“The practice of granting asylum to people fleeing persecution in foreign lands is one of the earliest hallmarks of civilization,” writes the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Some of the earliest references to those practices date back three and a half millennia. Today, the definition of a refugee and his or her rights are codified in the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

A refugee is someone who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Unlike migrants, refugees flee to escape imprisonment, the deprivation of their basic human rights, physical injury, death or torture. 

In the conversation around what was briefly called Europe’s refugee crisis – and is now only referred to as our migrant crisis – a pointed distinction has been made between the two.

Again, from the UNHCR: “Migrants, especially economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families. Refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. They have no protection from their own state – indeed it is often their own government that is threatening to persecute them. If other countries do not let them in, and do not help them once they are in, then they may be condemning them to death – or to an intolerable life in the shadows, without sustenance and without rights.”

An intolerable life in the shadows can mean many things. There is the dark shadowy hell of civil war and state brutality. There are also the millions and millions of people who lead starved lives in the shadows of more prosperous economies – lives starved of nutrition, access to education, of culture and democracy and certain basic rights. Millions are imprisoned on the street, are in fact deprived of their basic human rights because of economic and social conditions, and ultimately, face death because of it.

But it’s not those people we want to save. It’s those defined as refugees we feel half-heartedly compelled to save, and mostly because that inconvenient little thing called “international law” tells us to, and because this current refugee crisis is awfully persistent.

While there is a legal and definitional difference between a migrant and a refugee, should there be a humanitarian difference between the two?

As the UK home secretary has put it, (the person responsible for immigration and citizenship throughout the United Kingdom), while countries have a duty to accept refugees, illegal economic migrants “have no right to be here.” But anyone’s “right” to be anywhere is first and foremost determined by birth. No one is any more entitled or deserving of the rights, privileges and opportunities afforded to them by the class, society and country they are born into.

Additionally, when it comes to what migrants and refugees flee, at the end of it all, death is death. Is it important, is it humanitarian, to label, define and separate the slow, painful, economic deaths from the quick, brutal assassinations of people, their rights and their beliefs?

Regardless of race, colour, sex, language, religion and political opinion, and regardless of national or social origin, property, birth or other status, everyone is entitled to the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These include:

  • The right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law;
  • The right to leave any country, including one’s own, and to return to that country;
  • The freedom from being arbitrarily deprived of one’s nationality;
  • The right to change one’s nationality;
  • The right to own property alone as well as in association with others;
  • The right of equal access to public service in one’s country;
  • The right to social security;
  • Entitlement to realize of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for one’s dignity and the free development of one’s personality;
  • The right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment;
  • The right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of oneself and one’s family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services;
  • The right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control;
  • Everyone has the right to education.

When we carve up the world by borders, nationalities and wealth, we lay claim to the world’s resources and forget the rest of the people we are supposed to share them with. We claim that what’s mine, isn’t yours, and that that’s okay, and that that’s just.

But in the same vein, if we’re all supposed to be born into this world as humanitarian equals, what isn’t yours, can’t really be mine, either.

“In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”

Our rights and freedoms may only be limited to ensure the rights and freedoms of others, as well as morality, order, welfare and democracy.

When we carve up the world in borders, and reallocate the world’s resources to accommodate our more favoured borders; when we build on histories of imperialism, colonialism, fear and oppression with little acknowledgement of the past, who is anyone to say that lives of poverty, starvation or struggle aren’t bad enough to seek refuge from, and that those living them are not deserving enough to try?


What Canadian values are so threatened by the niqab, and why do any of us care? It’s a national debate that is stealing the election, and unlike almost every other topic, it’s one everyone from every corner of society seems to have a very strong opinion about.

For those who have missed it, this started with whether women should be allowed to clothe themselves head to toe during a citizenship ceremony. Women who are a minority several times over, and who have presumably undertaken the arduous process of becoming a Canadian citizen to enjoy the freedoms the majority of us enjoy. But of course, it’s not about that anymore.

