Whataboutism

Contrived outrage over Haitian asylum seekers in Quebec

All refugee claimants deserve respect, compassion, and dignity
Photo: Jean

When I read that Montreal’s Olympic Stadium was going to be used temporarily to house asylum seekers crossing from the U.S., I promptly shared the news on Twitter, adding, "Cue the anti-immigrant folks who'll suddenly remember our homeless."

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Sadly, I was proven right. Comment threads were flooded with fake outrage and insincere concern for those on the street, likely by people who had walked by someone in need that very morning without giving them a loonie — or more than a glance.

This tactic of feigning interest in a supposedly more important issue isn’t meant to shift the conversation, but rather to shut it down.

Changing the subject

In most cases, it’s nothing more than thinly veiled contempt or disinterest in the original topic. Here are some recent examples.

“Gender-based violence in Canada is a major issue that needs to be tackled.” “But what about women forced to wear the niqab in some Muslim countries?”

“There is an alarming amount of police violence against Black men in the United States.” “But what about Black-on-Black crime?”

“Sexual violence and rape against women is a huge problem.” “But what about rape against men?”

“Omar Khadr received $10.5 million because his rights as a Canadian citizen were violated.” “But what about our veterans?”

“The Olympic Stadium will be temporarily housing asylum seekers crossing from the U.S.” “But what about Montreal’s homeless?”

In such cases, no attempt is made to find solutions to the initially raised issue.

These are all examples of “whataboutism” or “whataboutery,” a technique to deflect criticism or attention by pointing, often disingenuously, at something happening elsewhere. It works on people who only skim inflammatory headlines and don’t bother learning the facts.

The asylum seekers are being housed at the Olympic Stadium temporarily. The location is not a long-term solution for anyone, least of all Montreal’s homeless. Furthermore, there are already multiple shelters for the city’s homeless, though some people choose to remain on the streets of their own volition for a variety of complex reasons. Implying that solving Montreal’s homeless problem is as easy as trading one set of occupants for another is both false and a classic example of whataboutism.

Trump pushing asylum seekers to Canada

President Trump has threatened to withdraw the protected status of approximately 50,000 Haitians who took refuge in the U.S. after the devastating earthquake of 2010, which killed tens of thousands and was followed by a cholera epidemic and hurricanes. Their protected status allows them to remain in the country and work without necessarily gaining permanent residency. But this temporary status expires in January, at which point they may no longer be able to legally remain.

During a recent CBC interview, Emmanuel Depas, a Haitian-born immigration lawyer who now lives in New York, explained that many would face poverty and persecution if they returned to their home country, while those with U.S.–born children would be separated from their families.

According to Maclean’s “recent history suggests half or more of those Haitians now arriving in Montréal ultimately will not be approved to stay in Canada.”

I’ve seen many debates about whether these people are “true refugees” or just economic migrants looking to “cheat the system” by jumping the immigration line. Similar arguments were made about Syrian refugees as well as other immigrants in the past — my parents included.

Not everyone questioning the legitimacy of these claimants is xenophobic or anti-immigrant. I understand people’s concerns about added stress on our already strained federal Immigration and Refugee Board and what this means for a future influx of asylum seekers at our borders. But, fundamentally, most reactions are simply anti-immigrant sentiment and suspicion of the motivations of “others.”

We shouldn’t really care whether these are “refugees” or “migrants” or “asylum seekers” (notice how the term “expat” is always reserved for the white and the privileged), we should care that they’re people in need. People who are so desperate, so scared, and so anxious about their future that they’re willing to pick up and flee to the unknown again.

Whatever the outcome of their refugee claims, they should be treated with respect, compassion, and dignity. Our status in life is so often determined by capricious factors that have nothing to do with who we are and what we deserve. As we attempt to rank people’s desperation, need, and legitimacy, we should try to remember that.

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