(Dean of Unama’ki College, Stephen Augustine would like Canada to accept more Syrian refugees)
APTN National News
HALIFAX — Like the rest of the world, Stephen Augustine was struck by the image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Turkish beach, drowned, along with his mother and brother after their attempt to flee war-torn Syria.
“The Mi’kmaw culture, the Mi’kmaw people pride themselves on family,” said Augustine, Dean of the Unama’ki College at Cape Breton University. “When I saw the front page image of a dead child on a beach, this really hit me.”
Last week, Augustine spoke out at a public meeting in Sydney, Cape Breton where about 200 people came to talk about how to help bring Syrian refugees to Canada.
“My voice broke when I was speaking, I was so emotional, but this really speaks to the Mi’kmaw principles and family values,” said Augustine. “I challenge the Mi’kmaw leadership, and aboriginal leadership in Canada, to pressure the Harper government to increase the quotas for refugees coming to Canada.”
Since 2014, Canada has accepted 2,406 refugees from Syria.
Under pressure from opposition parties, Harper has now made a commitment to bring 11,300 refugees from Syria by 2017, announced the Syria Emergency Relief Fund and will match donations up to $100 million until the end of 2015.
But those numbers pale in comparison to the Syrian population displaced by the humanitarian crisis. In a report released earlier this month, the United Nations’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria cited 7.6 million people are displaced within Syria and over four million refuges flowing over the border into neighboring countries.
Chair of the Commission, Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said there’s no end to this crisis in sight.
“Civilians are suffering the unimaginable, as the world stands witness,” said Pinheiro. “Without stronger efforts to bring parties to the peace table, ready to compromise, current trends suggest that the Syrian conflict – and the killing and destruction it wreaks – will carry on for the foreseeable future.”
Critics have argued the Harper government isn’t doing enough and the plight of Syria has become a federal election topic on campaign trail.
Green’s Party leader Elizabeth May said in a release, “I expect Canada to take on its share of the responsibility in the Syrian refugee crisis, so we never see these types of images again. Stephen Harper has no credibility whatsoever on this issue, having failed to honour previous announcements. We should ramp up the number of refugees welcomed to Canada to 25,000 and we must do more to end the conflict, including living up to our commitments to the UN High Commission for Refugees.”
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has promised to raise the number of refugees from Syria to 25 thousand, while the NDP put the number at 10,000 for the first year with a promise of 9,000 a year for the next four years.
Augustine calls Prime Minister Harper’s focus on ISIS and security concerns a case of fear-mongering. He sees an influx of refugees as a bonus to Cape Breton’s fragile economy.
“Local refugees have contributed to the economy,” said Augustine. “In Sydney, it would increase the number of students in local schools, get more students in university, and have people developing businesses from a different cultural perspective.”
And from the traditional Mi’kmaw and Wolastoq, or Maliseet, cultural perspective, refugees are welcome.
Wolastoq Grand Council member Ron Tremblay spoke at a recent rally for the Syrian Refugees in Fredericton.
“The Wolastoqeyiyik signed Peace and Friendship Treaties in the 18th Century with the first Refugees who sailed from France,” said Tremblay. “They were searching for a better place live and escape the uneasiness that was evolving in their country.”
He said the spirit and intent of the early treaties the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet signed in the 1700s is still living today.
“These people are not migrants they are refugees fleeing from their home and villages beings bombed and destroyed by US and Canadian forces,” said Tremblay. “Our Wolastoqewiyik were and still are about Peace and Friendship.”
Aside from his day job as a professor, he’s an elder and Hereditary Chief of the Sigenigtog District Mi’kmawey Mawiomi, and Keptin on the Mi’kmaq Grand Council.
“We didn’t have an immigration policy,” said Augustine, referring to the arrival of Europeans to Mi’ma’ki. “So we allowed you guys to come in and we supported you and looked after you until you could do it yourself, otherwise we could have wiped you all out.”
Augustine wants action.
In Cape Breton, a steering committee has been set up to help facilitate private sponsorship for refugees. And a rally is planned for this weekend at Cape Breton University.
But so far, indigenous leaders are silent on the issue.
Mi’kmaq chiefs have no comment on the Syrian refugee crisis.
And APTN received no response from the Assembly of First Nations.