What the Munk debate on refugees reveals about Canada’s inclusivity

By Steve Paikin - Published on April 4, 2016
United Kingdom Independence Party Leader Nigel Farage speaks on stage.
Nigel Farage (right), leader of the U.K. Independence Party, speaks at the Munk debate in Toronto on April 1.

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It looked like it was going to be an easy night for the “home team.”

Before Friday’s Munk debate at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall began, the audience of 3,000 was surveyed on what it felt about the current global refugee crisis. The resolution was an excerpt of the simple yet elegant Emma Lazarus poem from the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

With highly respected former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour and BBC broadcaster and historian Simon Schama in support of a generous refugee acceptance policy, the audience endorsed the resolution by a 77 per cent to 23 per cent margin.

However, 79 per cent indicated they were open to changing their vote depending on what they heard during the debate.

And with that, game on.

Speaking against the resolution were two of the more controversial voices in media and politics today: Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and Mark Steyn, conservative gadfly and author of America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It.

Arbour reminded the audience that North America, given its geographic distance from the Syrian refugee crisis, had an obligation to “do its part of ‘Never Again,’ which the world expressed after the Holocaust, and has betrayed so many times since.” Acknowledging “the fear of an influx of newcomers that could affect our social fabric,” Arbour nevertheless encouraged the assembly to be open to new cultures. “We play right into the hands of violent jihadi groups” by isolating rather than embracing these refugees, she said.

Steyn went straight for the Emma Lazarus poem, pointing out the “huddled masses can’t breathe free because the Taliban insist they breathe through a mask imposed by the man who effectively owns her. Apparently, migrant rights trump women’s rights.”

He horrified the crowd by listing a litany of sexual assault crimes perpetrated, he said, by new migrants whose understanding of male-female relations is centuries behind the West.

“Five hundred sexual assaults in Cologne in one night,” he said. “A seven-year-old girl gang raped in Hamburg by five boys.” He listed several more and concluded, “Migrant rights apparently trump children’s rights as well.”

“Put aside your sentimentalism and stick to the facts,” Steyn said and then asked Arbour what aspects of Afghan or Sudanese culture she thought society should approve.

Schama wasn’t having any of it. He pointed out the U.S. accepted five million refugees from 1880-90 alone. “There are a billion of us in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. today,” he said. “We’re talking about accepting 20,000 in the U.K., 100,000 in the U.S., 25,000 of whom are from Syria. It’s a drop in the bucket! Are they all devils from Mark Steyn’s X-rated horror show? What do we do with these apocalyptic millenarians?”

Enter Nigel Farage, who despite garnering four million votes (13 per cent of all votes cast) in the 2015 U.K. election, could only capture one seat: “It’s tempting to support this resolution so we can feel a sense of our own moral superiority,” he said. “And I’m not saying Islam is bad. But if young males come from cultures where women are second class citizens, don’t be surprised if Malmo, Sweden becomes the rape capital of Europe. This is impractical. It’s a threat to our entire way of life.”

That was too much for Arbour, who taunted Steyn and Farage, calling them “these newborn feminists over there." Schama piled on, adding “I’m struck by how obsessed with sex these guys are. It’s a bit sad actually.” Some in the audience laughed at the comments.

Steyn pounced on that. “I’m slightly amazed that my colleagues can get big laughs on gang rape. Rape is about power. Gang rapes are happening in public places. I congratulate you on getting big laughs on that Simon and Louise.”

Then it was Farage’s turn: “Simon, you’re in denial. We’ve had 100 years of female emancipation, but now women are being told in some European cities not to walk outside after dark. That is sad. Of course there is room in our hearts for genuine refugees. We just don’t want people who would do us all ill.”

He added, “We have a Judeo-Christian culture and we’ve been gutless defending it.”

Arbour shot back: “We will destroy our values if we overreact to this culture of fear. We must protect and include these vulnerable minorities.”

But Steyn was unmoved. “There are 83 sharia courts in the U.K.,” he said. “There is female genital mutilation practiced in England. If you don’t assimilate these people, you’ll have bicultural societies and it’ll tear Europe apart.”

He added, given that plenty of second, third, and fourth generation Muslims in Canada, Britain, and Belgium are joining ISIS, “we should be a little more humble about our ability to assimilate.”

“We should step up to the plate beyond the generous levels we’ve already achieved,” Arbour countered. “I’m not saying there’s zero risk, but stop exaggerating it.” She added many of the accusations she’s hearing today about the Syrian refugees — fifth columnists, backward, crime-ridden, anti-democratic, disloyal — were also made about Catholics a century ago. “This plays into the same myths and stereotypes we’ve heard throughout history.”

No way, said Farage. On Germany’s open door policy for the Syrian refugees, he said: “It’s irresponsible, damned stupid, and a price Germany will have to pay for years to come. It’s the worst policy decision in Europe since 1945.”

It was a powerful debate, expertly moderated by Rudyard Griffiths, featuring four brilliant speakers. When the, one assumes, somewhat left-of-centre downtown Toronto audience was asked to vote again, a massive shift in sentiment was revealed.

The Farage-Steyn duo clearly moved the most votes. The pro-refugee resolution only passed 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The “No” side had picked up 22 percentage points over the evening. So much for the home field advantage.

What does that say about Canada’s willingness to keep its generous doors open to more refugees? 

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