Divergent views in a Vancouver bar

Posted by Katie DeRosa on Wednesday, August 29, 2012
I learned just how divisive is the migrant ships issue in Australia before I even arrived in the country. I was in a bar in Vancouver, the Speakeasy on Granville, busy with travellers and regulars on a Sunday night. While waiting for my friend to arrive, I started to chat with a pair of backpackers. One was from Brisbane, the other an Italian who had spent a year in Australia and a year in New Zealand, which resulted in a very peculiar and unplaceable accent. They asked why I was going to Australia. I said I'm a journalist on assignment. "What's the story?" the Brisbanite asked. "I'm doing a story on the migrant ships and detention centres," I said. They laughed, a lot. When I asked why, the Italian stubbornly said I'd find out when I get there. Not one to be rebuffed, I pressed on. "What?" I asked. "No one there cares," he said, dismissively, going on to suggest no one particularly cares what happens to the refugees. Stunned, I got up and walked away.

Less than half an hour later, sitting at the bar, a guy named Reed overheard me telling my friend my first stop was Perth. "Those guys are from Perth," he said, pointing to a high table near the back. I sparked a conversation with three men in their early 30s who were heading to Vancouver Island for a buddy's wedding in Sooke. Conversation went on and I told them about my story.

"It's such a tough issue, everyone has an opinion on it," Mike said, which is even more true now that Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the return of offshore processing on Nauru or Manus Island, which critics call a return to former prime minister John Howard's much-maligned Pacific Solution.

"There's really no right or wrong answer," Mike continued, sounding sympathetic for both sides, a sort of "you-can't-win-for-losing" attitude. Which strikes the heart of the matter. The government can't afford to do nothing, since hundreds of asylum seekers have died at sea after some of the dangerous boats organized by human smugglers in South East Asia sink before their target. But the indefinite, long-term detention of people fleeing persecution in their home country, at the cost of billions of dollars and at the disgust of refugee rights groups, hardly seems like an ideal solution either.

So, loaded with my backpack and a head full of questions, I left the bar, left Canada, read to take on one of Australia's most polarizing issues.


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