Reflecting on the Role of the Mennonite Central Committee in Advocating for Refugees
Advocating for refugees in Canada can make a difference in many ways. In this account I will concentrate on the refugee advocacy work I did in my job as the director of the Ottawa Office of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). That position, which I was privileged to hold from 1975 to 2008, involved advocacy work on many issues, reflecting MCC’s broad involvement in international relief, development and peacebuilding, but at times I had to focus on refugee issues in a particular way.
Refugee work has a notable place in Mennonite history. In the 1920s, Mennonite churches in Canada helped some 21,000 Mennonites in Russia to escape the violence relating to the Communist revolution and resettle in Canada. After World War II, the MCC resettled thousands more, some in Canada and others elsewhere. Through the MCC, which was founded in 1920, Mennonites have done refugee relief work in many places around the world. The Mennonite experience of being refugees in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when they were severely persecuted, as well as the practical emphasis of their theology, have also helped to nurture a certain readiness to assist refugees.
My first major advocacy initiative on refugees involved negotiating, early in 1979, Canada’s first “master agreement” for the private sponsorship of refugees. The context was that the media, since the fall of 1978, had reported extensively on the tens of thousands of people who were fleeing Vietnam. These refugees had set out in small boats in the hope of getting temporary refuge in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, or other neighbouring countries, and eventually being permanently resettled somewhere. These “boat people” as they were referred to took great risks. An untold number drowned at sea; others were raped and robbed by pirates; and neighbouring countries, afraid of being flooded with people, began to turn them away, leaving them adrift on the sea.
Although Canada was far away, people here wanted to help. Many called on the federal government to bring over some of these refugees. Others wanted to take steps on their own. With that in mind, my MCC superiors instructed me to approach officials at what was then the department of employment and immigration to work out an arrangement so that Mennonite churches in Canada could bring people over and help them to build new lives here. I called Calbert Best, the assistant deputy minister for immigration, with whom I had recently worked on other issues. Cal was remarkably receptive. The 1976 Immigration Act, which had come into force in 1978, included a provision for the private sponsorship of refugees. He told me that he and his officials had been thinking about how to activate that provision.
We quickly convened a meeting with Best and other officials, at which I was joined by several MCC colleagues from our head office in Winnipeg. The new immigration law enabled the sponsorship not only of Convention refugees (that is, individuals who meet the criteria of the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees) but also of members of “designated classes” of refugees—groups designated as refugees on humanitarian grounds. The officials explained how the new law’s “designated class” provision gave them greater flexibility when it came to sponsorship agreements. We then talked about an agreement in broad terms, after which Gordon Barnett, from the government’s side, and I, from MCC’s side, were seconded to flesh out the agreement and write it up.
Gordon and I met several times over the next few weeks following that initial meeting, always checking with our respective colleagues. Both sides were eager to move forward, so the negotiations proceeded well. As Gordon later explained, he was originally instructed to aim for a clear line of separation between the private sponsorship program and the government’s existing resettlement programs, but “as negotiations progressed and the goodwill of MCC became evident,” this approach was abandoned: “Bill [Janzen] negotiated in such good faith, it was embarrassing to play the cards I had been given . . . . Negotiating with MCC demonstrated only their complete commitment to help, against our reluctance to give anything up and our meanness. I thought we should adopt a different, more cooperative approach.” As he went on to say, “It may well be that had the first agreement not been negotiated with a group as openly altruistic and sincerely helpful as MCC, the National Sponsorship Agreements would have been less cooperative.”1 On March 5, 1979, our executive director, J. M. Klassen, and the Honourable Bud Cullen, then the minister of employment and immigration, signed a master agreement (MA). It was the first of its kind, and it led to extensive private sponsorship, which then became a hallmark of Canadian refugee policy.
