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By now, most Canadians’ voting intentions are settled. It’s late in the day to be reminding people of why they should—or shouldn’t—consider a party or its leader worthy of their vote. Nevertheless, since no other commentator has brought the issue up, I want to remind readers of the Trudeau government’s shameful neglect of the Yazidi people in their hour of greatest need.
The genocide of the Yazidis, an ancient, peaceful, monotheistic people who have lived in Iraq and Syria since time immemorial, fell victim to ISIL in a terror campaign that lasted from 2014-17. In Aug and Dec 2014, the systematic rapes of 7,000 Yazidi women were reported by Human rights Watch and Amnesty International, and in October, 2014, the UN reported that 5,000 Yazidi men had been executed—a campaign carried out in a style perfected in Eastern Europe’s “Bloodlands” by the Nazis, now called “The Holocaust by Bullets.” So there was no question about the veracity of the facts. Yet on June 14, 2016, Justin Trudeau said, “We do not feel that politicians should be weighing in on this first and foremost.”
At the height of the horrors in 2016, what was happening was condemned as a genocide by many official entities—by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Parliament, the U.S. House of representatives, the UK House of Commons and by a Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic.
Yet in June 2016, the Liberals voted against a Conservative-sponsored motion in the House of Commons that sought to condemn the actions of ISIS. Why was Trudeau reluctant to add his government’s witness to truth, given the general willingness in the international community to call this genocide what it was?
One reason might be that such a recognition would have triggered Regulation 138 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA), which defines vulnerable groups of people in urgent need of protection. A formal parliamentary recognition of genocide against the Yazidis would have obligated the Canadian government—morally, if not legally—to accept tens of thousands of Yazidi survivors to our shores.
Justin Trudeau was, however, from Day One fixated on rescuing Syrian Muslim refugees above all. As a result, actual genocide victims were forced to languish in exile from their homes in Mount Sinjar, reduced to rubble by ISIL, and who were still at risk from ISIL members in captivity, while 45,000 lightly-vetted Syrians from UNHCR camps, who had not been targeted for genocide, nor were in “urgent need of protection,” were whisked to Canada before Dec 31, 2015, by a marvellous coincidence permitting them to become citizens before this election.
Eventually, in October 2016, thanks largely to the persistent efforts of Michelle Rempel, Official Opposition critic for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, the Trudeau government did eventually vote to recognize the Yazidi situation as a genocide. But they never followed up on their pledge to bring in thousands of traumatized survivors. To date, of the estimated 500,000 Yazidis living in Iraq before the genocide, fewer than 1500 Yazidi survivors have been admitted to Canada.
All refugees suffer from culture shock, language barriers and other vulnerabilities. The Yazidis are exponentially more fragile. A number of the women are here with children, but no husbands or male kinsmen, because they were killed or their whereabouts undocumentable. They have endured sex slavery, some for years, and are near-paralyzed from PTSD. Illiteracy and poor schooling are common themes, because their culture is oral. None come speaking English.
Yet the government offered nugatory support. The dazed arrivals were expected to find housing on their own and learn enough English within the first year to find employment—a completely unrealistic expectation for these shell-shocked people. Were it not for the dedicated help of volunteers from groups such as Project Abraham, who help newcomers navigate the bewildering paperwork and simple tasks we take for granted, these people could not possibly integrate or even function. The bureaucracy has made it extremely difficult for kinsmen left behind, who could be a great moral support—sisters, nephews, in-law—to make application for reunion here.
Some of the stories these victims bring with them are heartbreaking. I interviewed one Yazidi woman, who had been a sex slave for 14 months, passed around amongst 13 different men. “Nada,” as I called her, had been living in London, Ontario for eight months when she recognized her former slave owner on a bus. Debarking, they stared at each other. She said he instantly covered his face and ran off. Nada went to the refugee centre, and told them what had happened. She gave an official there the man’s real name and also his ISIL name. Then, Nada told me, the official said to her, “Don’t tell anyone.”
After my account was published, there was a flurry of interest and dismay expressed at the idea of a jihadist having slipped through the vetting net. Nobody doubted he was the only one, either. I was contacted by the London Police Service. I referred them to Nada. To my knowledge, the man has not been found, even though it seems to me it shouldn’t have been that difficult to track him down.
It occurred to me that this would, for a prime minister obsessively focused on optics and photo opportunities that cast him in a benevolent light, have been a perfect opening for a gesture that would have endeared him to many Canadians. He could have contacted Nada, sat down with her, listened to her story (just as he listened to the story of Joshua Boyle and his wife on their return from captivity in Pakistan, for instance, bouncing their baby on his knee), promised to bring her tormenter to justice—and then, seen to it that justice was at least done to at least one ISIL member on Canadian soil. So easy. But no.
Mass graves of murdered Yazidis turn up every few weeks in Iraq, and 3,000 enslaved Yazidi women remain in captivity. Many Yazidis are now stuck in the new war zone that Turkey has just opened up in northern Syria. The Yazidi catastrophe was recognized as a genocide because of pressure brought to bear by the CPC. Will a Scheer government continue along the moral high road it embarked on, if it forms the next government? The fate of a devastated people depends on it.
I am grateful to Ottawa Immigration lawyer Julie Taub, a former member of the Immigration and Refugee Board, for her substantial contribution in factfinding for this column.