06/23/2012 11:28 EDT | Updated 08/23/2012 05:12 EDT

By Taking Away Refugee Benefits, Canada Is Taking Away Its Traditions


Just over a decade ago, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1951 convention relating to the status of refugees, the United Nations General Assembly declared June 20th as World Refugee Day. The United Nations hoped the day will be an opportunity to salute the indomitable spirit of the world's refugees as well as a sign of solidarity with their determination.

According to the United Nations Secretary, General, Ban Ki-moon, "We must work together to mobilize the political will and leadership to prevent and end the conflicts that trigger refugee flows. Despite budget constraints everywhere, we must not turn away from those in need. Refugees leave because they have no choice. We must choose to help."

According to the United Nations, there are more than 15 million refugees scattered around the world which is more dangerous, poverty stricken and unequal. Canada has had a great tradition of opening its doors to refugees and been part of the ideal of nation building that dates back generations.

From the countless of so-called boat people who arrived from Asia in the 1970s to the Asians expelled by Uganda's Idi Amin, to the Mennonites during the American Revolution, to recent African refugees, Canada has given home and hope to these people since the beginning of our confederation of 1867. In the process, we have earned an international reputation of an open and just society that has been an exemplary to the world. However, that reputation is slowly diminishing with a slew of Tea Party-like policies that are expected to take effect in the years to come. This is at a time when Canadian leadership is lacking here at home, and around the world.

In Canada, there is no organization that is speaking more passionately for the plight of refugees, at home and abroad, than the Canadian Centre For Victims of Torture. The center provides "an array of services to survivors of torture and war, helping them to rebuild lives, families, and communities as they negotiate the complex legal and social systems faced by newcomers to Canada".

In its first year, 1977, the group's founder Federico Allodi said it would "We responded with [...] a burning concern with social justice, political action, and the impatience and frustration against a confused world of passive bystanders." So far, it seems it has fulfilled that promise.

In late June, the organization gathered a coalition of groups such as the Canadian Red Cross and Amnesty International to mark the World Refugee Day at Dundas Square. The organization is led by a passionate executive director, Mulugeta Abai. He was a one-time refugee from Ethiopia and a victim of extreme torture under the brutal former Ethiopian Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile-Mariam.

According to Abai CCVT "helps survivors overcome the lasting effects of torture and war. In partnership with the community, the centre aims to successfully integrate them into Canadian society, including psycho-social support and training programs. It also raises awareness of the continuing effects of torture and war on survivors and their families."

As Canada is becoming more remote to the need of refugees by way of health care cuts, the center and Abai have given a smart voice to a very important humanitarian and urgent cause.

As part of his role with CCVT, Abai is the founder and a member of the editorial team with CCVT's much-read quarterly journal First Light. He is also the founding member of the Canadian Center for International Justice that helps prosecute torturers and war criminals in Canada.

In 1999, when then Prime Minister Jean Chretien appointed Canada's next governor general and one-time refugee from Hong Kong, Adriane Clarkson, she spoke of a vision where "each of us is carving a stone, erecting a column, or cutting a piece of stained glass in the construction of something much bigger than ourselves."

While Canada is failing its signatory reputation to the world, it is wonderful to know that great citizens among us, such as Abai, are living the Canadian ideal of our past. This is a tradition which was earned with hard work and dedication in pursuit of a better world on behalf of Canadians. If we, as a nation, fail to protect that reputation, the magic of the great compassionate Canadian citizenship can be lost. The tradition that we all hold dear, that even once earned us the Nobel Peace Prize might forever be compromised.