Canada is uniquely good at hiding racism and other sins in the nooks and crannies of policy and law.
Tucked away in a recent 392-page omnibus budget bill is an announcement by the federal Liberal government that asylum seekers from the United States will no longer be able to make claims in Canada — regardless of whether they have already entered Canada. The intention is clear: to limit the number of irregular border crossings, which have increased since 2017 in the wake of extremist closed-border measures in the United States, including President Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries and the removal of temporary protected status for Haitian and other migrants.
This move puts Canada in sync with the United States and signals what migrant rights activists have long known. Our country is no less willing than any other to sow fear, build walls, and isolate itself from the consequences of its actions around the world.
Enabling Trump’s xenophobia
From February 2017 to December 2018, the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada recorded over 38,000 irregular border crossings, many in Quebec and Manitoba. While this is more than in previous years, the total numbers are still small. The crisis is in our country’s immigration system, not the people, as the Migrant Rights Network has said.
People have been entering Canada irregularly as a result of the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement, signed in 2002. It says that migrants who enter the United States — a supposedly “safe” country — must make their asylum claims there. If they try to enter Canada via a regular border crossing, they will be denied.
Under international law, Canada has a legal obligation to hear the asylum claims of anyone within the country. As a result, migrants — mostly racialized — have been seeking refuge from the onslaught of hate in the United States by risking everything, down to their fingers and toes, to find ways to cross the northern border in remote areas.
Now the Liberal government wants to be able to refuse to hear their asylum claims and their plea that the United States is not safe for them, contributing to and enabling the blatant racism and xenophobia that has become the rhetorical and practical reality of U.S. border policy.
The core argument of “safe third country,” which is now being extended by this new proposal, is that Canada does not need to accept asylum claims from migrants crossing from countries with which it shares certain information because they will receive a fair hearing and a similar level of protection there.
Fundamental to this position is a validation of the U.S. refugee and asylum process. It must be seen as not only fair but also identical enough to the Canadian one in order to argue that no claim heard there would be treated differently here. The myth that Canada is a welcoming place for refugees, despite not translating into reality, gives the legitimization of the flawed U.S. system more weight.
Recent changes to U.S. refugee policy have resulted in a dramatic decrease in the number of people being resettled and receiving protection, with a particular and disturbing decline in the number of Muslims being resettled in particular. This is happening in a context where asylum hearings are being held for young children without proper translation and counsel, where what’s on the table includes banning asylum seekers from making claims if they cross the border irregularly or requiring them to stay outside the country until their hearings, and where all levels of government are complicit in the dehumanization of migrants.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he wants the Canadian system to be “fair,” and his ministers have claimed that asylum seekers are “shopping” around for the best deal. This rhetoric only adds fuel to the xenophobia and hate growing increasingly dangerous across the country.
International law has been cautious about the application and scope of safe third country agreements, given that such agreements can violate the intended spirit of protection for migrants. “The ‘first country of asylum’ concept is generally applied in cases where a person has already, in a previous state, found international protection that continues to be accessible and effective for the individual concerned,” according to a 2018 report from the UN High Commission on Refugees. This and other caveats raise important questions about the legality of the Liberal proposal.
What does the Liberal announcement says about the kind of border being constructed in Canada and its relationship to walls being built elsewhere?
When stories emerged in the winter of 2017 about people suffering frostbite and losing fingers in order to cross the Canadian border, advocates pointed to the Safe Third Country Agreement as the main culprit. By refusing to consider that the United States is not safe for everyone, the Canadian government pushed migrants to cross at remote points under unsafe conditions (much like U.S. border policy has pushed migrants farther into the Sonoran Desert, causing more deaths and suffering). Instead of cancelling the agreement, the government is now doubling down on the idea of “safety.”
The political aim of this announcement is certainly related to the upcoming elections and the far-right stoking of anti-migrant sentiment across the country. It’s cowardly and will cause harm, not least for the way it emboldens and legitimizes more extreme responses to migration.
But it also does far more than just ignore problems south of the border. It signals the active role Canada plays in a massive system of global apartheid that is strengthening walls and using fear to maintain power and privilege.
Canada is doing this at the same time it participates in political interventions and extracts wealth and resources in ways that make the places migrants come from unlivable. Claiming the United States is safe implicitly justifies and plays into Trump’s campaign to build a wall. It justifies and colludes with the Islamophobia that is being baked into the U.S. immigration and refugee system. It justifies and colludes with seeing migrants as easy political scapegoats forthe larger problems of rampant greed and accumulation. And it does all of this easily because it is not that new or different for the Canadian immigration system.
The geography of white supremacy
Canadian immigration is no stranger to racism, classism, and other types of stratification that have determined who can belong here and who can’t. Of note in the current context is that the Trudeau government actually ended the program providing temporary protection to Haitian migrants — which had been implemented to stop deportations to Haiti following the devastating 2010 earthquake there — in 2016, before the United States.
More broadly, the structure and geography of the Canadian border creates and reinforces a very particular form of white isolationism. When looking at the moral panic that has emerged because of people trying to escape the United States, it is striking how such a relatively small issue can be such a lightning rod for open racism and fear-mongering.
And then I remember that Canada does not share a border with the Global South. The consequences of Canada’s imperial activity and capital accumulation, along with the exported consequences of the climate crisis, are not felt through a daily “open wound,” as Gloria Anzaldúa described the southern U.S. border, where people resist and push back against global apartheid in numbers that many Canadians can’t really imagine.
When Canada is made to feel even a small bit of this resistance, the disproportionate and panicked response is just as violent, indeed cut from the same cloth as building a wall and separating families in detention camps.
The dehumanizing language of an “influx” of “asylum shoppers” — which refers to a minute fraction of the yearly entries into this country — creates a picture we do not need to accept. For those of us looking to challenge border policy, let’s push the conversation and take the lead from migrant justice organizers in fighting to reframe the problem and repose the solutions. Instead of hiding behind legality and a so-called fair process, we can acknowledge that what is going on right now is a crisis of life in the world and we can be bold about recognizing our role and responsibility by, in part, refusing to decide for others what they need to be safe.
People are resilient and will continue to cross borders as long as they exist. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid makes the case that the right to move is about seeking the full range of human dignity and freedom, whether it is about physical safety, economic security, or the emotional health that comes from being in and with community.
The indefatigable forces of capitalism and colonialism build borders and judge an individual’s worth, stripping away the full range of human dignity in the process — and it is for the possibility of realizing that full range we need to fight.