A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet a newly-arrived refugee family at the airport. They were a family of seven from the Congo. They had undergone a long and tiring journey, travelling from Zimbabwe to Germany to Toronto and then to here. Despite the difficulties of their travel and despite being overwhelmed at arriving in a place unlike anywhere they had experienced before, I could tell they were relieved to be here. Exhausted no doubt, but relieved.
It was touching to see, just as it was touching to see the excitement and happiness on the faces of the staff from the Sault Community Career Centre and the volunteers from the community who were there to receive them. I was even able to carry out a young, sleeping boy to the car that was taking the family to their hotel. It was a special moment.
It is my understanding that there are more than 65 million refugees in the world, displaced because of war, famine, and political instability. It’s a shocking statistic.
We can all agree that Canada is a big place. We’re a country of some 36 million but we could accommodate many millions more than that. Canada has the opportunity to be a world leader in resettling displaced persons. To put it very simply, we have the room.
And not just in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. There is an opportunity for Sault Ste. Marie. We’re a City with a population in the 70,000s, but we have the infrastructure to support 85,000 or 90,000, perhaps even more. With the right support from the provincial and federal governments, slow-growing places like Sault Ste. Marie would be able to take in a substantial number of refugees and new migrants to Canada.
I think that could be a very good thing for our City. While I recognize that people need opportunities for work and so forth, people can also create those opportunities. People create economy. Ultimately, bringing people here means more customers for businesses, more students for schools, and more people paying taxes. It’s an investment in our own human capital.
However, to make this happen we have to adopt the right mindset. We have to embrace diversity and inclusiveness and we have to work hard to make newcomers feel at home. Like the arch in front of the Civic Centre declares, we have to be “the friendly City.”
Ultimately, we are going to need a lot people just to maintain our current labour force and population and those people, whether they are immigrants, new Canadians, millenials, or former Saultites thinking of moving back, are all going to want the same thing: a City where they feel safe, welcomed, and at home.
We can only achieve that if we commit ourselves, as a community, to the values of tolerance, respect and open-mindedness. It’s not just the right thing to do, it’s not just a moral imperative, for us, it’s also an economic and social imperative.
I think we are on our way. As Mayor, I’ve spoken with international students who are enthusiastic about the City and want to stay after they graduate. I’ve seen the recent outpouring of local support in the wake of a hateful incident that happened here and also in response to the tragedy in Quebec City. And I’ve seen the caring and commitment of citizens who have stepped forward to donate time, money, and possessions to help those fleeing unimaginable circumstances settle in our community.
We don’t have to look further than Passport to Unity, held yesterday to see some of the great work happening in our community. It was a tremendously successful event and I noted, as I made my rounds, that the family from the Congo that I had welcomed at the airport a few weeks ago was there – eating submarine sandwiches in and amongst dozens of other newcomers. I was happy to see them.
Sault Ste. Marie can be a place for everyone. With all the challenges in the world and with our own demographics being what they are, we have to be.