Jim Estill, who made his fortune as a tech entrepreneur, has launched a new startup in his hometown of Guelph, Ontario. Estill is leading a huge community effort to settle about 50 Syrian refugee families. He’s expecting the first to arrive by the end of January and is prepared to foot a bill of about $1.1 million for food, housing and clothing.
“This is absolutely not a religious thing and not a political thing,” Estill said. “It’s a Canadian thing.”
About 125 kilometers (80 miles) to the south, across the world’s longest border, Americans are struggling to reconcile a celebrated immigrant history with fears refugees from the Middle East will steal jobs, drain public services or, worse yet, turn out to be terrorists. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, has issued a call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. altogether and governors of more than 30 states are opposed to accepting the victims of a brutal civil war in Syria that has displaced more than four million people.
In Canada, there are no such qualms. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has personally helped fit Syrian children into puffy winter jackets and major corporations are donating goods, services and cash, including a C$5 million contribution to resettlement programs last week by Canadian National Railway Co., the second-largest railroad in North America.
“We get to show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations,” Trudeau said as he and Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne greeted the first chartered flight of refugees at Toronto’s Pearson airport. His government has promised to bring in 25,000 Syrians before the end of February, more than twice the target of the Obama administration.
Perrin Beatty, chief executive officer of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and a former member of parliament, is set to meet with 60 company executives to figure out how they can help the new arrivals. In 1979, Beatty was a rookie cabinet minister in a Conservative government that evacuated 50,000 Vietnamese refugees — the so-called boat people — to Canada. He is struck by the contribution they have made to the country and sees the new influx of Syrians as no different than earlier settlers who fled persecution and other disasters, including his own Irish forebears in the early 1800s.
A former defense minister, Beatty said any security anxieties about the Syrian refugees are misplaced. “Your average planeload of refugees is far better vetted than the average planeload of tourists,” he said. “What you’re getting is enormously grateful people who fled from the most terrible conditions of oppression and war. These are people who want to make a new life and contribute.”
Canadians take pride in the waves of refugees they’ve taken in since the Second World War (the record was more checkered beforehand), including the 37,000 Hungarians in 1957; more than 7,000 Ismaili Muslims evicted from Idi Amin’s Uganda in 1972 and the boat people in 1979. Canada’s positive record of diversity is often invoked when its leaders visit other nations and has become a major component of the country’s self-identity.
As for Donald Trump’s views, Estill said he has little patience for people playing politics with so much hardship to address. “It’s just troubling that someone with as much influence as Trump would be mongering hate,” he said. “I don’t believe in hate, and I don’t believe hate ever solves anything,” he said. “These are people. That’s what they are.”