The world needs more Canada, as foreigners often say.
But does Canada want more of the world, if and when foreigners are in need?
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland personally greeted 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun at Pearson Airport over the weekend, answering her tweeted pleas from a barricaded Bangkok hotel room. Escaping alleged beatings in Saudi Arabia, pursued by her father, marooned in Thailand, Alqunun found sanctuary in Toronto only after the UN’s refugee watchdog declared her case an emergency.
An uncommonly happy ending to an all-too-common scenario. Canadians responded with humanity and alacrity — and unity, as even Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government joined the chorus of approving voices.
“I am proud that Canada has welcomed her,” proclaimed Lisa MacLeod, Ontario’s minister responsible for resettlement.
A welcome change in tone from the tirades of last year, when her government blamed Ottawa for what Premier Doug Ford mischievously and provocatively described as “illegal border crossers” from the U.S. Despite the respite, brace for an even bigger battle in 2019 — between the rival federal parties, between the provincial and federal governments, between Canada and its foreign adversaries.
Beware the political war waged by any means possible, on all available fronts, not least via Twitter.
Saudi Arabia has already applied maximum pressure on Canada for daring to defy it on human rights — leveraging its foreign investment, ransoming its foreign students recalled from Canadian campuses, and expelling our ambassador from Riyadh. With bilateral ties thus unravelled, Ottawa perhaps calculated it had little left to lose by publicly embracing Alqunun at her lowest point (while Australia, an alternative destination, quietly dragged its feet on the UNHCR’s appeal).
It was a tweet from Freeland last year that first unleashed Saudi Arabia’s wrath, after our foreign minister repeated Canada’s call for the release of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, whose Canadian wife Ensaf Haidar has been campaigning on his behalf for years. More than 16,000 Saudi students were summoned home in retaliation, including nearly 1,000 medical residents and fellows — a major loss of cash flow and human capital.
That is no small matter in a country that has grown increasingly dependent on fat foreign tuition fees to cross-subsidize our cash-starved campuses. More than 500,000 foreign students in Canada contribute about $15.5 billion to the economy through tuition and other spending, with Chinese students accounting for about one-third of them.
The latest diplomatic fight between Ottawa and Beijing isn’t an asylum question — Canada detained a top Huawei executive wanted in the U.S., triggering a contentious bail hearing and a high stakes extradition process — but it very much hinges on the rule of law, to which human rights and refugee matters are closely tied. As bilateral ties grow increasingly strained — Canadians have faced retaliation on Chinese territory — it may be a matter of time before China’s massive cohort of foreign students on our campuses comes into play.
Will Canadians flinch under foreign pressure? Not so far, no matter the price, even if the stakes are higher than people realize. No, if we waver on human rights and offering people sanctuary, political sanctimony at home is more likely to motivate Canadians to harden their positions.
For all the warm words inspired by the compelling case of Alqunun, a vocabulary of hostility has played out when it comes to the asylum-seekers who cross into Canada also without authorization (not unlike the way the Saudi teenager defied procedures when fleeing to Bangkok). After the regime’s brutal assassination of dissident journalist Jamal Kashoggi (who went out of his way to help me when I reported from Saudi Arabia years ago), it’s easy enough to persuade people of the peril faced by someone like Alqunun, who fights for their rights.
Canadians who value fair play don’t like being pushed around. But that same sense of fair play can be turned against asylum-seekers when politicians repeatedly recast them as “illegal border crossers” or “queue-jumpers” (after all, isn’t Alqunun going to the head of the line?) It doesn’t take much to goad people into anger and suspicion.
Canada brought in the New Year with a gesture of compassion for Alqunun. A few years ago, we welcomed Syrian refugees in large numbers after dragging our feet. Over the last couple of years, however, an influx of border-crossers has tested that resolve, and tempted some politicians into testing out campaign slogans for the coming federal election.
The world, it is said, needs more Canada. Perhaps Canada, too, needs more Canada.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist based in Toronto covering Ontario politics. Follow him on Twitter: @reggcohn