The essence of the MA was simple. The requirement in the law was that if five Canadians wanted to sponsor a refugee, they had to accept full liability for one year. This had made people hesitate as they imagined worst-case scenarios. With the MA, MCC as a national organization accepted full liability, while any congregation or group of people whom MCC authorized would do the actual work. Thus, small church groups would carry all the normal settlement costs, but they would not be left liable if exceptional problems developed. In addition to accepting liability, MCC provided counsel, guidance, and general coordination. For their part, government officials had confidence that MCC and any groups it authorized would carry through.
It was also agreed that refugees sponsored by private groups would not be counted toward the government’s own target number; they would be over and above those sponsored by the government. The government would assist private groups with language training services. Also, alongside the sponsorship track, there was a “joint assistance” track for special-needs cases. For these, the government would provide private groups with additional resources and they would then be counted as “government-sponsored.” The MA also outlined the flow of communications—for example, from MCC to a church group anywhere in Canada, to a local immigration office, to immigration headquarters in Ottawa, to the embassies in Southeast Asia, indicating what was to happen at each stage.
Soon after MCC signed the MA, a majority of the six hundred Mennonite congregations in Canada submitted applications to sponsor refugees. And in the next weeks and months, twenty-eight other national church bodies and dioceses signed virtually identical agreements with the department of employment and immigration. In June 1979, Howard Adelman, a professor at the University of Toronto, founded Operation Lifeline, and, in July, Ottawa’s mayor, Marion Dewar, launched Project 4000. In a subsequent memorandum to the Cabinet regarding the Indochinese refugee situation, Minister Ron Atkey (who had replaced Bud Cullen) noted that “both the volume and pace of sponsorship commitments exceeded the most optimistic expectations.”2 This unexpected response led the newly elected government of Joe Clark to vastly increase the number of refugees that the country would admit, despite an ambivalence in public opinion. As recently as June 1979, Canada had been planning for a total of 12,000 Indochinese refugees—8,000 sponsored by the government and the other 4,000 privately. But, in late July, Flora MacDonald, the minister of external affairs, supported by Prime Minister Joe Clark, raised the total number to 50,000. The target for privately sponsored refugees was raised to 21,000, and the government committed to matching this figure (in addition to the 8,000 government sponsorships already in process). Altogether, from 1975 to the end of 1980, Canada took in 70,000 refugees from Indochina, approximately one-half of them privately sponsored.
As the authors of the 2017 study, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugee Crisis, 1975–1980, observe, Canada’s private sponsorship program “has been frequently examined by other governments seeking to strengthen their resettlement programs, but it has not been easy to transplant it elsewhere, less because of its design than because of the value system that underpins it.”3 But has that underlying value system remained strong? Canada’s churches, who did most of the sponsoring in 1979–80, are weaker now. The general feeling about being able to make a difference in the world has declined. Increased security concerns have coloured the perception of refugees. As a result, there is less pressure on the government to open doors. Nevertheless, churches and other groups continue to sponsor refugees under the private sponsorship umbrella.
My second significant involvement with refugees took place in 1987. This time it was not about sponsoring refugees from distant camps. Rather, it had to do with people who came to a Canadian point of entry and claimed to be refugees, defined by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention as people who have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” When Canada finally ratified the Convention in 1969, the government committed itself to granting a fair hearing to people who had made their way to Canada and claimed to be refugees.
Until this time, the question of how to give a hearing to such people was not a big issue because Canada, being far away from areas that had many refugees, received few refugee claims. But in 1981 there were 1,600 such claims, averaging 133 per month, and in 1987 there were 2,000 per month, partly because of civil wars in Central America. In 1985 the Supreme Court’s ruling in Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration had reinforced the importance of giving hearings to refugee claimants.4 But to do that called for a substantial administrative/judicial structure. Since Canada did not have such a structure in place, a huge backlog had built up, that is, people who had been allowed into Canada while they waited for a hearing. Eventually, many of these people would be allowed to stay, but the increase meant a new system was needed to manage applications.
