Canadian Immigration and the Politics of Fear
Once upon a time, about half a century ago, Canadians felt differently about providing safe haven to people fleeing persecution. I can still remember the excitement that permeated my elementary school classroom as we prepared a mid-year welcome for three new students. They were Hungarian kids, whose parents had fled their homeland in the aftermath of a failed revolution and among them not a word of English was spoken or understood. Our teacher cut out and scripted a banner in Hungarian, which translated in English to “Welcome to Canada, your new home.” Taking our cue from her leadership, we students couldn’t do enough to help the newcomers in our midst settle in. I have a strong feeling that similar scenarios played out in classrooms across our country.
Let’s not sell ourselves short. Not only did Canada sign and ratify the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, but our government of the day, propelled by Lester Pearson (in various capacities) was a driving force behind the idea that people fleeing persecution were deserving of protection and that the civilized international community had an obligation to provide it to them.
In the years that followed, Canada more than pulled its weight. We led by example, as can be seen from the following numbers:
1956-57 Canada received 37,500 Hungarian refugees
1968-69 Canada took in 11,500 Czechoslovakian refugees
1972 Canada resettled over 6,000 Ugandan Asians
1973 Canada accepted 6,000 Chileans
1979-80 Canada accommodated 60,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians
1999 Canada accepted more than 7,000 Kosovars
Fast forward now to the summer of 2010 and compare the welcome we extended to 500 or so Tamil men, women, and children, who arrived on our shores claiming persecution in the aftermath of their failed revolution. Our initial response, this time around, was a far cry from days of yore. This time, the first thing we did was lock them up. Today, more than six months later, about 100 of these refugee claimants are still in detention, in spite of a Federal Court decision that ordered some of them to be released. As one judge noted, the actions of the government are nothing short of an abuse of the court process. But you can pay no mind to what our judges have to say on the matter because our Immigration Minister, Mr. Jason Kenney, has publicly criticized them for rendering judgements that, in his mind, prevent him from properly administering the immigration programs under his charge. According to the Minister, most Canadians share his views. Maybe he’s right. We’ll probably find out soon enough as more and more it seems like a spring election is in the cards.
For good measure, this past fall, the government introduced a bill in Parliament entitled “Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act.” Who can argue with a title like that? The problem is that the proposed legislation mostly contains measures that will punish not the smugglers, but the people they are smuggling, including refugees who need to get into Canada to save their lives. For example, any refugee claimant to whom the law applies will be subject to detention for a year without the possibility of any review. And under this bill, even when refugees are accepted by Canada, they will not be able to transition to permanent resident status for another five years. Some welcome. To their credit, none of the opposition parties are willing to support the intended legislation as it is presently drafted and so, unless the Conservative government can obtain a majority of seats in Parliament, this mean-spirited bill will not see the light of day.
This is all part of a “tough on crime” agenda that appeals to the governing party’s rank and file. It is not much different than the government’s plan to spend billions on the construction and staffing of more prisons even though, for the most part, crime rates in Canada are in decline. In the next election the Conservatives want to be able to portray those who oppose such members as “soft on crime.” They are choosing to play to voters’ fears for potential political gain. For me, I prefer the leadership of people like my elementary school teacher.