We are all refugees, in a sense
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 The outdated veto of the big powers needs to be revoked, a necessary next move if the UN is to retain credibility.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: