A Landscape of Safety

Spoken for Dykes Gone Digital, the digital version of Ottawa’s yearly Dyke March.

It is hard to be here.

It is easy to look at a map and see coastlines, rivers, mountains, valleys, forests, deserts, and cities. Entire worlds are built on that, geography defining history and setting culture in motion. We are who we are in part because we are where we are, and where we have been.

But I invite us to look at our maps and see something else. I invite us to look at them and see a gradient of danger warping around those deltas and oases. Some places are safe, others are not, and there is a landscape of horror and relief draped across the one of earth and sky.

I myself have had the tremendous fortune of traversing that landscape. This July, I celebrate my third year as a permanent resident of Canada, and this August, I celebrate my twelfth year living here in Ottawa. In that time, I have established myself as an independent adult, lived, loved, transitioned, and done dozens of other things that the long shadow of my former home did not allow. With any luck, I will carry Canadian citizenship before too long. Before any of that, I lived in the United States. That statement used to make a rather anodyne impression, but it did not feel that way to me. Even then I knew that I was standing in a local nadir, and there was a higher peak on the safety landscape for me to reach. These days, people rightly recognize that I did not so much migrate as escape.

I want that for others.

I was lucky. Canada’s jealous enforcement of its border had enough gaps for me to attain that safety. My passage was easier than many others’ because of where I came from and what I look like and who facilitated my journey and the title I now carry. For too many others like me, people in far lower hells than the one I escaped, the ascent is far less simple. The standard of proof that aspiring refugees must attain to access this country’s safety is abominable and serves mainly to repel the most needful of us. Various policies recruit those whose safety needs are already met out of grotesque capitalist notions of “utility,” and reject those who do not seem likely cogs for Canada’s machine. I was lucky that my recognition of myself as autistic is my mere unprofessional judgement and not a doctor’s writ, or else I, too, might have been cast aside.

For this country to even pretend to meet its own professions of multicultural inclusion and its own image as a haven for people like us, around the world, persecuted for who we love and who we are, Canada must do better.

I want for others better than what I received.

There is no excuse for a country as boundlessly wealthy as Canada to spend the pittance it does on LGBTQ2S+ refugee services. There is even less excuse for the far larger sum spent on the border that keeps us out, and the clerks whose job is almost entirely to look for reasons to deny our entry. Imagine having to penetrate that kind of bureaucracy while living on borrowed time. Imagine making that attempt while working through interpreters, with no way to judge whether one is being relayed accurately. Imagine trying to get one’s message across a cultural divide, to arbiters who have no incentive to truly understand one’s situation, on pain of death. We have an immigration system so pointlessly hostile and expensive that nonprofits and volunteer groups form to make it navigable to those it is ostensibly designed to serve. They call us perverts, but I think there is little more perverse than that.

I have seen others like me, fleeing far greater dangers than I ever faced, blossom after they arrived, finally becoming themselves when, at long last, they could know safety. I shudder to imagine the dozens of others who could not penetrate the bureaucratic maze, that this country deemed unworthy, lights extinguished far too soon.

It should not be up to Rainbow Road volunteers to ease these journeys. The grand apparatus of civilization is worth nothing if its resources are not deployed to lift those of us who need lifting, and few need it more than those of us fleeing this kind of oppression.

And it should not be okay with us how much migrants have to endure even after they arrive. My path was easier than most, but I had to plan around the end of my schooling and my relationships because the very idea that I could want to stay seemed alien to this country’s laws. Getting my bank account took special effort because many kinds are not available to people with temporary status. I spent a year avoiding any contact with the medical system because provincial health plans do not apply to people with temporary status. This obscenity affected my transition timeline. The day of my permanent residency was a relief as much because it finally meant I could attend to my health in earnest as because it meant that I could, at last, know that the life I built here would not have to be dismantled on short notice.

It is, similarly, beyond offensive how little it takes for people with temporary status to be sent back to the hells they left behind. The fact that Canada is willing to deport people for any reason at all, let alone for petty crimes, is a black mark on its record from which it will never truly recover. The fact that having built a life here and having nothing to go back to in one’s place of origin is not enough to make deportation unthinkable is sickening, harrowing, enraging. Even now, there are professions I cannot undertake or else my permanent residency, expensive and slow and difficult as it was to acquire, would be called into question. I will soon swear an oath this country does not expect its born citizens to uphold for the privilege of having this country’s seal on a passport. It is only recently that people on spousal sponsorships stopped being required, on pain of losing their residency, to cohabitate with their spouses for at least one year after gaining it, even if those spouses turned out to be abusive.

These are norms we should question. These are institutions that should change. This expectation that immigrants, whatever path they take to become Canadians, must exceed in merit and effort those lucky enough to have been born on this side of those arbitrary map lines is not something that passes any ethical test.

If this gruesome project of a place is ever to redeem itself, one of the steps it must take is to level these obstacles and open its doors. If there is one thing the landscape of safety does not need, it is walls.

And if there is one thing I need, it is to know that people will look back on the difficulty of my own accession into Canada, let alone the stories I have heard about the refugee pathway itself, as aberrations from a less compassionate time, before this country truly understood what it means to be human.


A Landscape of Safety