I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Chat GPT when it first started making news headlines earlier this year. I was therefore intrigued when the Active History Collective decided to experiment a little by asking it to comment on our areas of expertise. I jumped right in with a quick question. In hindsight though, I completely underestimated what the program was capable of. Had I had more faith, I would have asked a better historical question.
The question I asked was “Is Canada a welcoming country for refugees?”
Yes, Canada is known for being a welcoming country for refugees. The Canadian government has established policies and programs that aim to provide support and protection to refugees seeking asylum in the country. Canada has a long history of accepting refugees from various parts of the world and has been recognized internationally for its humanitarian efforts.
One of the key programs in Canada is the Refugee Resettlement Program, which helps refugees who are fleeing persecution, violence, or other forms of hardship in their home countries. Through this program, refugees are provided with assistance in areas such as housing, healthcare, language training, and employment support to help them integrate into Canadian society.
Canada also operates a fair and robust asylum system that allows individuals to seek refugee protection when they arrive in the country. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) assesses asylum claims based on the principles of international human rights and refugee law. Refugees who are determined to meet the criteria for protection are granted refugee status, allowing them to stay and build a new life in Canada.
Furthermore, Canadian society at large generally holds positive attitudes towards refugees. Many communities across the country have shown support and empathy towards newcomers, including refugees, and there are numerous organizations and volunteers who actively assist refugees in their settlement process.
It is important to note that while Canada is generally welcoming to refugees, the specific experiences of refugees may vary, and challenges can still exist during the settlement process. However, Canada’s overall approach and commitment to refugee protection demonstrate its welcoming stance and efforts to support those in need.
Admittedly, I asked ChatGPT a totally loaded question. I know that in reality this is a fraught issue, loaded with conflicting views and evidence across the political spectrum.
The national mythology, born in part of the nineteenth-century Underground Railroad (in which fugitive slaves in the United States made their way to legal freedom) is that Canada is, indeed, a welcoming country for refugees. This “founding myth” has been amplified since with the resettlement of 60,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos beginning in 1979 and more recently in terms of the country’s response to refugees from the Ukraine.
In certain ways, this understanding of a humanitarian history seems to hold true; especially when comparisons with other countries are undertaken. Canada, for instance, resettles and accepts thousands of refugees annually (a total of 75,330 in 2022). There are also social programs and supports in place to assist newcomers. Moreover, the country’s sponsorship program, when groups of five or more can sponsor refugees, has been particularly successful in engaging people in active ways with questions of responsibility and displacement.
The flip side is that the country is not a major donor to the UNHCR compared to other states. It also benefits from a relatively isolated geography and therefore doesn’t confront the same pressures that countries elsewhere do on a regular basis. As a result, the deterrence policies in places such as Italy, Greece, the United Kingdom, and the United States are often in the news while Canadian policies on detention and removals, for instance, go largely unnoticed. It is therefore tempting to see Canada in a positive light. Yet, as past events such as the border crossings at Roxham Road in Quebec have shown, when migrants do appear at Canada’s borders without having first been invited in, the reaction (from public officials as well as significant segments of Canada society) is palpably hostile.
The ChatGPT response to my question about Canada as a humanitarian country captures some of these nuances, albeit in a bland and generic way.
Yet in reading the anodyne response, I sensed that the key problem was that I hadn’t asked a very good question. My mistake was to think that ChatGPT wouldn’t be able to nuance a historical question. This was somewhat ironic because I regularly work with students to refine the kinds of questions they are asking of the historical past. Being able to ask original, creative, critical questions of the past is some of the most important work we do as historians.
All this to say, I would have liked ChatGPT to turn to history to answer my original question but as it didn’t, I rephrased.
In my second attempt, I asked ChatGPT, “Has Canada historically been a welcoming country for refugees?” Not a super specific question but one that can be a good starting point for thinking about the history of refugee policies in Canada, especially in terms of the broad currents around notions of hospitality and protection.
This time, it generated the following response:
Yes, Canada has a history of being a welcoming country for refugees. Canada has implemented various policies and programs to provide refuge to those fleeing persecution, conflict, or other humanitarian crises. The country has a long-standing tradition of resettling refugees and has been recognized for its humanitarian efforts in this regard. However, the specific approach and policies may vary over time and with different governments.
I confess that I was surprised at the confidence with which it responded in the affirmative. On some levels, this answer is correct. The innovative group sponsorship discussed previously is now seen as a model to follow by other countries. In 1986, the people of Canada received the Nansen Medal for their sponsorship efforts. It was the only time that this medal, which recognizes humanitarian work on behalf of refugees, has been given to an entire nation.
Yet at the same time, ChatGPT’s response reflected some of the core tensions around discussions about refugee policies in the past and present. Some for instance, consider the federal government’s refusal of the S.S. St Louis in 1939 as an exceptional moment rather than evidence of broader-based policies of exclusion. Critics have also suggested that the 1986 Nansen Medal belies the resilience and courage of the refugees involved, emphasizing instead the work of sponsors.
ChatGPT’s response also ignores the broader question of whether states are fundamentally capable of being humanitarian or whether programs such as refugee resettlement aren’t ultimately about serving particular nation-building goals. In resettling refugees, governments can be selective in a way that they cannot when people make claims to legal asylum in Canada. Moreover, in the case of Canada and other white settler societies, public evocations of humanitarianism in the face of refugee displacement also work to disguise the ongoing dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples.
In this respect, the final sentence produced by ChatGPT, namely that “the specific approach and policies may vary over time and with different governments” works as a kind of escape clause, covering any possible exceptions to the seemingly general trend towards humanitarianism and openness. It is a revealing statement, one that shows the structuring assumptions that underpin the response.
As noted previously, in answering the way it did, ChatGPT actually gets to the heart of key debates in the history of state policy towards refugees, particularly around the question of inclusivity. But in no way does ChatGPT answer to a satisfying degree. To make claims about openness and traditions, examples and evidence are required. Something that ChatGPT did not include.
Here, scholars still have much work to do. And, perhaps most critically, the perspectives of those subject to the state’s humanitarian policies need to be foregrounded. This is something that ChatGPT still cannot do. In answering in the most bland and generic way possible, the response provided by ChatGPT to the question, “Has Canada historically been a welcoming country for refugees?” reminds us that answers do not lie in the policy sphere alone. The people subject to the laws and policies around refugee protection and humanitarian admissions have much to say in this regard and, as the Active History post from Shezan Muhammedi yesterday shows, ChatGPT is far from being able to capture this critical dimension at present.
Laura Madokoro is a member of the Editorial Collective at activehistory.ca.