JRS-Canada: 40 years with the refugees

14 November 2020|Yves Deschênes, JRS-Canada

It is the miserable and dangerous situation of the refugees from Southeast Asia that prompted the Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arrupe, to launch an appeal to all religious at the end of 1979. In French Canada, following the appeal of Father Julien Harvey, Provincial, $250,000 was raised to sponsor and welcome 32 refugee families totaling 164 people. Fathers Jean-Louis d’Aragon and Paul-Émile Papillon are responsible for the operation, assisted by members of the Vimont Centre community.

During 1980, the world refugee situation deteriorated: to Southeast Asia, we must add Central America (El Salvador and Nicaragua) and Africa with its many civil wars. In November, Father Arrupe wrote to the major superiors: “the situation of refugees throughout the world presents the Society with a challenge that we cannot ignore if we wish to be faithful to the criteria that St. Ignatius gave for the choice of our apostolates.

A service for the coordination of relief efforts was created in Rome: the Jesuit Refugee Service. Three priority regions are designated: Southeast Asia, East Africa and Central America. An appeal is made to Jesuits throughout the world to recruit volunteers ready to make themselves available for this service and to work directly with refugees in camps or to establish reception structures in possible host countries.

About ten Canadian Jesuits, including several missionaries, are involved in this service. Louis Robert in the Philippines and Hong Kong; Brother Lionel Tremblay also in Hong Kong; Fathers Roland Turenne and Denis Gravel in Ethiopia. Finally, let us mention the work of Father André Lamothe with Vietnamese refugees. He spent nearly four years in camps in Thailand and the Philippines and promoted the sponsorship of refugees by Canadian citizens: he found sponsors for 128 refugees.

Here in Canada, religious of African or Haitian origin accompanied refugees who were settling; in Montreal, Fr. Michel Corbeil worked among Latin American refugees.
After a successful campaign in the early 1980s, funds became scarce. Overseas applications were pouring in all the time, and Canada was a sought-after destination. In the spring of 1981, the Bureau des Missions Jésus du Canada-Français took over and created its sponsorship service. During the first six years, 142 people were sponsored, with the Office assuming all the costs thanks to the generosity of benefactors and Jesuit communities. The Sponsorship Service also accompanies several people, including several refugees now settled in Canada, in their own sponsorship process.

Father Louis-Joseph Goulet coordinated the Service for more than 30 years. After the Vietnamese “boat people”, famine in Ethiopia and wars in Cambodia and Eritrea followed. Conflicts in Bosnia, Rwanda (1990s) and Afghanistan (2000s) will follow. In 2013, Father Mario Brisson will take over from Father Goulet in the midst of the Syrian crisis.

It is the signing and renewals of a framework agreement with the Ministère de l’Immigration du Québec that has allowed the reception of so many refugees. The Jesuits are recognized as an “experienced organization”. They are members of the main organizations for the promotion and defense of refugees.

In the 1990’s, creation of Vivre Ensemble du CJF, which will focus on advocacy activities in French Canada.

In the Jesuit Province of English Canada, it is within the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice that RLS activities will take root. The Centre was founded in 1979 under the impetus of Father Bill Ryan, Provincial. The future Cardinal Michael Czerny was the first director, followed in 1990 by Father Edward Hyland, SJ, and by Mr. Kevin J. Arsenault in 1995. Fathers Gordon Rixon and Richard Soo will also contribute to the activities.

The Canadian Jesuit Refugee Program, JRS/Canada, was established in 1985. Its four areas of action: direct assistance to refugees, improving refugee policies and mechanisms, supporting refugees abroad and educating the Canadian public. It will focus on sustained research, gathering relevant information and networking with other organizations involved in defending and improving the rights of refugees.

In 1999, two years after the closure of the Jesuit Centre, JRS was re-launched under the leadership of Father Jack Costello. Chaplain at Romero House for several years, he will continue the advocacy work of his predecessors and will be actively involved in national organizations such as ICCR and the Canadian Ecumenical Justice Initiatives. In 2006 Father Costello was appointed Director of the Jesuit Refugee and Migrant Service in Toronto.

At the same time, the Canadian Jesuits International Service (formerly Jesuits Mission Office) began its work of Information and solicitation in favour of JRS works internationally.
In 2015, in view of the merger of the two Canadian Jesuit Provinces, a real JRS is created and a National Director, Mr. Norbert Piché, takes office.