A quote wrongly attributed to Canada’s seventh prime minister has been making its way through cyberspace for at least seven years now.

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This article was published 3/3/2017 (1729 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


A quote wrongly attributed to Canada’s seventh prime minister has been making its way through cyberspace for at least seven years now.

Wilfrid Laurier was not the voice behind the passage, which took on a life of its own in Facebook posts and email forwards.

It’s a fact that it is not a Laurier quote. It’s also a fact that it’s lifted, nearly word for word, from a letter Teddy Roosevelt wrote, days before his death in 1919. Someone jammed Canadian terminology in place of American particulars.

"We must insist that the immigrant that comes here is willing to become a Canadian and is willing to assimilate our ways," the quote begins, and continues through a brief list of expectations for newcomers.

"We have room for only one flag, the Canadian flag. There is room for only two languages here, English and French. And we have room for loyalty, but only one, loyalty to the Canadian people."

Just to be clear: Laurier has no connection to those words. In the world of online information dissemination, however, that doesn’t matter.

As a falsification, it’s not particularly convincing; one glaring tell is that there was no official "Canadian flag" in 1907. But to those who share the quote, often affixed to Laurier’s portrait, the truth of its provenance is of lesser importance.

Consider this exchange, underneath a 2010 blog post of the quote. "I love it when people actually say what I want to say before I even say it!" one commenter wrote, adding "it helps that it’s someone of importance in Canadian history."

When informed about the error, the commenter was nonplussed: "Personally, I don’t really care who wrote the quote. I still believe it is fully applicable... why argue about who said it when that really isn’t the point at all?"

So what matters most, to the people who share the quote, is that it feels as if it should be authoritative. It feels as if it should be a voice of wisdom from their idea of a Canada past; one which, in their imagining, has since been lost.

They won’t find it in Laurier. But there is something that happened in Canada in 1907 that we would be well-advised to remember as we navigate the growing tension over refugee claims, asylum seekers and immigration in general.

Near the end of that year, British Columbia was struggling in the wake of a four-year recession. Yet the population on the lower mainland was exploding — it would more than triple in just 10 years — and ethnic tensions were surging.

In Vancouver, public suspicion had turned on Chinese, Japanese and South Asian workers who had come to Canada to take low-paid, dangerous jobs. Many lived in desperate conditions, crowded into shoddy tenements.

A group of union workers formed the Asiatic Exclusion League, dedicated to stopping immigration from Asia. They propagated the idea that immigrants were responsible for crime, ethnic "takeover" and low wages.

In early September, a race riot broke out in Bellingham, Wash., just 90 kilometres south of Vancouver. A mob of about 500 white men roamed the streets, beating and robbing South Asians. Some of the victims fled north.

Four days later, Vancouver exploded. On Labour Day, 10,000 people marched on Vancouver’s city hall — with the support of elected officials — raising signs that said "Keep Canada White" and "Stop the Yellow Peril."

An American labour agitator stood up and delivered a bellicose speech: he called on the crowd to not only reject further immigration, but to expel all Asians from North America. The mob, now frothing, went back on the march.

That night, about 9,000 white Canadians stormed through Vancouver’s Chinese and Japanese neighbourhoods. They smashed windows and burned businesses while terrified residents huddled with their families in back rooms.

Nobody was killed, though many were injured. In the aftermath, Laurier dispatched William Lyon MacKenzie King to head a royal commission on the riot; that led to the imposition of harsh restrictions on Asian immigration.

Now, 110 years later, the events of that night are mostly buried in the pages of Canadian history textbooks. Yet it lives as a reminder that, when a population is feeling a collective stress, it becomes all too easy to affix blame upon "the others."

Sound familiar?

I was invited to attend a refugee hearing a while back. That’s when applicants, who are often desperate, get their opportunity to convince an Immigration and Refugee Board member to let them live here.

Getting to that point isn’t quick, and it isn’t easy. The hearing, which in Winnipeg is done via video conference, is the ultimate step in a gruelling process; in Canada, every refugee claimant stands atop a mountain of paperwork.

Out of respect for privacy, I cannot give details of this woman’s life, except to say she fled bigotry in her country of origin and felt certain her days were numbered if she were forced to return.

Describing the nightmare she managed to escape took an hour. The board member heard about this woman’s dream of living in Canada, and of the steps she’d taken to start building a life after she arrived. She’d worked so hard, and she didn’t know whether it was all going to fall apart.

In a room packed with supporters, the board member announced she was ready to issue her decision. Over the video feed, she must have seen this woman trembling in anticipation.

She smiled.

"I don’t want you to worry," she said. "This is a positive result."

A wave of joy and relief washed over the room. It was a moment nearly impossible to describe; it had to be experienced. Perhaps if more of us could witness one of these moments, we’d all see things more clearly.

This was a life, a human being’s future, teetering on a razor’s edge. On one side was the freedom to become; on the other, a deep, dark chasm churning with fear, likely death. This time, the decision landed on the side bathed in light.

There is always room in my Canada for this. If anyone says there is not, then I would reply they do not know what Canada is. A lantern in darkness, a hope to learn from our past; Canada can only be stronger for that.

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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