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Border challenges set to test Canada's welcoming self-image

immigration2_thumb.jpgCanadians are on the brink of a difficult test: are we prepared to live up to our stated commitments to tolerance, by welcoming immigrants and refugees who fear living in Trump’s America?

Canadians often describe Canada as a welcoming country, committed to including and accommodating immigrants and refugees from around the world.  We have space for – indeed we welcome – people who hold different cultural and religious values, so long as they are able to respect our democratic institutions and the equality of all citizens. As long as newcomers respect that we are a nation that respects difference, they are welcome.  

And while this is a comfortable and satisfying narrative, we cannot ignore the discrimination and barriers many new immigrant communities face. Moreover, we cannot forget that this welcoming narrative persists alongside a real, though currently suppressed, counter-narrative of fear and anxiety about large numbers of newcomers, especially those of Muslim origin. This counter-narrative is not the dominant current in Canada for now, but the rise of anti-immigrant politics around the world must serve as a real warning to us.

Many have argued that when Canadians voted against the Conservative government in October 2015, they were doing so to reject its attempt to generate fear of newcomers from Muslim-dominated countries.  In voting against the Conservative Government, Canadians  rejected the proposed tip-line, which would have given Canadians an opportunity to report that suspicious neighbours engaged in possibly ‘barbaric cultural acts’.  We protested the Conservative proposal to welcome only 10,000 Syrian refugees, in the face of so much need.

And nowhere was our pride in ourselves more in evidence than when we cheered Mr. Trudeau’s commitment to rapidly process the admission of 25,000 Syrian refugees in one-year. We protested angrily when he delayed meeting this goal by 2 months, and when all was said and done Canadians had welcomed not 25,000 refugees in one year, but 38,000, most of whom were Syrian (other countries of course admitted more refugees, both in absolute numbers and proportional to their population, for resettlement and temporarily).

Our then-minister of Immigration John McCallum pronounced proudly that he was the only minister of Immigration in the world chastised by his constituents for admitting too few refugees and too slowly.  The head of the United Nations High Commission of Refugees travelled to Canada to thank Canadians for responding with open arms in the face of the worst refugee crisis in decades. Indeed, the government has signalled its intention to admit another 40,000 refugees this year.

Amidst this celebration there exists a quietly expressed worry, however, that Canada’s success in welcoming immigrants and refugees stems in part from its geographically privileged position.  We do not share a border with a developing country.  We have not shared a border with a country that produces refugees.  We have had the liberty to choose those who join us and to examine their credentials at considerable remove from our territory. Our territorial sovereignty has not been at risk.

"Safe Third Country"

This privileged position seems set to change.  The arrival of 22 asylum seekers at the Manitoba border, and two Ghanaians before them –  who travelled on land from the United States to access the safety of Canada – is just the beginning.  Donald Trump’s executive orders on immigration, which at least temporarily restrict entry to the US for citizens of many countries, and which expand the power of immigration officers who have already began rounding up and deporting irregular migrants, are presently being tested in American courts for constitutionality.  But, even as we wait for the courts to render final verdicts, Canada’s situation has shifted in ways that require significant and careful attention.

Progressive organizations, including the Broadbent Institute, have called on the Trudeau government to respond strongly, to admit those who can no longer confidently access safety in the United States, and to abandon our Safe Third Country agreement with the United States.  This agreement requires that any asylum seeker arriving at a border must have their claim processed in the country in which she first arrives; it permits summary denial of such a claim, made at the US-Canada border, on the grounds that she should pursue the claim in the safe country in which she is located. This agreement permits the third country to return a claimant to be processed in the country in which she landed originally.  

Yet, the executive orders have generated a dangerous and worrying climate in the United States for irregular migrants, and especially for asylum seekers, who no longer believe they can expect a fair hearing.  The persistence of ‘safe third’ forces asylum seekers to attempt to gain entry to Canada illegally, to make their claims once they are inside Canada, since they can be summarily dismissed at the border itself.

The role of progressives in creating a welcoming country for refugees

To date, Mr. Trudeau’s statements have been underwhelming for those of us who desire a strong commitment to protect those who face uncertain futures in Trump’s America.  But, as we protest what we perceive to be foot-dragging, we must ready ourselves for the consequences the commitment that we seek.  

If we revoke or suspend the Safe Third Country agreement, and even if we do not, we will see considerable increase in the number of asylum claims in our territory. There are reports that the Immigration and Refugee Board is planning accordingly.  As our national responses to arrivals by boat suggest, many Canadians are fearful of ‘hordes’ arriving at our borders.  Whatever their numbers, as new refugees arrive by land, some Canadians will fear for our territorial sovereignty.

It is our job, as progressives, to prepare to combat these fears, now, so that we are ready when they are expressed. We must reiterate the message that immigrants and refugees enrich our country, help our economy, and integrate quickly into our society, as proud and loyal Canadians.  We must reject Islamophobia and racism in all its forms.

We must lobby the government to expand the capacity of our asylum processing system.  We must advocate for the creation and support of better-resourced resettlement services for those whose asylum claims are accepted.  We can participate in and support the Private Sponsorship of Refugees Program, the success of which is largely responsible for Canadians’ ongoing welcome of refugees in a global climate that has turned against them.  

We must continue to build on Canada’s strong history of immigrant inclusion in the media, and with our government, so that when arrivals at our border increase, as they look set to do, we will be ready to welcome them.

Patti Tamara Lenard is Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and an expert on immigration policy. She is a Broadbent Institute policy fellow. 

Image: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Jimmy Emerson, DVM