At age 16, my first experience volunteering on my own was heading down to Ottawa’s Lansdowne Park.

It was the home of Project 4000, an initiative spearheaded by the city’s newly elected mayor, Marion Dewar:

Canada had a quota of 8,000 Southeast Asian refugees for the year and had already processed half that number, she was told.

“I said, you’ve only got 4,000 left? We’ll take them — you know, very slap happy,” she recalled in an interview. But she was never more serious.

“It stuck in my mind: 4,000. We’ve got almost 400,000 in Ottawa. Surely we can handle that. Then I thought, I better get to the community.”

This was the first stirrings of what would become Project 4000 — a startling and steely initiative to resettle large numbers of refugees from Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos in Ottawa.

Every day I went down there that summer, I’d do whatever office jobs needed doing as the organization brought people (and money) together to sponsor refugees. “Answering phones” fell off that list the day I got into a shouting match with one of the many charming people who called to berate us. Usually those conversations were couched in terms of “looking after our own first”, but as I recall, the person I yelled at was just full-on this-is-a-white-country racist.

At some point, Project 4000 held a rally that was picketed by the Marxist-Leninist Party. I got into it with one of the picketers, too; they were insisting we shouldn’t be doing anything to help the refugees because they were members of the Southeast Asian bourgeoisie.

Here’s one thing I took from that experience (other than to not feed the trolls): any time your beliefs are at war with your compassion, give your beliefs a really hard shaking.

One other thing: Ottawa became an immensely richer, better city because of the people we welcomed. And when I compare our current immigration minister’s response — not to address a crisis, but to avoid and deflect blame — to Marion Dewar’s, I can only hope for the day her brand of leadership is the one that prevails.

(an updated P.S.) — That kind of vision is alive and well in Marion’s son, Paul Dewar, a truly outstanding voice for more humane and more effective engagement for Canada on the world stage.

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