British Empire, Settler Colonialism, and Humanitarian Exceptionalism: Critical Refugee Studies in the Canadian Context

Following Yến Lê Espiritu’s landmark 2006 article, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” the field of critical refugee studies has centred refugee voices, narratives, and contexts, examining how the refugee figure illuminates dynamics of war, imperialism, and statecraft. Rather than accept dominant state and media discourses about refugees at face value, the field probes what such discourses reveal about the nature of nation-building projects. So far, much scholarship in critical refugee studies has focused on the US context or analyzed US empire. Refugee States, edited by Vinh Nguyen and Thy Phu—scholars who themselves were displaced from Vietnam and resettled in Canada—is groundbreaking for tackling the specificity of critical refugee studies in a Canadian context, attending to ongoing legacies of British empire and settler colonialism as well as contemporary discourses of humanitarian exceptionalism.

As Nguyen and Phu note in the book’s introduction and epilogue, Canada has defined its refugee regime precisely in contrast to that of the United States. In January 2017, when US President Donald Trump signed Executive Order 13769—effectively suspending the US Refugee Admissions Program for 120 days, banning refugees from Syria indefinitely, and barring entry to migrants from predominantly Muslim countries—Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reiterated Canada’s commitment to welcoming “those fleeing persecution, terror & war” (qtd. by Nguyen and Thu 3). In 2018, Canada surpassed the US as the leading nation of refugee resettlement. Such moments underscore Canada’s narrative of “humanitarian exceptionalism,” which Nguyen and Phu define as the “belief that what sets Canada apart from the US and other nation-states is its distinct benevolence and commitment to human rights” (3). Historically, moreover, Canada has been characterized as “celebrat[ing] peaceability rather than the conquest and militarism so manifestly characteristic of the US” (9). Refugee States offers tools for critically analyzing how Canada’s claims to humanitarian benevolence elide earlier historical moments of race-based exclusion, ongoing policies of Indigenous genocide and dispossession, as well as contemporary attempts to distinguish between “genuine” and “bogus” refugees. The collection’s multi-layered title both indexes the “nation-state’s role in producing refugees” and invokes “the conditions of psychic experience, everyday modes of living, challenges to the state, and articulations of sovereignties beyond nationhood” (6).

The first section, “Historicization,” highlights continuities and disjunctures across key moments of refugee inclusion and exclusion in Canada. Johanna Reynolds and Jennifer Hyndman begin by providing a helpful overview of current asylum and refugee discourse and policies, such as the 2002 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act which replaced the Immigration Act of 1976. Via an analysis of Canadian newspapers between 1996 and 2014, they examine how political leaders’ use of anti-migrant rhetoric such as “bogus refugee” and “queue jumper” belie Canada’s claims to humanitarian exceptionalism. The next two chapters examine how key moments in Canada’s migrant history continue to impress upon the present, via re-telling and re-presentation. Alia Somani examines one historical and one contemporary depiction of the 1914 Komagata Maru incident, in which 376 Punjabi migrants from Hong Kong—British subjects who hoped to settle in the British Dominion of Canada, as was their right as imperial citizens—were prohibited from disembarking in Vancouver. Laura Madokoro analyzes how, across multiple forms of writing, Adrienne Clarkson née Poy, former governor general of Canada, narrates her family’s 1942 flight from wartime Hong Kong as a successful refugee migration, eliding contemporaneous policies of racialized exclusion such as the 1923 Chinese Immigration Act. Crucially, both of these chapters analyze moments prior to Canada’s establishment of a legal category for refugee admissions, understanding refugeehood more broadly as a condition of mobility and displacement. Peter Nyers likewise extends discussions of refugee agency and activism beyond the limitations of the law. He posits that the Non-Status Women’s Collective of Montreal’s acts of writing an “irregular petition” and dressing up as ghosts in front of Trudeau’s constituency office constitute “a haunted form of citizenship,” that both appeals to and challenges state authority (101).

The second section, “Convergences,” examines refugee relationality, exploring how “refuge and refugee are made and remade through race, sexuality, disability, and Indigeneity” (15). Reframing the fraught question, “Where are you from?” Jennifer Adese (otipemisiwak/Métis) and Malissa Phung (Sino-Vietnamese refugee) posit genealogical disclosure—“narrating who we are and where we come from at a deep level”—as a key practice for decolonizing Indigenous and refugee relations (120). Edward Ou Jin Lee examines how queer and trans migrants with precarious status—who remain vulnerable to state practices of surveillance, detention, and deportation despite Canada’s self-representation as a haven for LGBTQI freedom—enact a politics of refusal to evade state control. Putting critical refugee studies in conversation with critical race studies and critical disability studies, Gada Mahrouse unpacks how Canadian constructions of the “super-refugee”—a parallel to the “supercrip”—create unrealistically high expectations for refugee accomplishments and erase the difficulties of resettling in a white settler state, even as they may also help to facilitate citizens’ tolerance and offer genuine inspiration to other refugees. Lastly, Donald Goellnicht, a key member of the Critical Refugee + Migration Studies Network Canada (CRMSC) Critical Refugee Studies Network Canada who sadly passed away before the book’s publication, probes the potentialities and possibilities of cross-racial refugee fiction, in which the author embodies a minoritized subjectivity other than that of the refugee characters. Via an analysis of Black lesbian feminist writer Dionne Brand’s depiction of Vietnamese Canadian refugee narratives in What We All Long For, Goellnicht replaces the hierarchies of empathy with the radical possibilities of kinship as a form of cross-racial relationality.

Refugee States is an important contribution to the transnational, interdisciplinary field of critical refugee studies. Not only does the book function as a key resource for Canadian and Canadian studies scholars interested in understanding how refugees shape Canadian nation-building. It also serves as an exemplary model for how to attend to the specificity of national context when engaging critical refugee studies methods. I hope Refugee States inspires other scholars to examine other spaces in turn, extending critical refugee studies beyond the US context from whence it began.

Works Cited

Espiritu, Yến Lê. “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US

Scholarship.” Journal of Vietnamese Studies, vol. 1, no. 1-2, Feb. 2006, pp. 410-33.

This review “British Empire, Settler Colonialism, and Humanitarian Exceptionalism: Critical Refugee Studies in the Canadian Context” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 13 Sep. 2021. Web.

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