Lakehead University Alumni Magazine

Reaching out to Refugees

Liz McWeeny is fighting for the rights of displaced men, women, and children hoping to find new lives in Canada

Tracey Skehan
Published March 04, 2013
group photo
Liz McWeeny (centre) with a family whose interest-free loan from the Compassionet Impact Development Canada foundation helped them avoid eviction from their home in Mexico after their father Epitacio (far left) suffered a workplace injury

The typical tourist in Mexico concentrates on the sand between her toes, the crystal water, and the swaying palms. But not Liz McWeeny. When vacationing there, she met a family of nine living in a tarpaper shack, on land for which they were paying an exorbitant rate of interest, and knew something had to be done.

McWeeny and her husband Richard Buset (BA'73) founded Compassionet Impact Development Canada (CIDC), a foundation that works with local churches and other partners in Mexico to build houses, run education programs, start neighbourhood libraries, and provide business micro-loans.

This hands-on response to human suffering is instinctive for McWeeny. She has fought for the rights of refugees for more than 30 years.

And her encounter in this Mexican vacation paradise gave McWeeny deeper insight into her life's work. She realized she was witnessing firsthand the root causes of forced migrations – the poverty, oppression, and injustice that drive people to seek refuge in countries like Canada.

McWeeny's willingness to take direct action, "as a volunteer, advocate and leading Canadian voice on behalf of refugees," was recently recognized by Governor General David Johnston – she is now a Member of the Order of Canada. "It's very exciting," she says, "because this type of work is often not valued today and I share this honour with many colleagues. We never work in isolation."

McWeeny is a past president of the Canadian Council for Refugees (CCR) and has helped hundreds of people from all corners of the world. She's currently the chair of one of CCR's working groups on overseas protection and has been involved with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

But like Compassionet Impact, her refugee work began at the grassroots level. "Our parish church, St. Patrick's Cathedral in Thunder Bay, was one of the very first to receive a Vietnamese refugee family," who were part of the exodus of Boat People escaping the wars and killing fields of Southeast Asia in the late 1970s.

Resettlement programs are one of the most powerful solutions to these horrific situations because they invest in peoples' futures. "You are not only changing the life of an individual, a family – but the lives of the following generations," McWeeny points out.

Finding their way to the safety of Canada is just the first step for refugees as they try to adapt to a completely new society. "It's like me," McWeeny says, "being planted in the middle of the Gobi Desert with a suitcase." That's why she has thrown herself so wholeheartedly into doing everything she can to help refugees become valued members of communities across the country.

McWeeny's commitment to building strong communities has embraced Lakehead University as well. Both she and her husband have been instrumental in the success of initiatives like the Advanced Technology and Academic Centre (ATAC) building campaign and the creation of student bursaries.

As Liz McWeeny and her family prepared to travel to Ottawa's Rideau Hall in November to celebrate her investiture into the Order of Canada, she reflected on why Canadians should care about the fate of refugees. "We become richer by sharing our abundance. We also add the most amazing survivors to our society who bring their culture, their skills, their dreams, and their commitment to us as a country."

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