No easy answers
Canada and Canadians have, for the most part, presented and enjoyed an attitude to immigration that is welcoming. This phenomenon has been part of our reputation for decades.
Now, is this attitude a consequence of Canadians being somehow unique, or better, than other societies around the world? Is our welcoming smile innate?
Or is it the case that Canada is bound by three oceans, one of which is mostly frozen, and then on one side by the largest immigration magnet in human history, the United States?
Let’s face it, our positive attitude to immigration exists because we can afford to let it exist. Canada is a difficult place to get to.
It is a rare thing that Canada has to react to unforeseen migration events that are not necessarily of its making. Remember the MV Sun Sea incident of 2010, when 492 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers arrived in British Columbia by boat? The political response at that time was anything but measured; our government was clearly unprepared to deal with the situation.
Just a few years later, we could be in for far greater numbers of asylum seekers arriving at the Canadian border. There is a perfect storm brewing. The policies of the new President of the United States have alarmed many of the 11 million or more undocumented persons residing in that country, and why wouldn’t they be alarmed? The President is taking a rigid approach to getting rid of them, including the “bad dudes” and the not-so-bad dudes.
Meanwhile, Canadian cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, Hamilton and, most recently, Montreal have declared themselves as sanctuary cities. Effectively, sanctuary cities pledge not to use immigration status, or lack thereof, as a pretext to arrest or deport individuals if they come into contact with law enforcement on non-criminal offences such as parking tickets. They also ensure that undocumented persons are not denied access to public services.
The move towards the sanctuary city model deserves a guarded welcome. Forcing people to live with anxiety and fear is not who we are. However, it is important to ensure that the status does not serve as a lighthouse beacon, calling millions of unvetted (and unvettable) people north.
I say this because Canadians’ positive attitude to immigration is contingent on the integrity of the immigration selection process, and that integrity is itself contingent on the government being able to say to Canadians that the people coming in do not present a threat. A recent Angus Read poll revealed that only 11 percent of Canadians were in favour of increasing the number of refugees coming to Canada. Meanwhile, another poll in Montreal found that more people were against the sanctuary city designation than were for the proposal. Canadians are not immune to the feelings shared by other societies.
Canada and the US share a land border that is more than 5,000 miles long. Along that border, there are around 120 border crossings. Ergo, much of the border is undefended.
An individual who anticipates that, were he or she to come to a border crossing and present an asylum case, he or she would be refused on criminal grounds, could bypass the official channels and simply enter Canada before making a beeline for sanctuary.
Under the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S., refugee claimants in one country can’t make the same claim on the other side of the border, but the agreement only applies to those who make their claims at official border crossings. If they manage to cross in an open area and hit Canadian soil, they are entitled to a hearing.
Various commentators have called for Canada to pull out of this agreement. On balance, I don’t think that this would be wise at this time. The US has a flawed, but ultimately fair and independent asylum system. Moreover (and this is important), this system is not run by the President, and it is protected by the judiciary — the same judiciary that struck down the President’s recent executive order on immigration.
There are no easy answers or solutions here. It is tempting to stick one’s head in the sand for the next four (or eight) years, but that doesn’t help. It also misses the global context, where we must realize that this move inwards among nations is not exclusive to the US. Look at Brexit, listen to rhetoric coming from the governments of Hungary and Poland, watch the ever-shortening odds of Marine Le Pen winning the French presidential election.
As the snow melts and the air warms along the border the deeper we move into 2017, it will be interesting to see how all the stakeholders react to what is a potentially divisive situation. Our good fortune geographically may have led us to believe that we are innately or inherently pro-immigration no matter what, but we may be about to test that hypothesis to its limit and find out that we Canadians are just like everybody else.