Dec. 17, 2004. 01:00 AM
When wolves and shepherds change cloaks
Three prominent activist writers take on the gatekeepers of the refugee system to see if there is room for one more asylum seeker



The three of us sat in Judy Sgro's constituency office from 9 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. on a busy pre-Christmas day a week ago today. We came looking for a lifeline for a man in Africa who had become as vulnerable as a lamb in the jaws of war.


We knew the minister of immigration could write a line for him that would bring him out to his wife and children in Canada.


Outside, a small group sang "Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel." Angels heralding hope in the rain. Going in and out of the office were a group of shepherds, "keeping watch over their flock by night."


The shepherds, charged with serving and protecting, were there to protect the office staff from three dangerous, trespassing wolves.


The shepherds were there to protect the laws of the country and those who govern. Watching as well were the scribes of the day, the media, seeking some sensational tidbit of news to feed the hungry readers and viewers.


We sat side by side in the chairs against the window while the drama unfolded around us — June, in a long white wool coat, Joy in a blue arctic parka, Mary Jo in a blue-gray sweater over a turtleneck.


June's fingers were so icy cold they were as white as her coat at the tips. Joy stood up and paced uncomfortably because she was not permitted to use the toilet.


Mary Jo, the instigator of the wolf-pack, sat quietly praying and planning. Her gray-blue eyes, matching her sweater, were wide and alert. The family Mary Jo loves — the stalwart mother whose intelligence and dignity shone in her beautiful face, her three teen-aged children — and their supporters had been ordered outside with the media.


Once outside in the shelter of the awning, they were ordered into the rain and stood huddled under umbrellas, ready to wait for as long as it took.


Before leaving, one of the photographers mentioned to Kogawa that his mother was Japanese-Canadian. Joy told him that if it were not for people like Mary Jo and June, neither she, nor he, would be in Canada today.


Not so many years ago, this democratic country had the kind of leadership that expressed its will to be rid of Japanese-Canadians by attempting to send them away to Japan, a country most of them had never seen. The action was stopped by fellow Canadian citizens whose understanding of democracy was better than many of the leaders of the day — but not before 4,000 people were shipped into exile.


No democratic country in the world had used such extreme measures against its own innocent citizens. In 1988, forty years after these events, Canada earned its right to be a beacon of hope in the world, by admitting that the excesses of the past had been motivated by racism.


Fear had acted those years ago, its wonders to perform. History repeats. Though some citizens sang, "Fear not," the wolves and shepherds of the day changed their cloaks so rapidly that the sheep were bewildered.


That same bewilderment is assailing people today in the climate of fear and terrorism that grips our hearts.


In times like these, as faceless people are sent to the slaughter, beleaguered leaders hide from the overwhelming tragedies that are being laid at their feet. They put their trust in imperfect processes and cannot attend to the innocent victims who are being killed, who are falling through the cracks of the system.


People like Mary Jo and Joy and June are nuisances that are taking up their valuable time. What does it matter if one innocent person is killed in a time of terror? Or a hundred?


He, they, might have been terrorists.


What did it matter that Kogawa was imprisoned? She might have sided with the enemy.


The three wolves were hungry. Especially Mary Jo. The taste of justice, the rich nourishing meal of justice so long denied, was there in her mind, so close she could see and touch it, and so tauntingly far from her grasp that it kept fading like a mirage. All that was required was the stroke of a pen for that meal to arrive.


All that was needed was to reopen a closed case of a man who had been deemed suspect on the basis of one interview — an interview he did not understand because he does not speak English and there was no translator to assist him.


The family had been separated in the chaos of the first Gulf War and the wife and children had fled, finally arriving to live with Mary Jo at Romero house. She had grown to love them deeply.


Their laughter, successes, and anxieties were hers. The fidelity to their husband and father had become hers. She feared with them as the political crisis in their country escalated. After nine years of hoping and hassling and with all her options gone, Mary Jo staged the sit-in that resulted in the police being called to evict us.


Sgro's office staff was adamant. We had to leave. Mary Jo was not leaving until she had an assurance that she could have a meeting with the minister within the next two critical days.


This could not, would not, be granted. An impasse. The police and Sgro's office staff versus a handful of citizens.


Just before noon, the charming young policewoman opened the door to the waiting room to announce the solution to the problem. The office was to be closed at noon, in 15 minutes, and unless we left, "we'll unfortunately have to assist you out," she said.


Callwood, who is a personal friend of the Prime Minister, called Paul Martin's office.


"I'm about to be arrested," she said to the executive assistant at the other end of the line. "I'm too old for this. My husband will be very upset with me. All we're asking is that Mary Jo be able to meet with the minister. It's a matter of life and death. A man's life is in danger."


Within seconds a call came back from Sgro's office and Mary Jo was able to receive an assurance that the executive assistant would do everything in his power to help.


As the three wolves walked out peaceably into the rain and into the arms of the valiant mother, Hope's tears mingled with the rain. But by late afternoon, Hope once more faded. The children who had travelled from the depths of anxiety over their father and soared to the heavens in hope, were plummeting again. The promise of meeting with the minister was sent back into the bureaucracy where it languishes still.


Meanwhile, as a loving community waits and prays, those six ominous words uttered in Sgro's office are chanting quietly in the background. "I was just doing my job." This was Adolf Eichmann's famous defence and still is the excuse of social shepherds today.


Callwood's parting words also linger in the air.


"A little bit of kindness goes a long way, Dear," she had said, quietly, pointedly. Outside, she put her white wool hood up in the rain, and walked on.


June Callwood, Joy Kogawa and Mary Jo Leddy are writers and appointees to the Order of Canada.


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