Mary Jo Leddy is founder of Romero House for refugees. She uses the summertime to take refugees on a Canadian discovery adventure near Manitoulin Island. Photo by Michael Swan

Why are you here? Theologian Mary Jo Leddy looks to Canada's newcomers and the land itself for answers

By 
  • February 9, 2019

For Mary Jo Leddy the question on the cover of her new book leads immediately to other questions. Why Are You Here? is Leddy’s way of asking Canadians, “Who are we? And who do we want to be?”

MaryJoeLeddy BookThe book’s title comes from the first question asked by a west coast Tsimshian chief when he came across explorers near modern-day Prince Rupert, B.C. “Why are you here?” the Indigenous man asked the English adventurers. Today, 240 years later, it’s a question Canadians should be earnestly asking themselves, Leddy said.

“Particularly right now, as we head into a federal election,” Leddy told The Catholic Register in the cramped, jumbled back office of Romero House, the refugee shelter in Toronto she helped found in 1991.

Leddy didn’t have federal politics in mind when she wrote her “meditation on Canada,” but the book left the loading dock in late January, less than nine months before Canadians will cast their ballot for Members of Parliament. With Conservative politicians hammering away at “illegal border crossers” and a “refugee crisis,” while Liberals glory in welcoming high-profile refugees, the 73-year-old theologian and Catholic journalist looks at the state of our national debate with dismay.

Canadians are going to have to choose. They can try to freeze their country in a gauzy past before they are hit with a maelstrom of cultural and economic change. Or they can find a willingness to see Canada constantly becoming something new. Refugees, and immigration more generally, are just one of the forces remaking Canada right now, but Leddy is concerned with a much deeper dynamic.

“If we don’t know what we’re for as a country, we are going to define ourselves by what and who we are against,” she said. “We have lots of examples of politicians and groups that — because they lack a positive sense of purpose — choose to define themselves by an enemy, a real or imagined enemy. That kind of public debate isn’t just about refugees. It’s about who we are as a country. I’m suggesting that it’s helpful to go back to the origins of this particular country and ask ourselves, ‘What has happened?’ ”

By going back, Leddy means something more profound than hitting the history books. She urges us to get out of our apartments and houses, out of our suburbs and cities. She wants us out in the country getting a feel for the rocks, trees, lakes and coastlines of the nation. 

“In the summer, the refugees I live with discover that the direction of hope lies north,” she writes. “This is the time when we, a group of about 50 refugees and their Canadian friends, go for a week-long vacation among the lakes and forests near Manitoulin Island…. It is still a new and unknown land to the refugee campers who come from all over the world.”

Predictably, the campers discover the land they’ve come to is beautiful. They also discover a different dimension to the freedom Canada offers. It isn’t merely the freedom written out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, or even the freedom of living in a big, anonymous city where nobody cares what you say or think or do or look like. The land itself is free — wild and open to possibility.

“I’m not saying everybody needs to go camping,” Leddy said.

But Leddy is all ears when she hears Pope Francis talk about “Care for Our Common Home,” the subtitle of his encyclical Laudato Si’. She appreciates how the Pope honours Indigenous cultures and urges us all to imitate and reverence Indigenous connection to the land. Canadians of all stripes are going to have to discover their own connection with the place they call home.

“As a country, our sense of history is very weak,” she said. “So the sense of geography becomes more important. That means where we are is really important — the geography of the place. There is something about the vastness of the land that is very important to how we find our place.”

When Leddy argues for a more open door to refugees, a battle that has consumed the last 30 years of her life, she refuses to make it about the economic benefits that come with highly motivated, determined refugees making a life for themselves in Canada.

“I know all the studies about how successful refugees are. That’s one level of response,” she said. “But from where I sit, the biggest gift that refugees bring is that they hope. They hope in this country and they actually believe in it — most of them, far more than people who are already here who just take it all for granted.”

Canada needs that hope.

“We’re obsessed with keeping out these bad people. We have no idea that we’re keeping out goodness and hope, everything we really need as a country,” she said.

Refugees don’t just import hope across the border, as if it were a drug they were smuggling. Rather, hope is the result that comes of volunteers and friends and neighbours welcoming the new faces.

“I do think people are happier when they are being generous and when they’re open to newness — when they’re living out of some sense of what they care about and what they believe in,” she said.

Leddy said she wishes that before people retreat into their ideological corners this coming election season, they begin by thinking about the whole country and about belonging to that country. Scoring ideological points over refugees or carbon taxes or pipelines or health care doesn’t lead anywhere, she said.

“That kind of discussion will go nowhere,” said Leddy. “(Conservatives) are looking for something to hold onto, and the Liberals almost seem careless. What I’m suggesting is that it’s a simple thing that we hold in common — this particular place on Earth. And that makes a very big difference — whether we think we have a right to this and that we own it, or whether we say, ‘This is the space on Earth for which we are responsible.’ 

“I don’t think you have to be liberal or conservative to begin to think about that…. There are people who have lived here all their life who aren’t acting responsibly. They don’t feel responsible for the country. And there are newcomers who feel intensely responsible.”

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