No, it’s become about the rest of us, and how we have to defend our Canadian values, which are apparently so fragile that they’re threatened by a handful of women who opt to clothe themselves in a certain way. The irony is that none of us, not a single one of us, can actually do this without being a really big hypocrite. Don’t use your freedom of expression to explain why others shouldn’t be entitled to that same right. And don’t try to defend our Canadian values – enshrined in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms – by kicking and screaming and tearing apart those good, decent, important rights to make them conditional, weak and valueless.

This is not a post about the niqab. This is a post about why every single argument against it is xenophobic, hypocritical or so completely illogical that it shouldn’t deserve any of the air time it’s probably getting.

For example, it doesn’t matter that the choice to wear a niqab is cultural rather than religious: both are protected by our freedoms of expression and religion. It’s also no one’s place to strip a woman of her rights on the assumption that she can’t make decisions for herself. Especially if you’re sort of WASP-ish, or happen to be male, or are really anyone who isn’t one of the handful of women who choose to wear a niqab. You really shouldn’t even get to talk about it, but for better or worse, even that is a right we all enjoy.

That the niqab thwarts our chance at having an open society is another ludicrous argument. The muzzling of scientists, or cuts to public broadcast funding, or attempts to misuse, abuse and ignore freedom and access of information laws have done more to destroy the concept that we actually live in an open society than anything else. 

That the niqab is simply indecent is also a good one. As Barbara Kay so richly put it, “it is corrosive to the social reciprocity on which neighbourhoods depend for spontaneous camaraderie.” I’m not sure where you live, but I don’t live in some made-for-TV 1950s neighbourhood where I’m friends with the postman and my neighbours bring me cookies. What fosters what little spontaneous camaraderie I feel in my community, is general decency toward all neighbours regardless of their race, faith, gender or sexual orientation. What’s been made unfortunately clear by some of the racist and uneducated commentary on this national topic, however, is that we have a very strong capacity to be indecent to others, and that is corrosive to social reciprocity.

To bridge the decency and wearing-a-niqab-is-anti-feminist arguments, those hot-pink velour sweatpants with “juicy” written on the ass are significantly more denigrating, objectifying and indecent toward women than black, flowing pieces of fabric. They also make me seriously question the wearer’s self-respect and upbringing, but unfortunately, regardless of how little taste some people have, they are entitled to express their low self-esteem and superficial views as they please.

Some people actually define that as feminism, that it’s all about a woman being able to express herself and her sexuality however she chooses. Despite my strong feelings about wearing sweatpants in public, that’s an argument I can get behind, because guess what, it’s one that includes a woman’s choice to not conform to western, paternalistic standards of how women should or shouldn’t dress in the 21st century.

We don’t assume all women can cook, or that anyone older than 80 is racist, or that anyone who looks slightly Asian is good at math. (If you do, it may be time to evaluate a few things.) Just because someone wears a niqab does not mean they believe in Sharia law or stoning. In fact, just because someone is Muslim doesn’t mean they believe in those either. There’s this creeping fear that accepting another religion and culture into ours will weaken the Canadian mosaic. It’s fed by fears of Islamization and ISIS and terrorism, which in turn are fuelled by ignorance, a poorly critical 24-hour news cycle and propaganda.

A government choosing to strip a select few wannabe citizens, who, again, presumably want to be Canadian precisely because of our values, is a threat to each and every one of us. It’s a mindless and xenophobic decision that serves no purpose except to show us that our government can and will fight our freedoms. Unfortunately, we missed that point. We’ve bought into the debate about whether it’s Canadian to hide your face. We’re listening to racist wingnuts espouse bigoted values. As a nation, we’re thinking more critically about this than our country’s decision to bomb Syria (which was a decision, by the way, to fight a group that in some of the most horrifying ways imaginable is systematically trying to strip women, men, children and minorities of their rights).

