Opinion Editorial

EDITORIAL

A test of brave talk

POSTMEDIA NETWORK

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Angela Merkel threw open Germany's borders to migrants pouring into Europe to escape Mideast chaos, she made both a generous gesture and a serious mistake, from which Canada should learn.

The gesture and the mistake were simultaneous. Merkel declared Germany would accept as many people as could survive the Mediterranean crossing, the border fences, the guards and the increasingly hostile populations that separated them from German borders. But she failed to anticipate the extent of the complications this would create, or make adequate preparations to deal with it.

The result has been as disheartening as it was predictable. Inevitably, the million or so asylum-seekers who arrived in 2015 and 2016 included a corps of undesirables who broke laws, abused benefits, offended customs and fuelled a growing political backlash that now has Merkel fighting for her political life.

Germany's open arms and cheerful welcome has transformed into a culture of resentment and distrust. German opinion has hardened to the point that the government is planning a new law setting up a database and special documentation specific to refugees, who would have to be registered, fingerprinted and submit their phones for examination to confirm their identities.

Merkel's initial reaction was admirable enough. She was eager to demonstrate the ugliness of Germany's 20th-century history was well and truly buried, and a new, tolerant country was firmly established in its place. But even the most humane of nations includes dark corners and intolerant impulses that can break loose, given adequate provocation.

Canada is no different, as has been evident in the bitter sentiments leaking across the U.S. border since the election of Donald Trump legitimized xenophobia in the eyes of some.

Canada isn't Germany and has no need to prove its accommodating nature. Though we are hardly perfect, our past has nothing like Germany's to atone for. Canada's record on immigration and refugees is justifiably a matter of pride, and retains widespread support.

But boasting about our high-mindedness won't be adequate to deal with the challenges that appear to be gathering for the future, and is dubious enough in itself given that geography and good fortune have as much to do with our immigration attitudes as does moral rectitude.

The slight increase in refugee claimants who have decided Trump's America is no longer safe is hardly the equivalent of the millions who sought help across Europe over the past several years. Journalists have swarmed to fields in Manitoba and obscure border stations in Quebec to craft the requisite heart-warming tales of families risking life and limb to reach safety, but so far the numbers remain small and are straining resources only because Canadian officials weren't prepared for it.

It will become a national crisis only if Justin Trudeau's Liberals fail to learn a lesson from Germany and devote the attention and resources necessary to deal with the growing numbers.

They seem reluctant at the moment. The Liberals bragged mightily about their determination to provide a safe home to tens of thousands of Syrians, until the media lost interest, the photo ops went elsewhere and they could quietly let their promise slip. Ottawa still hasn't reached the 25,000 Syrians it pledged to welcome 18 months ago, though private sponsorships have filled the gap.

Gaudy spin sessions won't be adequate to deal with the influx of migrants from the U.S., should it swell to serious levels.

Only a loophole in an agreement with the U.S. allows for asylum-seekers to trudge through the snow of remote farm fields in search of entry, rather than presenting themselves at established border points. If the Liberals aren't willing to cancel or amend the agreement, they need to make arrangements to deal properly with those they're encouraging to make the journey.

If they do cancel, they'll need to beef up the capacity at border posts. Canadians will only be forgiving for so long to the spectacle of entire families struggling through snowbanks and tumbling down ditches as bemused border guards watch from either side. If resources aren't adequate for dealing with the situation without creating interminable backlogs, then the preparations have to be made to remedy that lack.

It might cost money. It might not be part of the agenda the Liberals came to power with. It might divert them from their preferred processes, and it might not be popular. They might have to struggle with a population that can get cranky if people feel their generosity is being taken advantage of. They might need to enter negotiations with the provinces to co-ordinate their response, which has been suggested by Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister and isn't a bad idea.

It's a test both of the Liberals' brave talk and their ability to deal with difficult and unanticipated problems.

If they ignore it, they run the risk of finding themselves in the same position now facing Merkel, forced into harsher measures by a swell of discontent created by a government unwilling to make proper preparations when it had the chance. Dithering isn't a good strategy. It's not recommended.