Probus Club: September Speaker – Bill Bowden on Immigration

Each month, the Saugeen Shores Men’s PROBUS Club features a guest speaker and, this month’s speaker on September 5th, was Bill Bowden.

A native of Toronto, Bill Bowden traces his connections with Southampton to the mid-19th Century, when his mother’s forebears settled in Elsinore.

His maternal grandfather was Lt. Col. George W. Nelson, who served in WWI, and whose military artifacts and correspondence are displayed in the Bruce County Museum’s ‘Canada at War’ exhibits.

In 1958, his parents bought a house in Southampton and moved there permanently in 1978.

As an adult, Bill and his family were transferred from Toronto to Atlanta, Georgia in 1982 where he worked in a variety of roles in life insurance, insolvency management and corporate benefit consulting, until he retired in 2015.

At first, Bill and his wife, Martha, spent summers in Southampton and winters in Atlanta until moving to Southampton permanently in 2021. They have three children, James in Dallas Texas, Frances in Atlanta, and David in Vancouver, BC.

Bill is currently President of the Southampton Residents Association (SRA), a member of  St. Paul’s Anglican Church Parish Council, a Chantry Island Tour Guide, a member of the Southport Horticultural Society, and a member of the Southampton Curling Club.

In September (2021) Bill became involved with Afghan refugees (approximately six families and 17 people) who had escaped Kabul, Afghanistan, after it fell to the Taliban on August 15th. At the time, the Canadian government was billeting them in a hotel near Pearson Airport in Toronto.

The Saugeen Shores community organized quickly to provide temporary respite for them, before they were moved to a more permanent location in the Kitchener-Waterloo area. It was all done without social media because of fears for families still trapped in Afghanistan. Since then, residents in Saugeen Shores and elsewhere have had some success in also getting a few of their immediate family members to Canada.

At the September Men’s PROBUS meeting, Bowden discussed what happened, what refugees coming to Canada face, his experience with Immigration Refugee Citizenship Canada (IRCC), and some lessons learned.

“People born and raised in Canada have no idea how privileged we are,” said Bowden.  He explained how names of refugees cannot be revealed for safety reasons of families ‘back home’.  “I have had no particular expertise when it comes to refugees and, although I support many charities, this is the first time I have become personally involved in the lives of those we are trying to help.  It’s been an amazing rewarding experience.”

Bowden went on to explain that a small group of women, through the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW)in particular, were setting about to help a small group of refugees who were being housed in an airport hotel in Toronto. “The idea was to give them temporary respite in a beautiful small town before they would have a more permanent long-term placement in Kitchener-Waterloo.  The common denominator was they were women involved in sports in Afghanistan.”

As President of the SRA, Bowden put out a plea for support.  “Within 36 hours, we raised more than $15,000, had offers of more housing than what was needed, had lots of clothes and bicycles for those who wanted them. Businesses, such as Southampton Foodland that prepared weekly meals, Becker Shoes donated winter footwear and Martin’s Cycle Shop that maintained all the donated bicycles, immediately stepped up along with optometrists and dentists who donated their services.”

Bowden said that he learned of the various linguistic and religious groups and how it eliminated refugee stereotypes.  “While there were different types of peoples, with different cultural backgrouns, they did things together such as playing sports like soccer.”

He went on to explain the many government red-tape blocks exist when it comes to refugees seeking asylum, such as the IRCC (Immigrant Refugee Canadian Citizenship) that requires – they can not return their country, have to be sponsored and had to have escaped, receive no government support and have to be pre-screened and, above all, the language barrier, cultural issues and no access to technology to fill out paper work.

“… bureaucrats don’t like stories…”  said Bowden. “If a single unanswered question is not perfect, the applicant must start over and no explanation is given.”

Bowden explained that the two largest sponsors of refugees in Canada are the Mennonite Central Committee and Anglican Church of Canada.

He also told of a family of sisters, one a doctor, two medical students and one who had just completed high school, who had escaped to Pakistan but who had no clear path of being accepted by Canada. “I appealed to SRA members and the response was immediate and generous.  The initial support was for six months but then extended to 18.  Local residents gave money every month based on trust and almost $1,500 was sent monthly via Western Union to help with their support.”

The hurdles to settle refugees are huge but Bowden explained that through his Anglican Church network, he was able to raise some $67,000 plus $48,000 and St. Paul’s donated $5,000 and the CFUW raised some $27,000. “It’s a huge commitment,” said Bowden. “It means committing to support for at least one year, possibly two before a family is even approved.”

When it comes to refugees, there is also a partnering between cultures.  For instance, the Islamic Center in Owen Sound worked with the Anglican Church and, together, they guaranteed the funds to provide the financial support that was needed.

“Lessons learned?” said Bowden.  “I have come to believe that the processes are intentionally cruel.  In protecting Canada, I firmly believe that IRCC has a responsibility to protect us, but in processing thousands of applications there is little consideration for the refugee experience and resources.  When I look at how our guests were privileged members of Afghanistan society and generally well educated, their skills are needed here. Their country’s loss (due to the Taliban) is Canada’s gain.  They will do well in Canada.”

“If I had any doubts before,” added Bowden, “I am constantly reminded how privileged we are at birth, education, opportunity, health care and any number of things.  Even if not especially well off, if born in Canada, you are probably already between third base and home in terms of opportunities for success compared to people around the world.”

According to Bowden, one of the most difficult issues is that Afghans who had high status at home is now gone.  “They no longer have any status. With language barriers, it usually means low wages and warehouse jobs and especially for women, exploitation.  That’s tough for anybody but especially for someone trained for example as a doctor.”