by Francesca Billington

“It’s not just humanitarian—we need it.”

Ben Rempel, the Assistant Deputy Minister of Manitoba Education and Training, said Tuesday morning, that resettling and integrating refugees is not only a humanitarian effort. It’s something that the Canadian economy and the country’s aging demographic needs. This is why the numbers of refugees Canada takes should be increased, Rempel said. Canada needs to “shift the discourse” and the government should start talking about refugees in terms of what good they can bring the country.

In other words: “If you help them, they will help you.” Tam Nguyen, the owner of Tam’s Pho on Portage Ave. in Winnipeg, promised himself, decades ago when he travelled from Vietnam to the U.S., that if he survived he would help other people in return. It had been three days since he’d eaten, there was no water left, and he was on a small boat packed with others making the journey.

We’re sitting around four small, circular tables pushed together, all of which together span nearly the length of his restaurant. Tam has taken our orders and served us the food cooked by his wife. They got married two years ago before she moved to Canada. Tam comes out of the kitchen and stands in front of our tables, smiling. He isn’t shy while talking about his first experiences in Winnipeg, when he knew no one and had almost nothing. He says he kept reminding himself that he had made the decision to leave for a reason, that he did not have to leave his family, that he needed to get up and make a better life for himself. So he did. “I help people because I almost died on the boat,” Tam said. “I was hungry for three days and I would sit in the boat and pray.”

Tam did choose Canada but being resettled in Winnipeg was still a surprise. When he got here, Winnipeggers walked him through everything: learning English, grocery shopping. He opened his own tailor business and two years ago, his restaurant. He says that if someone here hadn’t helped him, he wouldn’t have started a business. Tam is grateful for the people who helped him, but he reminds us to know that refugees and immigrants will pay this wealth back. “Refugees are very good for the country,” Tam said. “If you help them, they will help you.”

So how do refugees and Canadians understand the point or benefit of resettlement? The Mennonite Central Committee Sponsorship Program recognizes refugee resettlement as having three distinct benefits: humanitarian, economic, and family unification. The MCC considers refugee private sponsorships as strictly humanitarian. Funding and supporting is not strictly tied to economic gains.

Maybe it all comes down to whether acting in the spirit of humanitarianism or strong national economy are mutually exclusive.