Debate over Ottawa’s handling of the settlement of refugee claimants has both the Trudeau government and the Conservatives trying to bait each other into appearing too soft or too hard on the hot-button issue, but the Tories should be wary of appealing to the baser instincts of voters, say advocates and political players.
“I think the opposition has to be fairly responsible here, too. You can get into the mechanics of the problem and the downloading issues, which are all legitimate issues. You’ve got to be careful not to get into baiting on identity issues, because there are some Canadians who may have a less generous view of immigration,” said Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies and a former adviser to Conservative leaders. “And they want to be careful of playing to some of the lower-based needs of those people.”
If the Conservatives want their message to cut through the noise, then they should stick to the systemic issues around it, he added.
Conservatives, led by Conservative MP Michelle Rempel (Calgary Nose Hill, Alta.), the party’s immigration critic, have been applying pressure on the federal government to divulge more details on its plan for dealing with migrants coming in from the United States border. Ms. Rempel has often invoked the need for a “compassionate asylum system,” saying that it’s not “fair” for claimants to be housed in makeshift arrangements because the system is too overloaded to accommodate them. Her party has called for the government to designate the entire Canada-U.S. border a “port of entry,” which critics have said is impractical and would only push refugees to take more dangerous routes.
At the same time, Ms. Rempel and others in the party have been called out for using language that critics say play to some Canadians’ fears about refugees. The party has been using the issue as a hook to draw more supporters through a petition titled “Illegal Border Crossers,” in which it says the number of crossings will continue to climb “upwards of 400 individuals per day.”
But the latest government figures show there’s been a decline in the number of irregular border crossers who have sought asylum, with 1,263 recorded in June. It’s the lowest number recorded since June 2017. Whereas the average number of claims in April was 83, it’s since gone down from 57 claims per day in May to 39 claims per day in June. Many of the refugee claimants over the past year have come from Haiti and Nigeria.
Refugee advocates say that refugee numbers typically ebb and flow and it’s hard to predict when the numbers will rise.
While it’s “legitimate” for parties to press the government for more transparency, it shouldn’t be out of a sense of crisis, says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada.
“I find it very deeply troubling and objectionable that so many politicians and, quite frankly, a number of journalists, have been very loose with the words ‘crisis’ and ‘illegal,’ neither of which apply here,” Mr. Neve said. “It does build a sense of recklessness in the public if all you hear is ‘crisis,’ ‘illegal.'”
Janet Dench, executive director at the Canadian Council for Refugees, agreed: “There’s isn’t a crisis. There is and has always been ups and downs in the number of refugee claimants that come to Canada.”
Mr. Neve said the government should design systems flexible enough to respond to pressures, but that the “notion we can somehow … predict [flows] with absolute clarity and be able to manage it with absolute precision is absurd.”
The narrative around refugee claimants has also become a “bit one-sided,” Ms. Dench said. She questioned the conversations around the “cost” of resettling refugee claimants, saying that there are many communities that need people to fill labour shortages.
“When you hear provinces saying ‘We don’t want to contribute anything towards the costs,’ I might ask, ‘Are those provinces also saying any of the benefits that come from refugee claimants, they also want to be excluded from that as well?’”
The Conservatives’ “illegal border crossers” petition comes with a promo tweet, which went out on July 16, but was deleted either late at night that day or sometime on July 17, that references a Financial Post op-ed that says Ottawa is on the hook for a crisis it created because of a tweet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent in January 2017, in which he said: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”
In response to questions on why the tweet was first posted and then taken down, party spokesperson Cory Hann said by email that “the situation at our border is not about any one group of people,” it’s “a policy failure of the Trudeau government.” The image of the back of a man carrying luggage was from an Associated Press photo, and Mr. Hann said it was used by multiple mainstream outlets such as CBC.
In an appearance on CTV Power Play earlier this year, Conservative House leader Candice Bergen (Portage-Lisgar, Man.) also said that “asylum seekers” crossing the border are “jumping the queue,” ahead of refugees who “are trying to come into Canada legitimately.”
Mr. Neve disputed the notion that there’s a “queue for making a refugee claim.”
“International law recognizes that when people are on the move, seeking safety, they are lawfully entitled to cross borders and seek protection. They don’t have to wait to see whether they fit into a particular quota or category for a particular year,” he said.
Ms. Rempel has also raised questions about whether the acceptance of irregular border crossers has diverted resources from those trying to come to Canada “legally.” She considers the issue to be a crisis in part because many of the refugee claimants will soon face “eviction” in August since they’ve been temporarily housed in two college dormitories in Toronto.
In response to the Ontario government withdrawing its co-operation for resettling claimants, Ottawa announced on July 16 that $11-million of the $50-million that had been earmarked to help provinces and cities cope with the “influx” will be directly given to the City of Toronto.
Under the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Doug Ford, Ontario has demanded that Ottawa bear the costs associated with helping refugee claimants get settled while they await a decision on their claims. Before the election, Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal government was exploring the idea of setting up an information-sharing system to identify where the pressures in the system are for things such as housing.
“We were fully expecting it to be launched some months ago,” said Ms. Dench, adding that it’s unfair to blame Ottawa when it was looking to co-operate with Ontario.
Much of that debate around the language used to describe the issue was on display at a House Immigration Committee meeting on July 16, held because of a Conservative motion calling for a study examining the impact irregular border crossings have had on communities.
NDP MP and committee vice-chair Jenny Kwan (Vancouver East, B.C.) told the committee that the use of the word “illegal” to describe the migrants had bothered her “for some time.” She cited the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which states that anyone who enters the country and claims refugee protection can’t be charged with any offences under immigration law and some Criminal Code sections pending their claims.
Liberal MP and committee member Gary Anandasangaree (Scarborough-Rouge Park, Ont.) said there’s been a “concentrated effort of misinformation” and criticized the Conservatives for saying that 400 people cross the border every day, something he said was rebuffed by recent figures.
Ms. Rempel, in reply, cited the words of the immigration minister himself. In March, Mr. Hussen told the committee that he has used both “illegal and “irregular,” saying “I think both are accurate.”
Conservative MP David Tilson (Dufferin-Caledon, Ont.) said there was a sign at Roxham Road, a main crossing point in Quebec, stating that crossing the border was, in fact, illegal.
Ms. Kwan noted that she’s called on Mr. Hussen to use the “correct” terminology both at committee and in Question Period. She also took aim at the Conservatives, saying they conflate the stream of border-crossing inland refugees with streams for government-assisted and family-sponsored refugees, and general immigration.
“The Conservatives have continually misrepresented the issue,” she told reporters after the meeting. “Nobody is queue jumping, nobody is taking a spot away from someone else.”
Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto professor, said the appeal of the Conservatives’ tougher stance on who enters Canada plays to “not just their base.” He said polling numbers during the Syrian refugee crisis found more Canadians supported the Conservatives’ stance than popular support for the party.
The difference then, however, was how political commentators skewed towards the Liberals’ effort to resettle 50,000 refugees and a fewer and disproportionate number of opinions opposing it were found, he said.
“A lot of people are uncomfortable about it now. It’s not politically correct for newspapers to represent that. People like Ford, like Rempel know that.”
“It’s smart for them to do it,” Prof. Wiseman said of the Conservatives’ approach to refugees. “I’m not saying I would do it … but it’s more than their base. They recognize that more than 30 per cent of the public supports this position.”
The Hill Times
— Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Canada