian, a Parkdale resident and Sri Lankan diaspora filmmaker who spent time there in the particularly brutal final phases of the country's 25 year civil war. Civilians, particularly (though not exclusively) Tamils, were subjected to incessant air raids. An estimated 100,000 Tamils reside in Toronto.
Maya is documenting their lived experiences in an upcoming short film entitled "Air Show." As she described the project, the actors are all survivors of aerial bombing, who will be reacting in real-time to the air show. Set entirely in her own neighbourhood, she hopes the film will serve to show the jarring dichotomy between the experiences of out of town attendees, and residents forced to endure it in their very homes.
While some obviously see aircraft as entertainment, people in war zones have a far more traumatic relationship to them. In Aleppo, groups of children have formed "air defence brigades." Their method: burning piles of tires to obstruct bombers. Take a moment to let that sink in as a childhood experience. Now imagine these kids' reaction to the Snowbirds ("Canada's National Pride in the Skies") making passes over their new homes. I am sickened by the notion that children with acute PTSD will face three days of harassment in their place of refuge. It matters very little whether these aircraft have a military purpose.
The Liberal government has done an outstanding job of capitalizing on Canadians' sense of moral purpose. There is palpable relief that we can get back to our image of an open society playing a constructive international role. Yet we suffer from a deep dissonance. We congratulate ourselves for our humanitarianism, and tacitly condone selling weapons to authoritarian regimes that target civilians, repress civil society, imprison people for sexual orientation, and execute political prisoners.
Glorification of the tools of war is antiquated, regressive, and morally repugnant. It's something we deride in other countries, and is contrary to everything good about Toronto. The conversation has been going on in affected communities for years. It is high time for policymakers to pay attention and begin public consultations.
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