Canadian Immigration and the Politics of Fear

February 28th, 2011

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.

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10 Responses to “Canadian Immigration and the Politics of Fear”

  • On March 1st, 2011, Victor said ...

    Too bad that Canadian government act like that with immigrants. Now it resembles more and more the U.S.A. government. I live in Chihuahua Mexico near the U.S.A. border. Here the situation is like a war. I´ve seen people from the drugs cartels armed with AK-47 shooting other people just in front of me. And this happens everyday several times a day in my city! Nobody is after me trying to kill me, but I don´t want my child to grow up in this kind of environment. My wife and I we´re both Chemical Engineers, and as you can see, my english is not that bad, we would be excellent canadian citizens, but nowadays Canada is the most difficult part of the world to visit for a mexican, let alone to immigrate. I visited Canada a few years ago and I was fascinnated with the country, the people, the culture, I promised myself that one day I´ll return with my family, and now, I can´t even go as a tourist! It´s a lot easier for us to visit U.S.A. and we do several times a year, but we don´t want to live there, because we love Canada!!!

  • On March 1st, 2011, Alabaman said ...

    I agree with Victor. Canada is very difficult to get into these days. I see a US struggling to fix its immigration system and Canada trying to mess its immigration system up. Canada hardly grants visitors visa to friends and family members to visit. In most cases their decisions are irrational. I understand they are trying to protect their country but just like the asylum legislation Cohen talked about, they lump everybody as “criminals” and on that basis deny them from visiting or immigrating. Did anybody also notice in the article above where Cohen showed the historical number of refugees let into Canada, there nothing for Africans? It even gets more interesting when you juxtapose with the fact that more conflicts happen in that continent? The only mention of Africa was for Asians! Ugandan Asians! I will leave you all to make your conclusion on this.

  • On March 1st, 2011, Margaret said ...

    in 1995 a canadian man from montreal came to work in west africa. he told me about the beauty of Canada, he introduced me to maple syrup and Celine Dion and finally told me that if i ever got into trouble and was fleeing affliction, i should find my way to Canada and i will find solace, but from what i have read, i truly dont know any more because i think of Canada everyday. i even have friends there and they tell me about the beauty of it and the kindhearted people who live there.

  • On March 2nd, 2011, Ashton Peters said ...

    Dear Attorney Cohen,
    You are a learned Lawyer and an advocate for Canadians and Non-Canadians alike. You know much more than anyone else can ever imagine…during the course of your practice, how many “visitors” to Canada wish to “Stay Back” under some pretext? Dosen’t matter which country they belong, but they feel it is right to take advantage of the liberal Canadian Refugee Laws. So please stop siding the “Tamils” who arrive in Canadian shores by the boatloads. Most “Tamils” are enjoying vacations in Sri Lanka as they claim refugee in Canada. I am a Canadian Tamil and I have no sympathy towards these people. I work hard to pay taxes. I don’t want to see my tax dollars wasted on these freebies.

  • On March 3rd, 2011, Margaret said ...

    @Ashton Peters, i understand how you feel. i was brought up on hardwork and made to know that no labour is lost labour. if anyone is given refugee status no matter what tribe or in whatever country for that matter, they should be made to get employment and pay taxes too.

  • On March 6th, 2011, Mike said ...

    Mr. David, unfortunately the main problem right now seems to be the inherent weakness of the opposition, particularly the Liberal Party of Canada. They are not fully committed to win the next elections or not being able to capitalize on their public agenda. This is certainly not very healthy for the Canadian democracy as a whole. It enables the Conservative Government to pursue their agenda almost with impunity. I am taking a look at the polls and it is very sad what I am seeing there.

  • On May 1st, 2011, Anonymous said ...

    Canadian law is meant to give solace to those who need it, but it is also meant to protect Canadian citizens and others who are living here legally. When a boat filled with migrants arrives at our shores, we don’t know who the boat is carrying. Given that the Tamil Tigers have been designated a terrorist organization known for such acts as attacking civilians and recruiting child soldiers, anyone can understand the need for due diligence to prevent the entry of members and sympathizers of this organization gaining entry into Canada.

    Also, the Tamil Tigers were defeated in May 2009. The boat did not arrive in Canada until August of 2010. The war was over. What were they seeking refuge from?

  • On June 3rd, 2011, Anonymous said ...

    Canadian Law has changed in the last several years regarding immigration because of Canada’s low birth rate. Because of this, provinces such as PEI whose population is only about 140,000 is accepting thousands of chinese immigrants each year. Most islanders would wholeheartedly accepting those seeking help from persecution but instead, are becoming resentful. The Canadian Government needs to rectify this.

  • On June 23rd, 2011, Jeremy said ...






  • On February 13th, 2012, Anonymous said ...

    Any visitor who enter Canada can easily extend their stay by paying a small fees in the visitor extension which give them them ample time to scam into work permit, PR and many more. How is the government working on this or just collect more fees as an income ? Many of this so called visitor eventually became the bottle-collector, dish washer and cash worker. These people make better money than in their home country.

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