Let’s think about that one, as we go about our days, saying what we want, dressing how we like and enjoying all of the freedoms being in this country offers those our elected government apparently chooses to offer them to.


It’s easy to forget the world as it is.

You can watch the news and be told what should be important to you, based on your geography and nationality. You can seek out and read other sources of news to find out what should be important to other audiences, within other borders.

The language we use, and the ways we’re informed, imply multiple worlds and multiple realities. There is what happens here, versus what happens there. There are third-world crises and first-world problems. There are developing countries and developed ones, along with expectations of what we’ll accept and tolerate within each.

Sometimes, these worlds collide, but often to little lasting impact in either. For example, there’s worldwide horror about the 2013 factory collapse in Bangladesh that killed over 1,100 people, and little today that reminds consumers of the relationship between those working conditions and the cost of cheap clothes in Canada.

There are bake sales and telethons and songs that feature two dozen artists impassioned to raise funds and awareness for causes overseas. Each year, countries around the world pledge millions in disaster relief and humanitarian aid to whichever countries need it, and sometimes we deliver on those promises. We care, sometimes. Or we half-heartedly try to. But there seems to be a fundamental disconnect between how we – primarily western, democratic, developed first-world countries – perceive the world, and act toward it, as if we’re somehow separate from everyone and everything else.

Over three million children die each year from poor nutrition. Over three million people have been forced to flee their homes in Syria due to recent violence, civil war and repression. About 20 per cent of the global population – 1.4 billion people – in developing countries live on less than $1.25 a day.

It’s easy to forget that this is our world, too; that we share this world with the starving child or the Syrian refugee. Once the channel is changed and we unplug, there’s no evidence of any of it. There’s no “evidence” of these other worlds unless you actively choose to examine the labels on your clothes, or on the cans in the cupboards. It’s easy to live separated from the “rest” of the world.

That is, until the rest of the world washes up at your doorstep. And not in symbols, not in the form of cheap clothes or good coffee: by the boatload, washing up alive, dead, unavoidably on the shores of your world.

The news was dominated last week by the “boy on the beach,” a photo of a young boy, lying face-down on a Turkish shore, having drowned along with 11 other Syrians escaping to Greece. It’s as disturbing as it is heartbreaking. Headlines have asked who is to blame. Newspapers have defended why they chose to run such a horrifying photo. People have asked whether it will define our generation, comparing it to the photo of the young girl running naked, screaming after being severely burned by a napalm attack in Vietnam. Others have called it a symbol of humanity washing ashore.

Like the “Napalm Girl,” the photo of a lifeless Aylan Kurdi has galvanized millions, as it should. But it’s worth noting that photos and videos and stories of migrants escaping repressive regimes who kill, torture or turn a blind eye to human rights have been shown and shared for months. The “migrant crisis” is not new, nor is it unique to this particular conflict, nor is it only happening right now with regard to Syria.

There are two points that should be made about where we are now. The first is about the language we’re using to describe, and subsequently define, what is going on. When we call it the “migrant crisis,” are we referring to the mass exodus of people fleeing horrific conditions in their home countries? Are we referring to the conditions that have caused mass migration? Or are we, deep down, in part referring to the impact all of this has on the countries that are receiving refugees by the thousands? When it gets said that the EU is now facing a “migrant crisis” that must be dealt with, it sounds like an eleventh-hour call to action because what’s going on in Syria, and how that directly impacts the EU, has finally reached a point where it can no longer be ignored.

This leads into the second point: if the world cared about what has been happening in Syria over the past several years – if this had been looked at as a humanitarian issue – we would have acted long ago. Action would have been taken against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad after he crossed Obama’s “red line” and used chemical weapons on civilians. Action would have been taken to increase aid and military support in Syria and Iraq. Action would have been taken in Canada and the U.S. to accept more refugees, even before ISIS came on the scene.

