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Canada opens homes, hearts to refugees

Norbert Piché, Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Canada
Tuesday, July 05, 2016
(Washington, D.C.) July 5, 2016 – Norbert Piché is an earnest man with a disarming smile and a Quebecker accent. He chooses his words deliberately and looks you in the eye as he speaks. The overall feeling one gets when talking with him is that Piché is the kind of person you hope that refugees meet upon arriving in the cold but equally hospitable country of Canada. It is Canadians like Piché who make up for their environment’s lack of warmth; their generosity, much like their weather, does not discriminate or tire.

As the Director of Jesuit Refugee Service Canada, a program he runs almost entirely by himself from Montreal, Piché works with the Jesuit Provincials of Canada to sponsor refugees and incorporate them into Canadian life. Through his work with JRS and his previous work as the Coordinator of Settlement Services at the Centre Francophone de Toronto, Piché has helped many vulnerable families escape the violence of their native country and feel at home in an unfamiliar place. He focuses his efforts on the cities of Montreal and Toronto, the places most refugees are being resettled. Piché recently visited the JRS/USA office in Washington, D.C. to talk about Canada’s resettlement policy, which welcomed more than 25,000 Syrian refugees since last November. He gave insight into the Canadian model of resettlement and the role of JRS in Canada. And he shared his own views on anti-immigrant voices, the future of immigration and refugee policy, and the indomitable human goodness he has witnessed through his work.


Question: In Canada there are two basic paths for refugees to enter the country – through a private sponsorship program and through a program overseen by the government. Could you explain the different between the two?

Norbert Piché: With government sponsored refugees, the government pays for housing, food, clothing, and other basic needs, and give the refugees a certain allowance per month for a year. The government looks after the essential things that need to be looked after right from the beginning. They explain the basic things that the refugees need to know to start off their lives in Canada, and they will look for housing for them. Once they find housing, these refugees can go to what are called “settlement organizations,” also funded by the government. These organizations will basically be there for the refugees for the long term integration process. They make sure that the refugees are in (English as a second language) classes, they help integrate them by providing programs for them to be with other members of the community, and they also help them find jobs. In terms of the privately sponsored refugees, there are groups in Canada that are responsible for the refugees. They will pledge to look after all of [the refugees’] basic needs and they will also pledge to help them with their resettlement process, getting them integrated into the community. They commit to doing this for a year. Generally speaking, a family of four refugees in Toronto would cost close to 30,000 Canadian dollars for a year. If the family is not self-sufficient in a year the private sponsors can continue to help them if they want, maybe not necessarily financially but to be there as moral support. That usually happens, you build relationships with people and that just doesn’t get broken after a year.

Q: When the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took control last fall and vowed to resettle 25,000 Syrian refugees, they met this goal in only a few months. How was Canada able to achieve this impressive milestone in such a short amount of time?

NP: There were already some Syrian refugees being processed through the private sponsorship program, so part of the solution was using these refugees who were already in the process of being sponsored. The other main thing was putting an incredible amount of (government officials) out in the Middle East to process all of those applications. They worked extremely hard with (the United Nation’s refugee agency) to identify the most vulnerable refugees. They just put the right people on the ground and they got this done.

Q: The program in Canada predates the Trudeau government. Did the Trudeau government significantly change or tweak the plan?

NP: No, this is pretty much the plan that has been in place for a while. The difference was the scale, putting the personnel to work that was necessary to be able to accomplish the sponsorships in such a short period of time. In terms of the actual process – screening the refugees, private and government sponsorships working in tandem – all of that is pretty much the same. The only tweaking they did was in terms of transportation cost. Refugees are usually responsible for their transportation. If they can’t pay for it themselves, they get a loan from the government with an interest fee. But during this refugee crisis with the Syrians, the government decided that the government-sponsored refugees would not have to pay the transportation cost.

Q: What is JRS’s role in the resettlement process in Canada?

