The history we never learn from

Reflections on Canada’s immigration/deportation history in light of the U.S. border detention crisis.

Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting beautiful Nova Scotia in the Maritimes. Aside from being an insanely fun vacation, I took advantage of my time there to visit the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 for research I’m conducting on a book.

Pier 21 is the place my parents first set foot in Canada as young Greek immigrants embarking on a new life. They are but two of the more than one million immigrants Canada welcomed here between 1928 and 1971. When the museum guide informed us that the current gateway on the first floor — the entrance through which immigrants passed before undergoing all the required customs questions and medical tests — was the same spot where those immigrants had stood at that time (even the floors have been kept intact), I found myself unexpectedly overcome with emotion.

Something I’ve thought of often suddenly became tangible and real. I tried to imagine my young parents, speaking no English or French, tired and possibly confused and afraid, relying on the kindness of customs agents and volunteer translators. I thought of their hopes and dreams and what this gateway, as the first point of contact with their new country, represented to them — what the gateway of immigration still represents to new immigrants and asylum seekers.

The museum’s waterfront building has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto tiny Georges Island in the Halifax Harbour. When the Acadian Expulsion began in 1755, the island was used as a prison for hundreds of Acadians over the next decade. The very first prisoners were the deputies who pleaded the Acadian cause before the Nova Scotia Council. The facilities on the island were inadequate and living conditions were terrible.

The Grand Dérangement, or Great Upheaval as it’s referred to in English, is a shameful chapter in Canadian history. The thriving Acadian communities were perceived as a possible threat by British authorities, after the French and Indian War came to an end because of their French language and culture and Catholic faith.

Close to 12,000 men, women and children were piled into ships and deported to Anglo-American colonies, England and France. Their coveted lands, which they had turned into fertile farmland thanks to their knowledge of a complex dyke system that kept the tides away, were confiscated. While the confiscations happened in vastly different eras, the opportunism hidden behind so-called preventative security measures immediately reminded me of what happened to Japanese Canadian fishermen during the Second World War. At that time, the federal government decided to remove all Japanese Canadians residing within 160 kilometres of the Pacific Coast, place them in interment camps, while confiscating and selling all their property. Another shameful moment in Canadian history. There’s many more where these came from.

Protest against Japenese internment in Canada

I visited the Grand-Pré historic site and the memorial cross erected on the bank of the Minas Basin, the exact spot where, centuries ago, Acadians were forced onto boats and deported from their homes. Located in Nova Scotia’s beautiful Annapolis Valley, Grand-Pré means “Large Meadow” in English. That’s exactly what it is. Surrounded by peaceful farm fields, the hot summer air gently swayed the grass back and forth, the bright meadow green contrasting sharply with the muddy brown of the receding tidal water’s deposits. Colourful blooming white and yellow wildflowers dotted the landscape and the adjacent marshlands.

It was all quite serene and bucolic-looking, if not for its sad history that weighed on me like a ton of bricks. Standing there, looking out into the distance, I felt surrounded by the spirit of thousands of innocent people who were caught up in assumptions about their presumed political loyalties and a battle for power they had very little to do with, people (half of them children) forced off their land, most of whom would eventually die from drowning, starvation, imprisonment and exposure. While many did make it to other lands, they were often not welcomed and mistreated there as well. Essentially, the British carried out ethnic cleansing.

Grand-Pré memorial cross. Photo by Toula Drimonis

I’m currently reading The Montreal Shtetl: Making Home After the Holocaust by Zelda Abramson and John Lynch. Contrary to the image of Holocaust survivors today as deeply tragic victims of genocide, the book details how they were initially treated with suspicion or as freeloaders, an unfortunate burden to the receiving countries, with many of their new fellow citizens failing to even acknowledge the unimaginable trauma they experienced.

Last week, Guatemalan asylum seeker Yazmin Juarez appeared in front of the U.S. House Oversight Committee to tearfully testify on the death of her 19-month-old daughter Mariee, whose illness was left untreated while they were in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE.

“I watched my baby die slowly and painfully,” she said through an interpreter. “We came to the United States where I hoped to build a better, safer life for us. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked Juarez if she had experienced a culture of cruelty at the detention centre, Juarez said that an ICE agent had told her, “You know, this country is for Americans. Trump is my president, and we can take your little girl away from you and lock you in jail.”

Critics of Trump’s immigration policy say, “The cruelty is the point.”

A migrant detention centre in McAllen, Texas, June 10, 2019. Photo by U.S. Office of the Inspector General

But the cruelty has always been the point when political abuse, economic opportunism and marginalization of the “other” intersect. Humans have a history we always fail to learn from. As a result, we always repeat what should be unthinkable for us to keep repeating: war, political oppression, marginalization, discrimination, nativist xenophobia, fear of what’s different, extermination, lashing out instead of coming together.

Last week, at least 58 people died after a boat carrying migrants capsized off Tunisia. Only three survivors have been found so far, according to news reports. Rescuers say the death toll could be over 80.

Six hundred and sixty-seven people have died or have gone missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean this year, so far. Since 2014, that number has climbed to over 18,000. At least 678 that we know of were children. That’s just the people we can account for. Only the bottom of the sea knows how many more have disappeared without a trace.

If they do make it on those rickety boats and unseaworthy rafts to the other side, more than a third of migrants face human trafficking or exploitation, according to the UN. These migrants aren’t a “problem,” they’re desperate people fleeing conditions so bad they’re willing to risk their lives and the lives of their children for a chance at a better one.  

No one wants the unwanted. We send them away. We fear them, distrust their motives, don’t believe their stories of desperation, criminalize efforts to save them, display arrogant levels of NIMBYism and abuse and exploit them once they reach the shore. Still… they soldier on, hope being the carrion light that gives them the will to survive. It’s extraordinary, this resilience that they wrap themselves in. History is recycled every single day around us. Like the Bay of Fundy tides that roll in and roll out every 12 hours like clockwork, we repeat ourselves as each wave of immigration and human desperation comes crashing at our door. Sadly, I’m not yet convinced we’ve learned any lessons from our past. ■