The face of the immigrant is the face of our nation and Church, and is why Canada needs to keep its doors open as the federal government overhauls its immigration policy. Photo by Michael Swan

Church seeks an open door for immigration

  • July 20, 2016

As Canada launches another overhaul of immigration policy, the Church has an interest in maintaining open doors, whether it’s to refugees, regular immigrants or temporary foreign workers.

“We’re a country of immigrants and we’re a Church of immigrants,” said Canadian Church historian Fr. Terry Fay, author of New Faces of Canadian Catholics: The Asians. “If we can think of ourselves as any other type of Church, we’re not. We’re not establishment people. We’re a Church of immigrants.”

The federal government launched a national consultation on immigration policy July 5, giving people until Aug. 5 to provide online written submissions (at

The government will also meet with experts and immigrant organizations and will commission public opinion surveys.

The Archdiocese of Toronto’s Office for Refugees will be making a submission, said director Martin Mark.

“We feel it’s very important to participate,” he said. “Not only for refugees, we should speak up.”

In an archdiocese where Mass is celebrated in 35 languages, it can be argued that few churches have benefited as much from immigration as the Catholic Church in Toronto. But the immigrant-heavy picture in Toronto is just part of a history that stretches back to New France, said Fay.

“Immigration, I think, is the way the Church has been expanded,” said the Jesuit professor of theology and history. “The French thought they had the Church in full control. They had the franchise. And then the Irish and the Scots came.”

Irish and Scottish immigration caused tensions and misunderstanding in 19th-century Catholic Canada.

“They (French bishops) didn’t believe they were Catholics because they didn’t know French,” said Fay. “The franchise that the French had on the Church was simply broken up by the addition of the Scots and the Irish and the Germans and the Ukrainians and the Polish. So that our Church has traditionally been a Church of immigrants. That’s why, in many ways, we’re so Catholic… Immigration has blessed the Catholic Church.”

Catholic schools and parishes have had a significant role in helping various waves of immigrants adapt to life in Canada, said Fay.

“Catholicism has been very good for immigrants because it’s an international religion. It’s not local. It doesn’t root people just in the past — in their Chinese past or their Indonesian past.”

Given Pope Francis’ emphasis on reaching out to refugees, an open refugee policy gives established Canadian Catholics an opportunity to put their faith into practice, Fay said.

“We have to be good people and welcome refugees as the Pope has said numerous times. We have to be positive towards immigration and acknowledge the benefit,” he said.

While Toronto parishes have done well in welcoming thousands of refugees in recent years, Canadian policy could be more open and more efficient, said Mark.

“Our equal share should be around 100,000 refugees annually,” he said.

Given the numbers arriving in Germany and the Nordic countries, Canada could take more, according to Mark.

Mark hopes to nudge Ottawa into more efficient and rational processing of refugees. The concentration on Syrian refugees has pushed wait times for that one group down to a year or less. Meanwhile, African refugees stuck in the same region wait as long as three years.

Mark recently had to persuade a Mississauga parish to continue to wait for an African refugee who has been in the process for six years.

“Imagine how it is for that refugee,” Mark said.

In some cases Toronto parishes are losing their Syrian refugees to Australia, which can process Syrian and Iraqi refugees in less time. Refugees stuck in camps in Jordan aren’t going to take a maybe from Canada over a sure thing in Australia, Mark said.

Mark would like Ottawa to set a realistic goal of processing all refugees — whether from Africa, Asia, Latin America or the Middle East — in 12 to 18 months.

He is also frustrated that the Canadian refugee system doesn’t extend to internally displaced people in places such as Iraq, Syria or Myanmar.

“We need a source country class,” Mark said.

Approximately two-thirds of the 65.3 million people of concern to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees are internally displaced.

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