That Aylan Kurdi lost his life is tragic. That many others die each day trying to flee conflicts at home is also tragic. But just because a photo has caught the attention of the world, does not mean attitudes, let alone policies, will change. There are the countries people flee from, and those that they desperately try to flee to. And then those in the fled-to countries begin to talk about erecting walls, and halting trains, and fears over the spread of radical ideologies and religions.

What the “migrant crisis” has made blatantly clear, is that the divide between these worlds is much wider than the Mediterranean.

Regions of Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Colombia and virtually every country in the Middle East could become no-go zones for Canadians.

While on the campaign trail, Stephen Harper announced that if re-elected, he would ban what he called “terror tourism” to certain regions, “the most dangerous places on Earth where governance is non-existent and violence is widespread and brutal.” These are regions that are under the governance of terrorists, places he says Canadians have “absolutely no right” to travel to: “That is not a human right.”

Barring a very select few exceptions – diplomats, aid workers, journalists – Canadians would be restricted from visiting parts of the world their government has decided are too volatile. And those few who are allowed to travel for specific reasons would be forced to prove their need to travel. How this would work is at this point unclear. And if Harper isn’t re-elected in October, the idea could be dropped entirely. But if re-elected, it may be within the realm of possibility to one day soon see the Canadian government “vetting” which Canadian journalists can travel abroad to cover its military, diplomatic or foreign operations. 

It’s not a win for journalism, and at its worst lends itself to censorship through restricted mobility. Such a law could be abused to deny any Canadians seeking first-hand knowledge of what their government is doing abroad – be they reporters, academics or even NGO-workers – access to such knowledge. It’s also a situation that opens itself up to manipulation, political rhetoric and propaganda.

There are many dangerous places on the planet, and anyone’s reasons for travelling to them should scrutinized: by the individual, and not by their government. The number of Canadians opting to travel to regions where violence runs rampant and the law is an oft-ignored suggestion are few and far between, for very valid reasons. Out of those who go anyway, not many take up arms. I refuse to believe we’re facing a terror tourism exodus: those few who have been pulled to the Middle East to fight for radicalized ideologies are hardly representative of the Canadian majority. And who’s to say another just as radical idea may not have called those individuals to action at home or abroad, had it not been ISIS?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a terrorist organization. Google ISIS and there is no shortage of horrifying examples to back that definition (and no shortage of media coverage and commentary to further convince you). There are several components that define terrorism, and academically speaking, it’s a definition that is up for debate. Can a state or head of state be a terrorist? Is an attack that targets military facilities and personnel a terrorist act, or guerilla warfare? Generally speaking, terrorism is an act for an ideological purpose intended to induce terror in and intimidate the public. Canada’s definition says so.

I mention this because a lot of the time, the label “terrorism” gets applied to non-state actors who aren’t “entitled” to use violence as a means for resolving conflict or bringing about change. There are many people around the world would who consider various leaders, from George Bush to Bashar al-Assad, terrorists in their own right. I’m sure just as many disagree. Horrifying acts of war on the part of governments often get labelled as just that – “acts of war” as opposed to terrorist acts.

So when Harper talks about restricting travel to regions “under the governance of terrorists,” what does he mean? Could this include banning travel to countries with oppressive states whose actions which, if they weren’t “government actions”, could very well be considered terrorist? And when it comes to preventing Canadians travelling abroad to fight for terrorist organizations (and fighting for terrorist organizations is currently illegal), would we ban Canadians from travelling to join the ranks of militaries widely considered to have also perpetrated war crimes? (Again, note the difference in language of “war crime” and “terrorist act”.)

A list of “terrorist entities” exists on Canada’s national security page. The 54 listed include the ETA, a group headquartered in the Basque provinces of Spain and France, and the Kurdistan Workers Party, currently at the forefront of a Turkish civil war aggravated by Syria’s. Most governments and international organizations have their own lists, but the right of Canadians to travel freely would be limited by one government’s view of who the world’s terrorists are. It’s interesting to note that no governments are listed either, just non-state actors – the “freedom fighters” of many; terrorists to us. 