Then in the summer of 1987, a boatload of Sikhs arrived in Nova Scotia. Prime Minister Mulroney recalled Parliament for an emergency session and brought in legislation concerning refugees. The bill in question, Bill C-55, would set up a judicial structure, the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). While giving the Board authority to deal with refugees, it also limited access to the IRB. One way of doing this was that the bill gave the government the power to designate a country as “a safe third country.” This meant that a person who came to Canada via such a country would not have a right to a hearing in Canada. This step was related to similar moves in other Western countries. There was a joint desire to ensure that claimants, if they had had a hearing in one country and had been refused there, would not be able to get a hearing in another, and another.
This legislation led to considerable public debate that summer. A number of refugee support groups appeared before a Parliamentary Committee, and some of the sessions were acrimonious. To prepare for MCC’s appearance before the Parliamentary Committee on September 2, I worked closely with Stuart Clark, MCC’s Refugee Coordinator. We invited David Janzen, the coordinator of our “Overground Railroad” in the United States, and Carmen Albrecht, who had served with MCC in Guatemala for three years and who was now working with a refugee program in Kitchener, to join us.
In our presentation to the Parliamentary Committee, we reviewed MCC’s refugee work in general and then focused on our current involvement with people from Central America who had fled to the United States. Since their chances of being given refugee status in the United States were very slim, our partners in the United States had helped many to apply at Canadian consulates in the United States where, we were pleased to report, Canadian officials had proven quite sympathetic. We also described cases where people, for various reasons, could not apply through the consulates; they needed to get to a Canadian entry point, make an “inland claim,” and get a hearing. Then we pointed out how aspects of the proposed legislation could prevent such people from getting a hearing. We were able to describe the situation of actual people rather than talk about principles and laws in the abstract. It seemed that the MPs were moved by our stories of people. Also, we could show that we preferred to see refugees apply through consulates and embassies abroad, just as the government did, while pointing out that for some people, getting to a Canadian entry point and making an inland claim was the only option and that certain aspects of the proposed legislation could prevent them from getting here.
Soon after our appearance before the committee, I received two letters of appreciation. One was from a government MP who, by reputation, was the most hard-hearted defender of the legislation. The other was from an Opposition MP who said that after our presentation the government MP had become remarkably sympathetic. The Opposition MP felt that by describing our hands-on work, expressing appreciation for officials, detailing how actual individuals would be affected if all aspects of this legislation were implemented, and remaining moderate in our requests, we had helped the Committee to look at the legislation in a more humane way. The fact that all the reporters were covering an appearance of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau elsewhere on Parliament Hill that evening may also have been helped to give our session a non-partisan atmosphere.
A third round of advocacy work took place in 1992. The issues were similar to those of 1987. People from Central America were continuing to flee north. The number of annual claimants had risen to 30,000 and it was costly for the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to hear so many cases. In an effort to restrict access to the IRB, the government proposed giving Senior Immigration Officers the authority to bar people from getting to the IRB if they came via a “prescribed” country, meaning a safe third country, or from a country of origin presumed to be safe. The bill also required that to get a hearing, claimants had to come with valid passports or other travel documents. People with a criminal record could also be barred.
I asked for an opportunity to appear before the Senate Committee studying the bill. To prepare, I contacted people who were directly involved with refugees: Rudy Baergen, senior minister at First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, Betty Puricelli, from the New Life Centre in Toronto, and John Doherty from the Mennonite House of Friendship in Montréal. They joined me before the Senate Committee on September 4, 1992. The title of our 16-page brief was, “Love the Sojourner . . . for You Were Sojourners” (Deuteronomy 10:19).
These three individuals provided ten stories of refugees with whom they had been involved. On that basis, we then questioned several elements in the bill. Regarding the “safe third country” concept, we argued that many refugees would be at the mercy of the seriously inadequate system in the United States. Regarding the requirement that refugees come with proper documentation, we said that for many an attempt to get passports from their own governments would be to risk their lives. Regarding the exclusion of anyone believed to have been convicted of a crime, we asked whether this meant that Canadian authorities would get such information from the home government from which the person was fleeing. We also requested a procedure to appeal IRB rulings. We acknowledged that the number of claimants had risen substantially but noted that it was still well below that of many other refugee-receiving countries.
