Flight to Freedom: Bob Rae gives keynote on anniversary of 1956 refugee crisis

The Honourable Bob Rae, former Premier of Ontario and currently special envoy to Myanmar, spoke at Saint Paul University on October 23rd, 2017, the anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Chantal Beauvais, the rector of Saint Paul University, opened this day of the conference entitled Flight to Freedom: The Canadian Refugee Experience Since 1957 by noting the University’s strong commitment to social justice and, as a Catholic institution, to leadership and spirituality.

Chantal Beauvais. Photo: C. Adam

Judy Young-Drache, conference organizer and President of the Canada – Hungary Educational Foundation, introduced Mr. Rae, by noting his background as a political leader, a lawyer and an academic.

Judy Young-Drache (left) and Bob Rae (right)

We are living in the time of the most serious refugee crisis since the end of World War II, began Mr. Rae. It has become especially serious since the civil war in Syria. Like all refugee crises, it has many different causes. One of these causes has to do with changing and shifting ecology, changing economy and severe conflict. Each one of these must be understood. It is very rare that a refugee crisis is not associated with deep poverty. In fact, poverty is often a key condition.

For us to be reflecting on the Hungarian crisis of the fifties is especially important at this moment, remarked Mr. Rae. The nature of the crisis in Hungary in some respects was quite different from the ones today. But it has in common a very human crisis, with its origins in the Second World War, Soviet occupation and a brutal dictatorship. There was a brief moment when it became possible for people to get out quickly. The western world responded rapidly to a crisis. “Jack Pickersgill, Canada’s former Minister of Immigration, would say to his dying moment that the quick acceptance of Hungarian refugees was his proudest moment,” Mr. Rae recalled.

Bob Rae at Saint Paul University. Photo: C. Adam

Mr. Rae could remember as an eight year old welcoming Hungarian kids into his public school. “I can remember Tibor Nagy, who within two years became the smartest student in the class,” remembered Mr. Rae.

Hungary today is no stranger to what I am describing. When we look at the responses to the current crisis, one can only be profoundly concerned whether we have the civic capacity to address the challenge in the world. Communities have experienced challenges, especially in Europe, to respond effectively. As well, the response to the situation in Myanmar, to put it mildly, is imperfect and the responses fall pitifully short–noted Mr. Rae.

“We pat ourselves on the back for taking in 25,000 Syrian refugees, but we have to understand that this is merely a small aspect of the global problem. These issues will not be resolved by one or two countries dedicating resources to accepting refugees. We must also help create the conditions that allow people to stay home,” noted Mr. Rae.

“Countries often pretend that they are more homogeneous than they really are. But do these people really know the history of their country? Every country is pluralistic. Some countries are willing to admit this and I am extremely proud that Canada’s narrative recognises this pluralism. Our identity is unfolding all the time,” added Mr. Rae.

Mr. Rae emphasized that Canada has an obligation to lead. Canada at its best was always willing to lead, in terms of offering a substantive response. “It’s not enough to do the symbolic things. Our response, including to the refugee crisis, must take substantive force,” Mr. Rae noted, highlighting that this must done in partnership with other countries.

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