What Harper has right is that yes, it’s not a universally declared “human right” to specifically travel to regions governed or controlled by any of the groups above. However, the freedom of mobility is a constitutional right in Canada, and the right to leave and return to one’s country – any country – is part of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Freedom of the press is a right, too. And any law that comes close to touching that freedom should be critically examined (and probably thrown out). Even though it doesn’t explicitly stipulate anything, Harper’s proposal appears too uncomfortably close to a law that restricts the Canadian media’s ability to cover the Canadian government’s operations abroad. Maybe not now, maybe not at first, but maybe a year or two down the slippery slope when we decide it’s too risky for anyone, in any profession (excluding the military), to travel to the world’s most violent regions, as decided by the Canadian government.

As dangerous as these terror-filled areas may be, there is a need for people to travel to them. While Conservative attack ads rail against Justin Trudeau for wanting to send winter coats to Syria, the fact remains that over three million Syrians have left their country as refugees due to the current conflict. Another 6.5 million are internally displaced. Syria’s population sits at around 22.5 million, meaning over 40 per of Syrians have fled their homes. Education about issues and awareness of their root causes, and their actual effects, is extremely important, and really should form the basis for Canada’s foreign policies. Media access is a key component of this, as is not being forced to rely on informational government handouts.

There are certain types of laws that restrict the actions of many. But the restriction falls in line with commonly held values, does not directly affect the majority who would most likely not have taken said actions in the first place, and have the potential to serve as a strong enough deterrent to those who may have. Look at murder, or fraud, or theft. 

But a wide-sweeping law, mentioned on the heels of Canada’s controversial Bill C-51, that would restrict Canadians’ constitutional right to the freedom of mobility because less than 200 individuals have purportedly travelled to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside ISIS, is something entirely different.

If Harper wants to take about the “gateway drug,” let’s talk about his proposed “gateway ban”: one that toys with constitutional freedoms, fuels fear and leaves the door wide open for censorship and propaganda. 

On Friday, the National Energy Board announced that a petroleum executive based out of Calgary would be the latest member to join the “independent federal regulatory agency’s” board.

Steven Kelly wil, according to the release, bring over three decades of energy industry experience to the role he’s assuming this October, most recently as the vice-president of energy consulting firm IHS Global Canada Ltd. According to the National Observerthe board’s latest appointee authored and submitted the report currently sitting before the NEB regarding Kinder Morgan’s proposed Trans Mountain pipeline project.

The NEB regulates the construction and operation of pipelines and power lines, as well as imports of natural gas, and exports of crude oil and other energy products. Eleven members currently sit at the helm of what is rapidly becoming one of Canada’s most influential, topical – and perhaps most controversial – boards.

Of the 11 members (including the chair, vice-chair, and members both permanent and temporary), all either come from companies directly involved in the oil and gas industry, or from the bodies that govern them (i.e. government). 

This information is publicly available on the NEB’s website, along with full bios of all members. In summary, here’s a quick look at the 11 people reviewing applications that currently include the Trans Mountain expansion project, the Enbridge Northern Gateway Project and the Energy East Project.

Chair Peter Watson was Alberta’s Resource Person of the Year in 2011, and has held a variety of portfolios in government related to energy and the environment. Vice-chair Lyne Mercier worked at Gaz Métro for close to 30 years, where, as director, she was responsible for the strategic policy of natural gas supply.

Members Roland George has worked in the private energy sector for over three decades, including as senior principal with the international energy consulting firm Purvin & Gertz; Philip Davies held a senior management position with SaskPower; Shane Parrish managed business development for Canadian Petroleum Engineering Inc. and has worked in a consultancy capacity regarding indigenous business development and petroleum and mining for 18 years; Ron Wallace held senior management positions at Nunavut Resources Corporation and what is now AMEC Americas Ltd., where he was involved in major oil and gas operations throughout the former Soviet Union and Russia.

