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 Global Perspective

April 4, 2003
Vol. 1, No.1

global perspective

Mary Jo Leddy is a writer who teaches theology at Regis College (Toronto) and Boston College. For the last 12 years she has lived and worked with refugees in the Romero House Community in Toronto. Former editor of Catholic New Times, an independent national Catholic newspaper in Canada, she is a best-selling author. Her latest book is Radical Gratitude, published by Orbis Books



"Living on the edge of empire gives you a certain perspective. Living with refugees from America brings its own sad form of enlightenment."

From the Edge of Empire: Living with Refugees from America

By Mary Jo Leddy

TORONTO, Canada -- We call them the refugees from America.

For a while, sometimes years, they had lived there -- and loved it, loved almost everything American.

Mohammed, Reza, Salim. Now they arrive daily at the border between Canada and the United States, seeking protection from America.

Now they are my neighbors as we live side by side in the houses of the Romero Community for refugees in Toronto. They are still in a state of shock.

How sad to listen in the evenings to these people who look so Pakistani and who sound so, well, American. The younger men know all the latest rap songs and many of them consider themselves to be quite knowledgeable about the really important things in America, like baseball. They are cool but also gentle and kind. They had American friends, they had opened businesses, gone to university, raised families.

Like millions of others they lived and worked openly and lacked only one thing -- the papers that would make their process of living legal. They each have different reasons to explain why it was so difficult to become legal in America. For some it was the expense of a lawyer, for others it was the obscurity of the process and others were just to busy getting ahead.

But becoming legal wouldn't have made much of a difference, they say ruefully, every Muslim in America is under suspicion. One day they felt American and the next day they knew that it could never be so. America was beautiful but not for all and for them only for a time.

Since 9/11 they watched and were watched, or so they say. Soon the INS began to call people in, and stories spread like wildfire about how people never returned from the INS offices; they disappeared somewhere in the American prison system.

As I listen to them, I wonder whether they will be accepted by Canada. This country is under an increasing pressure to "harmonize" its immigration and refugee system and its foreign policy with that of the United States.

The independence of Canada's refugee system from American foreign policy was the reason that thousands of refugees from Chile, Argentina and Central America made their way to Canada during the '70s and '80s. It is why so many American draft dodgers came here and stayed during the Vietnam War and many made a home here.

The American ambassador to Canada has called for a security perimeter around North America that would create a new continental reality. Only slowly are Canadians beginning to realize that this is another name for the process of annexation and they eroding independence of our country.

Canada's refusal to enter the war with Iraq was as brave as that of Mexico's when you consider the threats of economic recrimination for both countries.

The business elite of Canada wants trade at all costs and is willing to support the security perimeter even if it means sacrificing our national independence. Others, and I count myself among them, care deeply about the modest social experiment called Canada. The next election could and should become a forum for debating whether we want to become another state of America.

This matter concerns people on both sides of the border.

My more socially minded American friends say this is important to them also, that they desperately need to know political and economic alternatives to the prerogatives of empire still exist. We know, for example, that Medicare for all is possible.

Canada has always been a colony of empire -- first of France, then of England and now of the United States. Canadians, it has been said, always know that the head office is someplace else. Living on the edge of empire gives you a certain perspective. Living with refugees from America brings its own sad form of enlightenment. Where you live determines what you see, and what you listen to affects what you hear.

If one were to listen only to CNN, one could begin to believe that the war in Iraq is about justice and liberation. As the gap widens between the rhetoric of the republic and the reality of empire, the heavy reality of empire grows daily more apparent and the questions for Christians are sharpening.

From where I sit, the outlines of an important public debate are taking shape. It will be a debate about whether America will become a great empire or a good country. It will be a debate joined by many Christians using the language of the scriptures. It may be heated but it may also cast some light.

Surely the time has come to examine our easy acceptance of the illusion that it is easy to balance the imperatives of greatness and goodness.

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