By Kieran Murphy
As our van pulled out of the airport and into the quiet streets of Winnipeg, the question my friends had been asking me for weeks slowly creeped into my mind: “why Winnipeg?” I had known since September I would be heading to the seventh largest city in Canada for my journalism class during fall break, but whenever anyone had asked me why we were going there, I had simply responded “to interview Syrian refugees.” Now, as I sat in the van passing Tim Hortons restaurants and gaudy advertisements for “South Beach Casino and Resort”, I began to consider the question myself. Surely there were areas outside of Manitoba that had Syrian refugees. And surely, Princeton was willing and able to take us places outside of rural Canada.
One possible answer, as we had learned in class, was that there exists a large Mennonite population outside of Winnipeg, in the tiny towns of Altona and Gretna, that has taken hundreds of Syrian refugees under their wings. Despite their religious differences, the Mennonites have created a place where the refugees could be comfortable living their lives and practicing their religion. By all accounts, this is a rare feat and dozens of potential stories could pop up interviewing both Mennonites and Syrians later this week.
However, giving the extreme scale of the Syrian refugee crisis, I had overlooked other issues of international migration that could be relevant to our class. One enormous issue brought up by our dinner guest, immigration lawyer Bashir Khan, was the flood of Haitian asylum seekers crossing the US-Canada border in Manitoba. These Haitian migrants knew that their temporary protected status in the United States would not be renewed, and are seeking refuge in Canada. Many go to Quebec, but those who are farther west cannot make the trek across the country. Rather, they are faced with the choice of entering the western or prairie provinces: British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. British Columbia is extremely mountainous and covered in dense forest, Khan explained, and asylum seekers don’t want to risk crossing a dangerous terrain. Alberta and Saskatchewan both have conservative governments that give no legal aid to asylum seekers. Manitoba is left as the province that has made it through the “grapevine” as the place to cross—it both is flat and offers legal aid to asylum seekers.
With this interesting dynamic added, I’m looking forward to going to the border and the Canadian Human Rights Museum later this week to see how migration issues impact Winnipeg and Manitoba in particular. I’m also looking forward to seeing if the people in Manitoba have adjusted a more pro-refugee slant, having had the opportunity to meet refugees, or if their interaction has spurred resentment among the locals.