We are all refugees, in a sense

The Compass - - OPINION -

As I write this, the na­tions of the free world are one by one back­ing away from mil­i­tary ac­tion to pu­n­ish Bashar al-As­sad’s Syr­ian regime for their heinous chem­i­cal at­tack on civil­ians in their own coun­try.

The time­lines for this col­umn re­quire that it be writ­ten long be­fore you read it in the news­pa­per. Events which are mov­ing fast may have over­taken my words. If that is so, please for­give any er­rors.

The French govern­ment, who were among the ear­li­est to de­clare will­ing­ness to join a mil­i­tary coali­tion against the As­sad regime, are now plan­ning a de­bate in the national assem­bly in Paris, pos­si­bly lead­ing to a bind­ing vote. Or maybe not.

The Amer­i­cans are com­mit­ted to a vote in Congress. The pres­i­dent may or may not heed the re­sult.

The Cana­dian po­si­tion de­pends on whether you heard it de­scribed by Stephen Harper or John Baird. And when.

Harper was con­sis­tent on one point: what­ever the Amer­i­cans do is fine with him.

What seems clear from a num­ber of sources is that the As­sad regime has tar­geted its own civil­ian pop­ula- tion with chem­i­cal weapons and that a large num­ber of peo­ple were killed. Add that to the more than 100,000 al­ready dead and it ex­plains why two mil­lion Syr­i­ans and count­ing have fled their coun­try in the two years since the anti-govern­ment up­ris­ing be­gan. The As­sad regime has passed the point of no re­turn and it is un­clear what can be done. There are no easy an­swers.

Ide­ally, a mil­i­tary strike sanc­tioned by the United Na­tions to de­stroy the govern­ment’s killing in­fra­struc­ture would meet with lit­tle crit­i­cism around the world.

Sadly, a world­wide UN force can­not hap­pen. The pow­er­ful na­tions per­ma­nently seated on the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil each have a veto and Rus­sia has made clear it will nix any such pro­posed force. None­the­less, the greater the num­ber of coun­tries lined up against As­sad, the more le­git­i­mate would be the use of force.

Some have sug­gested a vote in the Gen­eral Assem­bly con­demn­ing the Syr­ian govern­ment. The out­dated veto of the big pow­ers needs to be re­voked, a nec­es­sary next move if the UN is to re­tain cred­i­bil­ity. Only then could the voices of a large ma­jor­ity of mem­ber states le­git­imize a force made up of those will­ing and able to con­trib­ute. Bet­ter that than any one state go­ing it alone.

In an ideal world, brutes like As­sad would not ex­ist. Nor would their al­lies who, for their own self­ish rea­sons, en­able that bru­tal­ity. Not to ex­cuse them, but it has been thus since the dawn of hu­man­ity. The world has been awash with rivers of refugees since cave men first dis­cov­ered they could pick up a stick and en­force their will on oth­ers.

My an­ces­tors were refugees. My fa­ther’s fore­bears fled the south­ern states of Amer­ica af­ter what was called ei­ther the rev­o­lu­tion or the war of in­de­pen­dence, de­pend­ing on your view­point. They were wel­comed back into the bo­som of the Crown as “United Em­pire Loy­al­ists” when they reached what would even­tu­ally be­come On­tario.

On my mother’s side, my great­grand­fa­ther lived in Ire­land’s County Ca­van. In nearby County Mayo vast tracts of farm­land were owned by an ab­sen­tee land­lord from Eng­land, the Earl of Erne. The land agent in charge of man­ag­ing his properties was also an English­man, the ex-mil­i­tary Capt. Charles Boy­cott.

When Charles Par­nell, an Ir­ish re­former and pres­i­dent of the Land League spoke out against the dread­ful con­di­tions of ten­ant farm­ers, Boy­cott re­sponded by evict­ing ten­ants who had fallen be­hind in their rent and by en­forc­ing all man­ner of reg­u­la­tions cal­cu­lated to keep the Ir­ish work­ers in poverty and afraid.

None­the­less, as har­vest time ap­proached in 1880 the work­ers dared to call a strike and re­fused to har­vest the crops. Capt. Boy­cott of­fered the work to strike break­ers. The lo­cal peo­ple with­held trans­porta­tion, lodg­ing and food from the scab work­ers who had to walk miles in pour­ing rain to get to the fields. Against all odds the har­vest was brought in and each of the scabs was rewarded with a medal cel­e­brat­ing his par­tic­i­pa­tion in what was called the “Boy­cott Ex­pe­di­tion,” and a new word en­tered the English lan­guage.

I have held in my hand the medal awarded my great-grand­fa­ther.

Whe n t h e s t r i k e b reak­ers re­turned home, how­ever, they found things were not calm. The live­stock on their farms had a habit of dis­ap­pear­ing, and farm­houses be­gan to catch fire mys­te­ri­ously at night. It was not long be­fore my great-grand­fa­ther set­tled his fam­ily in Bri­tish Columbia.

Closer to home the mis­man­age­ment of the fish­ery where a hand­ful of mer­chants con­trol hun­dreds of fish­er­peo­ple has cre­ated a refugee flow to the tar sands of Al­berta.

Luck­ily, there is only one Bashar al-As­sad in this world. Un­like in Syria, not ev­ery refugee is flee­ing to save his life. Many are flee­ing to get a life. In the end though, to a cer­tain de­gree, we are all refugees. — Peter Pick­ers­gill is an artist and writer in Sal­vage, Bon­av­ista Bay. He can be reached by email at the fol­low­ing:


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