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The World has Changed but Canadian Values Have Not

Open Letter to all Party Leaders

Canada has a proud humanitarian tradition.

We led in the creation of the UN peacekeeping force, which has played a fundamental role in promoting international peace and security.

We helped establish the International Criminal Court to bring perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity to justice.

We received the Nansen Refugee Award for our response to Vietnamese refugees and our contributions to the cause of refugees everywhere.

We led on the Muskoka Initiative for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health to end the preventable deaths of mothers and children.

And now, the image of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy found drowned on the beach crystalizes a moment for us to reaffirm our identity on the world stage.

It harkens back to another moment in 1984 when images of mass starvation in Ethiopia brought Brian Mulroney and Stephen Lewis together to galvanize the UN into taking action on African famine, demanding a “Herculean effort on the part of all member nations.” Canadian leadership led to what was at the time the greatest humanitarian relief effort in history, saving an estimated 7 million people from starvation in Ethiopia and 22 million across Africa.

The parallels are striking. In 1984 Ethiopia was a pariah state facing a crisis in the middle of the Cold War, with 7 million Ethiopians threatened with starvation. Today in the midst of our struggle against terrorism we have 12 million Syrians displaced.

The world has changed but Canadian values have not.

The outpouring of concern and support for Syrian refugees by everyday Canadians must be matched by the ambition of our leaders.

This week’s Munk Debate on Canada’s Foreign Policy is an opportunity for leaders to articulate a vision to reassert Canada’s role and reputation as a humanitarian leader in the world.

Canada has pledged to match Canadian donations to Syria – up to $100 million – in addition to previous commitments of $146.3 million (USD). Globally, the relief effort is not even half-funded and there is a need for the entire global community to see that sufficient, dependable, flexible funding is delivered. Yet Alan’s tragedy made it quite clear that it will take more than just money to end this crisis, and Canada has a pivotal role to play.

We can begin by:

  • Demanding an end to abuses against women and children including rape as a weapon of war and the recruitment of child soldiers.
  • Insisting that all parties abide by international laws, cease attacks on schools and hospitals, and stop using explosive weapons in populated areas.
  • Clearly separating Canada’s military and humanitarian response to ensure the safety of humanitarian aid workers.
  • Exerting our influence to press for full compliance with UN Security Council resolutions calling for unhindered humanitarian access.
  • Reigniting a global effort to assert the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict agenda.
  • Engaging in global efforts to bring a political solution to end the conflict.
  • Increasing both the number and the ease of resettlement of refugees within our borders.

Beyond Syria, Canada can make a real difference in the lives of more than 60 million people affected by humanitarian emergencies around the world.

It’s time for Canada to live up to the best of our traditions. Let’s see if our leaders agree.


Gillian Barth, President and CEO, CARE Canada
Julie Delahanty, Executive Director, Oxfam Canada
Denise Byrnes, Executive Director, Oxfam Québec
Marie Staunton, Interim President and CEO, Plan International Canada
Patricia Erb, President and CEO, Save the Children
Nicolas Moyer, Executive Director, Humanitarian Coalition

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