Refugees then and now: We must do better

My ancestors moved to Canada from Ireland in 1851, the sixth year of the Irish Potato Famine. The specifics of why they moved have been lost, but the year tells enough. By the time my ancestors settled in Canada, Ireland had lost a quarter of its population: one million people had fled in overcrowded boats, and another million at home had died of starvation and disease.

Given that almost five million people in Canada have some Irish ancestry, it’s remarkable how little we remember about the details of this calamity. Yes, it was triggered by a potato disease that ruined harvests. But the stage was set by British policy.

For generations, Irish people had been pushed off the best land, forced to pay enormous rents on their own farms, and reduced to dependence on a single crop, the potato, for survival. With Irish people robbed of their resilience by British colonial policy, a famine was almost inevitable. And even as people starved by the thousand, Ireland was forced to continue exporting food to Britain. Mass starvation was no accident.

The current refugee disaster in the Middle East is not an accident either. The civil war in Syria began after an extreme drought and crop failure that has been blamed, in part, on global warming. (Which means some of the responsibility is ours: with the expansion of the tar sands, and Harper’s abysmal environment policy, Canada has become one of the world’s major climate change culprits.)

But the roots of the current disaster are even deeper. During the First World War, European powers divided the resource-rich Middle East amongst themselves, drawing arbitrary new borders through existing peoples. (The first of these plans, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, was prepared in secret but later leaked by the Guardian newspaper.)

These new borders were designed to create ethnic tensions and to divide peoples against each other. British and French colonialists intentionally created modern Syria and Iraq so they could prop up warlords who didn’t have majority backing. Dictators who would need foreign backing and violence to stay in power in exchange gave up oil and other resources to Europe.

Those 20th century colonial powers wanted their puppet regimes to be fragile, so that without perpetual military support the countries they were setting up would fall apart into bloody civil wars. Well, they finally got what they wanted.

Through similar arrangements of colonial pillage the European powers and their inheritors, like Canada and United States, grew wealthier as the colonies grew poorer. Those of us in the wealthier parts of the world have mostly forgotten this history, just as we’ve forgotten the history of the potato famine. But its effects, such as deep global inequality, endure.

The millions of refugees fleeing Syria for Europe and elsewhere are, in some sense, merely following wealth that was siphoned away from them over the last century.

It’s not 1920 anymore; it’s not 1851. Canada has inherited the wealth of the colonial powers, but we don’t have to inherit their mentality. We don’t have to inherit their greed, their selfishness, or their racism.

We can do better. In the aftermath of the Irish Potato Famine, tens of thousands of Irish refugees landed at Kingston, in a time when the city (amongst the largest in Ontario) had a population of less than 12,000. All in all, more than 100,000 Irish refugees settled in British North America.

And yet, this year Canada has accepted only a thousand Syrian refugees into a country of 35 million people. And only about 200 of those have been government-supported (with the rest privately sponsored). This should be a source of great shame for all of us.

We have resources that people in the 1850s couldn’t even dream of, resources that would make it easy for us to accept and accommodate far more refugees. And we should demand that whatever federal government forms this fall does exactly that.

We can do better. We must do better.

You can learn more about the refugee crisis and actions to take in Canada at

Aric McBay is a farmer and author.