The Oakville Community Foundation, in partnership with the Oakville Chamber of Commerce, welcomed His Excellency, the Right Honourable David Johnston to Oakville on the evening of December 15. With 650 guests in attendance at the Oakville Conference Centre, His Excellency addressed the Syrian refugee crisis and Canada’s resettlement plan.
In his speech, Mr. Johnston iterated that the refugees aren’t numbers – they’re people who have specific needs. He further called upon communities to focus on those needs, and match them with the extraordinary outpouring of generosity from people in Oakville, as well as across Canada.
Following the Governor General’s address, Wendy Rinella, CEO of Oakville Community Foundation, announced the Oakville Resettlement Fund which will make grants to registered charities who are playing a role in refugee re-settlement issues, needs and solutions in the Oakville community.
Below is the Governor General of Canada’s Address:
What a pleasure it is to be here in Oakville with all of you to talk about giving a warm welcome to Syrian refugees.
Let me say how wonderful it is that many of you have travelled here today from other communities in the region. It’s so important that we share our best thinking and work together.
This of course isn’t the first time you’ve gathered to discuss refugee resettlement. And what you’ve achieved herewith the Oakville Resettlement Fund—which is one of many across the country—is so impressive. Bravo to everyone involved!
As you know, two weeks ago we held a forum at Rideau Hall on welcoming Syrian refugees to Canada. And at that event, I called this humanitarian effort a defining moment for our country.
What do I mean by that?
I mean that it’s a moment to reflect upon our fundamental values as Canadians;
to test the depth of our commitment to diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance;
and to demonstrate our willingness, and our ability, to help people in desperate need.
Let me pause there for a moment and share with you an important point made by one of our panellists at the Rideau Hall forum: Conrad Sauvé of the Canadian Red Cross.
“We’re dealing with people who are fleeing war,” he said. “Nobody wants to leave their home. They’re leaving because they don’t have a choice, because they’ve lost hope.”
But he added:
“Their hope now is Canada.”
Mr. Sauvé has been to the refugee camps, and his was an important reminder that refugees aren’t numbers, they’re people—people who have very specific needs.
Our job is to focus on those needs, and to match those needs with the extraordinary outpouring of generosity coming from people here in Oakville and right across Canada.
Without a doubt, we are caring—now we have to be smart about it.
Now, let me build on the idea that this is a defining moment for Canada and for communities such as this one.
Because it’s something else too.
It’s an opportunity.
This is an opportunity to strengthen communities throughout southern and southwestern Ontario and right across the country;
to re-imagine how we care for the marginalized and vulnerable among us;
and to reaffirm our cities and towns as smart and caring communities that balance both equality of opportunity and excellence.
On this, let me again invoke the resettlement funds that many of your communities are creating. While these funds are being created as a response to the needs of Syrian refugees, they can also be used for future resettlement challenges and to strengthen inclusiveness overall.
So this is a great example of what I mean when I say we have an opportunity to build our communities for the future.
All of you who are here today understand that this is both a challenge and an opportunity for our respective communities.
So how do we proceed?
Let me share a few insights and ideas that were shared by those who attended the refugee forum at Rideau Hall. They are leaders in the field, some of Canada’s best and brightest when it comes to welcoming and integrating refugees.
These insights and ideas can be grouped into three broad themes or categories: coordination, inclusiveness and communication. Naturally, they overlap to some degree.
First, the importance of coordinating our efforts. This of course means working together, but it also means not reinventing the wheel. This may be the first time your community has welcomed large numbers of refugees, but ask yourselves what kind of resources and organizations already exist here that you can adapt, leverage and build upon. This includes organizations that don’t have refugee or humanitarian causes in their mandates. What skills and facilities already exist that could be put to good use?
One aspect of coordination comes in paying close attention to your local strengths and limitations. As with most of the challenges we face in Canada, one size does not fit all. Why would refugee settlement be any different?
The community of Oakville, for example, has specific strengths that can be leveraged to great effect. Focus on using those unique strengths to support the areas where you or nearby communities may be lacking.
The second theme I want to emphasize is the importance of inclusiveness. This is so important. After all, inclusiveness is really just another way of saying “community,” and this is where the expertise of so many people in this room can be invaluable. Being successfully inclusive is a community effort, from the services a city or town can provide—language lessons, resource centres, recreation—to the critical role of the private sector.
The centrality of finding employment was one of the points raised at the Rideau Hall forum. Employers can play a key role by hiring refugees, holding an open house, acting as mentors, and creating welcoming workplaces.