I do not recall details of the outcome, but I do remember the Senate Committee listening attentively and asking good questions. My next report to my board stated: “The Senate Committee’s report, released in mid-September, reflected many of the concerns that we and other groups raised.” In 2002, the government did enter into a Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) with the United States, which came into effect in 2004. There were qualifications such as a claimant needing to have family members in Canada, but the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR), joined by the Canadian Council of Churches and Amnesty International, soon began an effort to have the agreement rescinded, arguing persuasively that for many refugee claimants it was not possible to get a fair hearing in the United States. That effort continued, and in July 2020 the Federal Court found that that agreement with the United States violated the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Interestingly, the Canada-United States Safe Third Country Agreement applies only at official ports of entry into Canada. It does not apply to people who walk across the border from the United States into Canada at some other place, as many have done in recent years, nor to people once they are in Canada. In 2010, the government brought in legislation to create a Designated Countries of Origin list, meaning countries where conditions are believed to be such that people need not become refugees. If people from such countries come to Canada and make a claim, they can still appear before the IRB, but in a more circumscribed way.
Over the years I also made many appeals on behalf of individual refugees. Usually this meant getting details about the dangers that they had personally faced, some of which were horrific. In some cases, I would write this up with as much supportive documentation as I could find and then give it to a lawyer for presentation to the IRB. At other times it involved appealing to the minister on the “humanitarian and compassionate” grounds that are provided in the law. One such case, in 2006, involved a young Muslim man from Turkey who had gone to the United States to study and then, after doing so, had come to Canada as a conscientious objector. Until then I did not know that there was a small stream in Islamic thought that favoured conscientious objection. This young man’s conscientious objector views had also been influenced by his Mennonite roommate at that American university.
Unfortunately, Turkey’s laws did not protect conscientious objectors. Military service was compulsory and people who refused, as Jehovah’s Witnesses and some others did, were usually given two-year prison sentences. If the individuals still refused, these sentences were imposed again and again. Understandably, this young man did not want to go back to Turkey. But to stay in the United States was problematic since he only had a student visa there. Given these factors, he came to Canada and asked for refugee status. But the IRB refused his claim, as did the Federal Appeal Court. Their reasoning was that to be prosecuted for refusing to serve in the military did not constitute persecution as defined by the UN Refugee Convention and that the law requiring military service was of general application and could therefore not be said to violate any one person’s rights.
I submitted a substantial letter to the minister of citizenship and immigration, Monte Solberg, on this young man’s behalf, supplementing my letter with a submission from his lawyer. In my letter, I reviewed the history of conscientious objector laws in Canada, which date back to 1793 and the first Assembly of Upper Canada and recounted the experience of Canadian conscientious objectors in the two World Wars. Then I described the post–World War II trend in Western countries to accept conscientious objection as a “right.” I referred to formal steps taken by the European Parliament and by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights and to changes made in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I also referred to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to a letter I received in 1981 from Jean Chrétien, then minister of justice, when the Charter was being formulated, and in which he held that the Charter’s freedom of conscience provision was sufficiently broad to cover conscientious objection.
After making that appeal to the immigration minister, we waited for over a year. During that time, this young Muslim man often came to our office. He was anxious, asking if there was anything more we could do to ensure a favourable decision and what to do if the decision went against him. Late in 2007, he received a notice asking him to come to one government office at a certain time to pick up an envelope containing the minister’s decision. Being nervous, he asked me to go with him. I will never forget his relief when we read the letter and learned that he would be allowed to stay. The letter also suggested that our submission had been helpful. Not long thereafter that young man enrolled in law school and became a lawyer working for the government.
