by Hero Aiken
In their book, Refugee States: Critical Refugee Studies in Canada, Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu describe the concept of Canadian “humanitarian exceptionalism” in some detail. They describe it as “a belief that what sets Canada apart from the US and other nation-states is its distinct benevolence and commitment to human rights” (Nguyen and Phu, 3). As a result of this belief, Canadians may think themselves morally superior to inhabitants of other nations, especially the United States. In fact, a 2016 survey from the Angus Reid institute found that only 15% of Canadians considered the United States to be a “caring society” (Canada Guide). In other words, it seems clear that Canadian society both prides itself on its perceived humanitarian excellence, while also defining itself through its ethical superiority in comparison to other nations. This means that Canadian society, as well as individual Canadians, may feel less pressure or duty to investigate the human rights conditions in our own country and brought about by our government’s policies. “As long as we aren’t as ‘bad’ as the United States”, we reason, “can we really be all that ‘bad’”?
I would argue that this is not only lazy but an irresponsible and dangerous view to take on the protection of human rights in Canada. Why, if we view the United States to be so thoroughly disrespectful of human rights, can we not imagine an instance in which we might surpass their moral standards, but still fail to demonstrate humanitarian efforts of which we can be proud? Surely, if Canadians can so unanimously condemn the human rights violations which we have recently witnessed in the United States, we can muster a more rigorous and objective scale with which to measure our own actions. Unfortunately, the abdication of moral appraisal in favour of an assumed humanitarian supremacy over a handful of conveniently placed international rivals cannot be seen as anything other than a failure in the advancement of universal human rights.
Last year, while writing for Amnesty International U of T’s Candlelight blog, I submitted a piece highlighting the discrepancies between Canada’s benevolent image on the international scene and the difficult realities faced by its unhoused population. This year, I’d like to elaborate on this same theme while turning my attention towards the plight of refugees seeking asylum in Canada. This in the context of the trap set by the idea of “humanitarian exceptionalism”.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s infamous policies regarding the treatment of refugees or migrants seeking entrance into the United States, it perhaps became easier in recent years for Canadians to ignore the mistreatment of refugees by our own government. In a joint report released on World Refugee Day in 2021, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch declared that “Canada incarcerates thousands of people, including those with disabilities, on immigration-related ground every year in often abusive conditions” (Human Rights Watch). However, when
compared to the more conspicuous abuses carried out by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agents during President Trump’s tenure, Canada’s mistreatment of immigrants and refugees has tended to fade into the background of our national consciousness. In 2017, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was considering the separation of Mexican children from their mothers upon “illegally” crossing the border into the United States (Reuters). The following year, the United States Department of Homeland Security (D.H.S.) publicly admitted for the first time to having separated 2 000 children from their parents as they
crossed the border into the United States from Mexico (CNN). Faced with this abhorrent example of human rights abuse, it became easy for Canadians to cease the examination of our own systemic mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. I would argue that much of the energy which would have previously been spent on the promotion of the amelioration of Canada’s humanitarian measures in these areas instead became focused on the derision of the United States’ methods. This is clearly detrimental to the progress of human rights in Canada, and is also only one example among many. As long as Canada continues to measure the morality of our humanitarian efforts in relation to the often gross human rights abuses levied by American institutions, we will be wasting energy and resources which could be better spent on the questioning and bettering of our own systems.
Finally, I would indicate that this is not an outright condemnation of Canada’s efforts in the realm of human rights. According to the Fraser Institute’s 2022 Human Rights Index, Canada ranks 13th highest among the nations of the world (Fraser Institute). This is above the United States, and other wealthy nations such as the United Kingdom and France. Instead, this article is meant to denounce the idea that human rights efforts can be reduced to the ways in which they compare to each other. Human rights efforts, whether they concern the treatment of vulnerable populations such as the unhoused and those seeking asylum as refugees, or whether they concern the status of marginalized populations such as racial or sexual
minorities, are inherently indicative of the ways in which we value the lives of our fellow humans. Is this pursuit not worthy of being measured in ways which transcend the petty temptation to comparison? If Canada wants to build a nation truly worthy of being deemed “exceptional” for its humanitarian pursuits, we ought to create an independent standard by which to measure our human rights efforts. If we seek “humanitarian exceptionalism” in the truest sense of the word, why do we lower ourselves to the standards of those nations we so readily condemn? The myth of “humanitarian exceptionalism” in Canada not only spells disaster for the progress of human rights in Canada, it also demonstrates a lack of imagination and belief in the true humanitarian potential of our nation.
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