On this, we’re very fortunate in Canada to have a strong appreciation of diversity in the workplace. As Margaret Eaton, the executive director of the Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council pointed out at the forum, employers understand that talent is what matters, which means that highly-skilled and educated Syrian refugees can be a strong asset to any organization.
Let me move to my third theme: the critical importance of communication.
Before the discussions got underway at the Rideau Hall forum, we watched a video message recorded specially for the occasion by a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who simply said:
“What we need most in times of turmoil are visible signs of solidarity.”
It was a reminder not only that the world is watching Canada, but also of the key role communications play in the effort to welcome and settle refugees.
This means a number of things.
One, it means clearly communicating our plans and initiatives to each other, a point which goes back to the need for coordination.
Two, it also means effectively communicating with refugees themselves, a requirement that underscores the need for interpreters and translation services.
And three, it means paying attention to how we communicate with the general public.
In this, as in all of our efforts to create a more just society, the message must be that helping those in need helps us all. It’s not a zero-sum equation, or an either/or situation. Rather, the more we’re able to integrate and support those in need, the more we create prosperity across our society. This is especially true given our changing demographics in Canada, as well as our vast geography.
So with this in mind, I’d like to challenge all of you to find ways to talk to the people who aren’t in this room—your neighbours, members of your community, your kids’ hockey coach or the people you see at the dog park. Make the case to as many people as you can as to why this is both the right and the bright thing to do.
Because in the end, a refugee family is no different than a family of recent immigrants or a family that has been here for generations: all seek a better life for themselves and their children, and all contribute through their striving for a stronger, more prosperous Canada.
Quite simply, this is the story of our country, past, present and future. And just as we look back with pride on the welcome that was given to Vietnamese boat people or that the First Nations gave to early settlers who were starving and dying of scurvy in the 17th century, your grandchildren and your grandchildren’s grandchildren will look back on this as a moment when we did the right thing.
Let it be known: to help people in need is to be on the right side of history.
On that note, I think of the nationwide My Giving Moment campaign, which aims to celebrate and inspire giving by encouraging people to share their stories of helping others.
We can think of this effort to welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as one giant My Giving Moment for Canada. What a wonderful display of empathy and generosity to inspire not just all Canadians, but the world!
You are leaders in your communities in various fields in the public, private and non-profit sectors. You are committed to successful refugee settlement and to ensuring an inclusive society for all. You know how important this work is, and you know that individual Canadians will determine the extent of our success in this project.
We must seize this window of opportunity. As you all know, right now there is a sense of momentum among Canadians, but we can’t be sure it will be there in two weeks or a month. We must make the most of it.
I know we can and will, because the cause and the company are very good.
Now let me close with a story that inspires me that comes from this part of the province. This being southern Ontario, no doubt you’re all familiar with the Mennonite tradition of barn-raising.
The story is set just outside Waterloo, where my wife, Sharon, and I lived on a farm before our move to Ottawa.
One day, our neighbour, Edgar—a kind and generous member of the local Mennonite community—was over at our house while Sharon was going over the budget for our farm. At one point, she asked Edgar, “How much would it cost to replace the barn?” Edgar replied, “Why do you need to know?” To this, Sharon explained that she was trying to reduce our farm’s operating costs, and so was going over the insurance portfolio.
For this, she needed to put a price on the barn in the event that it burned down. Edgar replied that there was no need to put a price on the barn, because if it burned down, the neighbours and community members would volunteer their time and recycled lumber to come together to replace it, free of charge.
He then hesitated for a moment, before adding, “Put $2,000 down because we’ll need to buy new asphalt shingles.”
Now, this story may seem extraordinary, but everywhere I go in this country, I see evidence of this impulse to help others, and how it is both generous and practical. It has led me to see barn-raising as a metaphor for how we can build a smarter, more caring Canada.
The welcome that people in this community and right across the country are giving to Syrian refugees is a great example of barn-raising. Quite literally, you’re putting roofs over the heads of those who have lost everything.
A warm Canadian welcome in a cold Canadian winter—what could be more fitting?
Canada’s diverse, tolerant, multicultural society is one of our great strengths and perhaps our greatest contribution to the world.
That’s why it’s so important that we succeed in welcoming refugees.
That, and simply because it’s the right thing to do.
I’m so glad you’re all here today for those people in need, and for Canada.
Let’s work together and meet this defining giving moment for our country head-on.