Temporary members David Hamilton and Alison Scott have extensive political backgrounds in the Northwest Territories and Nova Scotia, respectively. James Ballem started an energy consulting business, served as PEI’s Minister of Environment and Energy (an interesting coupling) and was the first chair of the PEI Milk Marketing Board. Mike Richmond was a senior energy policy advisor with the Ontario provincial government, and Jacques Gauthier was most recently president and CEO of LVM Inc., one of the largest environmental engineering consulting groups in Canada.

Between them, there have been portfolios held that relate to sustainability, and environmental and safety management. There is a PhD in Aquatic Ecology and Environmental Toxicology, as well as engineering, law and business grads. 

But the board is really a cross-section of parties actively invested in oil and gas, be it the companies that extract or move it, or the governments that enjoy taxes from what is a legal industry. There are no environmentalists at the strategic regulatory level; no representatives from academia with backgrounds dedicated to research and scholarship. And while there is a roster of somewhat varied experience at the NEB, there is no representation from anyone actively invested in rejecting the projects: only those whose backgrounds suggest an interest in moving them through the approval pipeline.

The NEB’s mandate is to regulate. Should that not mean involving a greater variety of views at the regulatory level?

Marching orders: toe the line. Get in step. Follow orders.

We’re at war. With ISIS, with terrorists, with the Great Recession and unemployment and unbalanced budgets. We’re at war with bureaucracy and red tape; with regulations and restrictions that hamper business and prevent us all – yes, all of us, together – from attaining greater wealth. As a country, and as a nation.

We’re at war, Canada. And as easy as it may be to ignore, or to naively believe, or to mock sarcastically from the sidelines, it’s time to wake up and acknowledge some of the casualties that have come as a cost of it.

There are the Veterans Affairs Canada closures. The muzzling of scientists. The amendment to protect “navigation” instead of the “navigable waters” it requires. The changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency and how it reviews environmental assessments. The recognition of the National Energy Board as a “responsible authority” when it comes to protecting the environment. There have been funding cuts to important scientific research programming, and the actual dumping – as in into a garbage dump – of thousands of pages of scientific research and data that can’t be replaced. There’s the rejection and withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty that commits countries to take action on climate change.

No, it’s not the full story. But Michael Harris’s reflections on a prime minister paint a compelling pattern of where Canada is headed under the country’s current leadership.

A more recent example is Bill C-51, our needed anti-terrorism legislation (needed, I’m told; for what, I’m not sure.) This builds on top of propagandist rhetoric about the terrorist threats to Canada, and the need to battle ISIS. It builds on billions spent to purchase military equipment that doesn’t fit our needs, and $28-million on an event to commemorate the War of 1812. 

No, it’s not the full story. At least I hope it isn’t. But as unwilling as I’ve been to pay attention to party politics, propaganda, polls and pomp, the biggest shock that came from reading Party of One is that I really, really should. 

Politics is a funny thing. I don’t get congratulated or lauded at work for doing my job. I don’t host expensive announcements to convince my employer, at the end of my week, that they made the right decision in hiring me. With politics, there seems to be so much time and money spend on messaging, ads, events and PR pros to get constituents to believe. There are scare tactics; the horns of war. There’s politicking and truthiness. There’s the burying of information. The restriction of free speech.

It’s a circus. And unfortunately, it’s one we all need to pay critical attention to, rather than be entertained by. We should hold feet to fire, not get distracted by pyrotechnics. 

Party of One is a compelling read, and I encourage every one to read it. And agree, or disagree. As long as attention is paid.

Give the people bread and a circus, to extrapolate Juvenal. With every day a circus, and some time until Canada is without bread, there needs to be a sense of urgency to pay attention now, before the clowns disappear and the bread crumbles up. Let’s not get distracted by the unfulfilling sideshow while our pockets get picked. The joke and the tab, at the end of the day, are on us.

More information on Party of One is available here.