Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Refugees find freedom in Tom Denton's smiling face

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They have a saying in the refugee rescue community when newcomers from Africa first inhale the freedom of Canada and the frost of a Winnipeg winter in the same breath.

"There are no bullets in the weather."

That doesn't necessarily make the fear go away.

"I can see it in your faces," I tell the teenage brother and sister from Congo.

It’s even evident in the wary way they take their seats on a couch in one of two church-funded and operated North End houses where they now live with 14 other African refugees.

Their fear is really apparent when they say they don't want their photos taken or their names used.

They grew up with a slightly older brother in Congo in relative privilege, doted on by loving parents, both of whom became victims of ethnically motivated murder.

Ultimately, the three children fled to Ghana, where they lived on the street, traumatized and untrusting. But even with their traumatic circumstances, there are those they trust.

"Does Mr. Tom know you are here?" the sister asks.

"Yes," I tell her.

-- -- --

Tom Denton is executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, a church-funded organization that's part of a network largely responsible for making Winnipeg and Manitoba the sponsored-refugee capital of Canada.

"In recent years, we've been sponsoring nearly half of all the refugees being sponsored in Canada," Denton says.

After more than 30 years as a volunteer then executive director of the program, Denton is known in the refugee world as a saviour. His is the name hundreds of refugees write to each year in desperate hope of escaping misery and coming to Canada.

And his is the first face they look for when they land at the Winnipeg airport.

It's a face that reflects the soul of a lamb and the heart of lion, a face that, even with a mane of white hair and at the age of 77, still exudes a boyish enthusiasm and vigour.

Locally, Denton's name recognition goes back to the early 1980s, when he became the first publisher of the Winnipeg Sun. But his resumé goes on for pages upon pages, including time leading Winnipeg's International Centre.

"I can't believe how many careers I've had," he says. His resumé goes back to his home province of Nova Scotia, where ancestors from both sides of his family landed as United Empire Loyalists after fleeing the United States.

In university, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy's officer-training program. He spent 14 years in the reserves, leaving as a lieutenant-commander with a law degree. Denton and his wife, June, lived in Calgary for a time, but by 1967, they were in Winnipeg, Denton a corporate lawyer for the Simkin family's BACM, later Genstar.

Denton's passion for helping refugees began in Selkirk in 1979, when he suggested the Rotary Club sponsor a family of Vietnamese boat people.

That humanitarian crisis was also the beginning of Canada's refugee sponsorship program, which involves either families sponsoring blood relatives or organizations, such as churches and service groups, sponsoring refugees.

Denton says refugee sponsorship is so strong in Winnipeg due, in part, to a pledge the city made in 2002 to put up $250,000 as an insurance fund for family cases.

"It's been the reason Winnipeg has become the largest sponsoring centre in Canada."

But with a backlog of applications for asylum creating an immigration gridlock, the Conservative government has effectively shut the program down, at least temporarily. Which, over the last couple of years, has left a frustrated Denton dealing with but a trickle of two or three full sponsorship cases a year, and waiting for most of the record 1,940 family-linked sponsorships they processed last year to arrive.

But the letters from desperate refugees have not stopped. They still arrive at a rate of 1,000 a year. Denton answers with his now standard response: "I am very sorry we are unable to help you..."

I ask him if he ever suffers compassion fatigue.

"Oh, yes," he says. "You read these horrific stories, and you're powerless to do anything about it... The world at this point has 14 or 15 million refugees, not to mention another 25 million internally displaced people... So no individual, no country, can solve that problem by resettling refugees.

"And indeed, the priority for the United Nations and the countries of the world is for people to be able to go home again. That's the best solution for any refugee, to be able to go home again, in safety."


-- -- --

For the three orphaned Congolese siblings, whose application took four years to complete, Winnipeg is their new safe home, even if they are still fearful.

And for Tom Denton, the face of freedom for so many, the job is still a joy despite the frustration and heartache of not being able to do as much as he wants.

"I've done a lot of things I think have been useful in the past, but nothing compared to this, nothing," he says. "You're rescuing people. You're giving them a chance. You're changing the course of human history."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2012 B1

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