NP: The Jesuits in the French Canada Province have an agreement with the Quebec government to be a sponsorship holder, which enables them to sponsor 200 cases. Because there were so many demands put on the French Canada Province, I decided to give them a hand because it was too much for them to handle. Through connections with JRS in the Middle East we’ve been able to find some families in desperate situations that need to be sponsored. I’ve been doing talks at different parishes to convince them to sponsor refugees. That was one aspect of immigration that I didn’t know a lot about, but I do know now.

Q: What’s the reception of refugees been like in Canada? Has there been much backlash?

NP: There’s always going to be a little bit of backlash, but I think there has been strong leadership on the part of our new government that has mitigated the backlash. I think people in general have been very supportive of the refugees. So many people have come together to sponsor groups, people who have phoned the settlement organizations saying I want to volunteer, what can I do? People starting different initiatives like knitting 25,000 winter hats. The whole issue of people not wanting immigrants has been very minimal. You hear it, but for the most part it’s been very positive.

Q: Canada’s reception of refugees has been more positive than in the United States. In the U.S., critics routinely cite security concerns as an excuse for keeping refugees out of the country. Has this also been an issue in Canada?

NP: Security concerns are always there. I think that it’s always important to do proper screening, but I think it’s possible to do it properly, efficiently and fairly quickly so that it will enable people who are in dire straits to be rescued. I think it’s possible, and Canada has shown that it is possible. Governments can do this if they take the time to plan well.

Q: Do you think that the hesitance of the United States to take steps to resettle refugees has put pressure on Canada to be more supportive of refugees on behalf North America as a whole?

NP: That’s an interesting question. I don’t know if the situation in the U.S. has had any impact on Canadians. I think it’s been really a question of people wanting to do something. Even in the U.S. there was a survey done not long ago that showed 59 percent of people would be OK with welcoming refugees into their country. I really trust that within each one of us there is that possibility, that willingness to welcome a stranger. I think the issue is our governments are listening to the vocal minority that is anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-whatever –  that has an impact and that will bring more people to the anti-immigrant side. But I do trust in people’s goodwill. I really think that people want to do the right thing.

Q: What accounts for the difference in attitude and the general climate of rhetoric toward refugees between the United States and Canada?

NP: I think that part of it at least is a thing of leadership. Before the (Canadian national) election that occurred in October, we weren’t sponsoring a whole lot of refugees. And there was very much of a negative perception out there that the previous government was playing on. I think people were tired of that kind of rhetoric. I think there are a lot of people in leadership roles here in the United States, without naming any names, who are stirring up a lot of anti-immigrant feelings, and what happens is that you start to talk about and people say, well these people are taking our jobs, they are not part of our culture, they don’t blend in, they are not really part of who we are, and so we can’t accept them. Then there’s the fear factor. What happens in a few years if they get radicalized? All these sentiments get stirred up and people start to feel afraid. I think that is the main motive for a lot of people. They just fear. If you ask people, have you ever really met a refugee? Have you talked to a Muslim? Have you ever spent a lot of time getting to know them? And I would suspect that the answer is not a lot. Once people really start to get to know the refugees, the attitudes could possibly change.

Q: I understand that you have been working on a play with a theater company in Montreal that highlights the plight of refugees. Can you give us a little overview of what the play will look like?

NP: I’d love to see the play that would talk about the issue of migrant workers in Canada. We have workers who are coming into the country for four months out of the year four years in a row — they work in Canada, return to their home, then repeat the next year – and then they have to remain in their country for another four years. They have to pay Canadian taxes and employment insurance, but they get none of those benefits. They are tied to the same employer, so if they complain and lose their job, they’re gone. That’s something I would like to bring forth to the Canadian public because the Canadian public in general doesn’t really know about this, they just get their fruits and vegetables at a cheaper cost. What I would like to do is bring that out in a more accessible way. You can write documents, you can write papers, but when you see it in a play, you see what is happening to these people. You become part of the play in the sense that at the end you can asks questions, make comments, get to know more about the reality. That’s when things can happen, when you can have a real conversation and ask, what can we do about this? When this new government starts to address these temporary worker programs in September or October, we want to make sure the migrant voices are heard. Hopefully it will turn into more of a permanent resident status. That’s a little bit of dreaming at this point, but we’ll see what happens.