I was also able to help certain Mennonites. Technically they were not refugees, but they had some refugee characteristics. They are the descendants of the six thousand conservative Mennonites who, in the 1920s, moved from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to Mexico. The governments in these provinces, in the fervently patriotic climate after World War I, began to force them to send their children to English-language public schools. Until then they had been allowed to have their own church-run schools in the German language. Determined to resist assimilation into Canadian society, they then moved to Mexico, where they were allowed to again live more by themselves, separate from the larger society.
For some of these Mennonites, however, things did not work out, in part because their strict religious teachings restricted their economic options. Poverty became a serious problem for quite a few of them. As well, there were security issues. As a result, there was a steady trickle of migrants returning to Canada. For several decades this was quite easy because those people born in Canada still had Canadian citizenship and because others could easily get landed immigrant status. But by the 1970s, Canada’s immigration laws were narrowing significantly. Soon after I started in the MCC Ottawa Office in 1975, I was asked to explore whether the fact that these people were of Canadian ancestry might open some doors under Canada’s citizenship laws.
These efforts led to changes in certain citizenship policies that, in the following decades, enabled a significant portion of those in Mexico to regain Canadian citizenship. Exact numbers are not available, but a recent survey of the workers involved leads me to believe that some 85,000 people received Canadian citizenship certificates in this way. Most of these then moved to the southern areas of Ontario, Manitoba, and Alberta, where agricultural jobs were readily available. During the decades of this migration, I kept in close contact with officials in Ottawa on various legal aspects and made sure that the “documentation workers” in Mexico and in different parts of Canada had up-to-date information about the relevant laws and procedures. One criticism of this work was that it was so focused on Mennonites of Canadian background. My response was that I would have been just as happy to help Hispanic Mexicans but that in this situation the laws were such that we could help only those of Canadian ancestry.
While the work described above was related to my job, I have also done considerable refugee work on a personal volunteer basis. This has involved such mundane tasks as getting refugee children registered for sports teams, swimming lessons, and special classes and then providing the necessary transportation, week after week. Sometimes it has meant advocating for them at school. It has also meant explaining the importance of health cards and car insurance and the need to avoid the enticements of advertising, and helping people to untangle themselves from difficult situations as, for example, when a single mother purchased a nearly new minivan by taking out a loan at 31 percent interest, only to discover that she could not possibly keep up with the payments. Particularly difficult is when a refugee who has come to trust you asks pleadingly, “Can’t you also bring over my sister and her family who have been stuck in a refugee camp in . . . for ten years?” Despite the challenges, there is much joy in seeing refugees benefit from the opportunities here and finding their way in Canadian society.
In general, I feel privileged to have been involved with refugees in these various ways. Many have made their way as skilled workers, businesspeople, or professionals, while also holding onto parts of their own traditions, thus making both economic and cultural contributions to Canada. But we should recognize that those who have been able to come to Canada and in whose lives we have been privileged to share are only a small fraction of the total. There are millions of refugees stuck in camps in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They survive largely because of international organizations like the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the World Food Program, the Red Cross, and others. Canadian governments, to their credit, have long provided significant funding for these international organizations. But life in these camps is a minimal existence, with insecurity, dangers of various kinds, and an uncertain future. And even if the main resettlement countries—Canada, the United States, Australia, and several in Western Europe—were to increase their refugee intake vastly, it would still represent only a fraction of the refugee population in the camps. Eventually, the vast majority of these people will either go back to the countries they came from despite the dangers that first led them to flee, or become integrated into the countries where they have found temporary asylum. I feel that we ought to do much more to urge our government to work for refugee solutions and to seek peace and justice so that people will not become refugees in the first place.
1 Barnett’s comments are quoted in Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen, and Robert J. Shalka, Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugee Crisis, 1975–1980 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 76–77.
2 Quoted in ibid., 155. The memorandum (PCO 693-79MC) was titled “Indochinese Refugees” and dated November 13, 1979.
3 Ibid., 81.
4 Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration, 1985 CanLII 65 (SCC),  1 SCR 177, https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/scc/doc/1985/1985canlii65/1985canlii65.html.