The World University Service of Canada (WUSC) Student Refugee Program brings refugee students to Canada as permanent residents, and provides support for them to continue higher education at one of 83 university campuses across the country. My family has been involved in supporting a few different students who have come through this program.
One of these individuals, Ali (name changed for privacy) graduated with a degree in finance, obtained a job working at one of Canada’s major financial firms, and several years after arriving in Canada, and became a Canadian citizen. In conversation with Ali after his citizenship ceremony, he said something that I have remembered ever since:
“Finally, I am not a refugee anymore.”
This statement struck me for a few reasons. Prior to becoming a Canadian citizen, Ali was a permanent-resident in Canada, a university graduate, and a full-time employee at a respected institution. An outsider’s perception of this individual would define Ali not as a ‘refugee’ but rather by his academic and professional accomplishments.
Yet, this was the principle term that Ali used to define himself. It was not graduating, becoming employed, or living in Canada for several years that changed things for Ali; it was becoming a citizen. Throughout many milestones, the term ‘refugee’ persisted for Ali.
This conversation reminded me that while our language has practical uses, it also carries heavy connotations. The term ‘refugee’ has a different meaning for each individual. The way we understand this term is generated from our interaction and knowledge of refugee issues. If we only gain context about refugees from United Nation material we understand this community as groups of people fleeing for their life and surviving in the face of adversity. There are some interesting examples within the academic literature that address this very topic. Jesse Beatson explored some in a 2016 paper entitled, “The Stories We Tell about Refugee Claimants: Contested Frames of the Health-Care Access Question in Canada.” (Beatson, 2016)
Beatson looked at the language being used by the-then Conservative federal government in Canada, and contrasted it with the language being used by the Canadian Doctors for Refugee Care (CDRC) on the issue of cuts being made to health care for refugee claimants. Beatson found that the primary public discourse around the issue promoted by the Conservative government portrayed refugee claimants as “bogus”, “queue jumpers” and that the cuts to health care were intended to prevent “fraudulent” health care access.
By contrast, CDRC adopted a discourse portraying refugees as vulnerable victims, and appealed to the generosity of Canadians to assist this group who had high needs. The CDRC was focused on appealing the cuts to the refugee health care insurance program to ensure continued access to health was available for this group, and they were ultimately successful in this pursuit. Beatson cautioned, however, that the CDRC discourse may have unintended longer-term consequences on how broader society comes to view refugee claimants.
This idea of how we contextualize the term “refugee” was also considered in a 1999 paper by Cynthia Hardy, and Nelson Phillips, entitled “No Joking Matter: Discursive Struggle in the Canadian Refugee System.” (Hardy & Phillips, 1999).
Hardy and Phillips had similarly reported on the language of the Canadian government and non-government organizations, noting the use of terms such as “victim” and “bogus”. Hardy and Phillips used newspaper editorial comics as examples of how this negative discourse associated with refugees is disseminated within our society. Importantly, they found that discourses of refugee-as-victim and refugee-as-fraud were rife in this public material. Hardy and Phillips included a third category; content from refugee organizations comprised of refugees themselves to compare discourses.
These organizations contextualized and promoted a discourse of refugees being empowered and to have equal participation in society. Although editorial comics are only one source of evidence of broader societal discourse, it is telling that refugee voices were absent. Members of this community are not dominantly portrayed as autonomous, independent contributors to society.
So how does this relate back to Ali, and to my work?
Well for one, as I conduct my own research I strive to avoid applying the label of ‘refugee’ to participants who have come to Canada seeking refuge. It is not for me to say whether or not an individual chooses to identify with this term.
Second, and perhaps more important, I want to be mindful of the broader dialogue and discourse that I am inevitably contributing to. Beatson concludes his paper with a telling statement:
“Refugee claimants are rarely afforded the opportunity to tell their own stories, and so the stories that are told about them have significant influence in defining their public image…”
I am challenged as one who shares stories to think not only of the short-term effects that may appear to be beneficial, but rather to consider how I may enable, empower and help shift the dialogues that dominate migration in Canada.
Beatson, J. (2016). The Stories We Tell about Refugee Claimants: Contested Frames of the Health-Care Acess Question in Canada.Refuge, 32(3).
Hardy, C., & Phillips, N. (1999). No joking matter: Discursive struggle in the Canadian refugee system. Organization Studies, 20(1), 1–24.http://doi.org/10.1177/0170840699201001
Raeside, Adrian. “Hello you have reached Immigration Canada. Our offices are closed, but if you want to report a boatload of illegal refugees, press 1. If you are an illegal refugee applying for refugee status, press […]”. August 7, 1999. <http://digital.lib.sfu.ca/edcartoons-2301/hello-you-have-reached-immigration-canada-our-offices-are-closed-if-you-want-report> .Accessed from the SFU Library Editorial Cartoon Collection onJanuary 17, 2018.
Emma Bartel is a health care and refugee advocate. Emma has research interests in health care systems, program evaluation and social determinants of health. She is currently completing her Master’s degree at the University of Waterloo, focused on how health clinics have organized to support integration and settlement of refugees to Canada.