What does the murder of a 24-year-old woman, found with blows to her body and a bullet in her forehead in Mexico, have to do with Canada's immigration system? To refugee advocates it represents the system's fundamental failure to uphold the rights of asylum seekers: the 24-year-old victim and her mother and sister had twice sought refuge in Canada from the druglords who are believed to have killed her upon her deportation.
Immigrant rights activists are concerned by a pattern of tighter controls, increased deportations and inflammatory anti-immigrant posturing over the past year that further erodes the myth of benevolence in Canada's immigration policy. According to figures obtained by the Canadian Press, deportations from Canada have skyrocketed 50 per cent over the last decade, with approximately 13,000 deportations annually. By August of 2009, over 9,000 people had already been deported this year. In October, executive director of the Canadian Council of Refugees Janet Dench told the Globe and Mail, "This totally contradicts people who continue to say in the media that claimants are never deported from Canada. The reality is that this is a daily business, a daily experience that claimants are very routinely removed from Canada."
The growing difficulty asylum seekers face in Canada is evident in a series of recent immigration changes. Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney's annual report shows a decreasing "target" of 11,000 people in the number of accepted asylum seekers and sponsored family members. Parliament's citizenship and immigration committee recently voted six to five to establish a refugee appeal division, with all five oppositional votes cast by Conservative MPs. Kenney has imposed visa requirements targeting refugee claimants from Mexico and the Czech Republic by suggesting they are "system-abusers," while announcing a biometric plan for all visa holders. In April 2009, Kenney oversaw the largest immigration raid in recent Canadian history, during which Canadian Border Services Agency officers stormed farms, factories and homes to detain over 100 non-status workers in Ontario. Kenney has justified the current month-long detention of 76 Tamil asylum seekers in B.C. by suggesting they are possible security threats.
As successful refugee claims have fallen, temporary worker programs have proliferated across the country. More people are now admitted to Canada under Temporary Employment Authorizations than as permanent residents. In B.C., the number of migrant workers has doubled over the past five years, spurred on by a construction boom, the upcoming 2010 Olympics, trans-provincial transport of the Alberta tar sands, and exponential growth in the mining industry.
In October 2009, the federal government proposed major changes to Canada's Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Although the government asserts that these revisions "strengthen protection for temporary foreign workers," migrant rights activists say these changes will work against the interests of those whom they purport to protect and have organized a national day of action for migrant workers on December 2. One regulation limits most workers to a term of four years, after which a six-year ban will be imposed before workers can return to Canada.
According to Chris Ramsaroop, a member of Justicia for Migrant Workers, Canada's increasing shift to temporary worker programs has far-reaching negative impacts. Based on a decade of work with migrant workers in Ontario's agricultural sector, he explains that exploitative conditions are endemic to such programs: long hours, low pay, lack of basic health and safety standards, denial of basic entitlements such as unemployment benefits and social assistance, and constant fear of deportation by employers.
Under the Security and Prosperity Partnership Agreement, the governments of Canada, the U.S. and Mexico are eager to increase their reliance on temporary worker programs. Citing labour flexibility, the U.S government has pointed to Canada's Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program as the model to implement.
Ramsaroop remarks that although the rapid expansion of temporary worker programs is a recent development, "Canada's reliance on indentured, exploited, and racialized workers is nothing new. We have historically built labour forces where some workers are provided with rights while many are not."
For groups like Justicia for Migrant Workers and No One Is Illegal, the ballooning numbers of temporary workers alongside the plummeting numbers of permanent residents and refugees is no coincidence. "It is not in the Canadian state's or Canadian corporate interests to deport all racialized migrants; it needs a pool of labour that is hyper-exploitable," states Harjap Grewal, a long-time migrant justice activist. "Migrant worker programs, in contrast to permanent residents, legalize the foreign-ness of people of colour. By decreasing the number of permanent residents Canada can uphold the ideology of White Canada, while ensuring that their role in the economy as cheap labour is filled by migrant workers who are as expendable as tissue paper."
Grewal's accusation of mounting government racism towards immigrants has been echoed by advocates across the country, especially during Minister Kenney's reign. Kenney has made a series of inflammatory comments including that Canada needs to get tough on immigrants who do not speak English or French, that he will not tolerate immigrants who do not integrate, and that multiculturalism doesn't mean "anything goes."
Not one to limit himself to empty rhetoric, Kenney introduced a new citizenship guide in November. According to "Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship," the obligations of citizenship include getting a job and not engaging in barbaric cultural practices such as spousal abuse, genital mutilation or honour killings. The latter section is accompanied by an image of a woman wearing a hijab.
"This jargon is fundamentally rooted in racist ideologies," says Nassim Elbardouh of No One Is Illegal Vancouver. "Kenney is appealing to public fears of immigrants by casting them as un-Canadian and relying on Hollywood stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, rather than a systemic and universal analysis of gender violence." Elbardouh contends that despite its political expediency, Canadian authorities' have actually failed to address women's issues; for example their lack of response to the alarming numbers of murdered and missing women, disproportionately Indigenous.
Notably omitted from the Guidebook's section on equality is any mention of the rights of lesbian, gay and trans people. Pivotal moments in Canadian immigration history - such as the Komagata Maru ship incident where 376 Indian migrants were denied entry - are also glaringly missing. Kenney's response to such criticisms has been that owing to space constraints, not everything could be included.
The guide does manage to make ample room for Canada's military history in the "Defending Canada" section, including a recruitment advertisement: "serving in the regular Canadian Forces is a noble way to contribute to Canada and makes an excellent career choice." For activists like Sarah Bjorknas with the War Resisters campaign, this emphasis on militarization in the guidebook links domestic immigration policies to aggressive foreign policies. According to Bjorknas, "The existing biases of the Conservative Party towards wars and occupations has encouraged Kenney to politically influence immigration policy and further an atmosphere of fearful jingoism both at home and abroad."
As examples of the ways in which Canada's foreign policy is influencing immigration policy, she notes Kenney's labelling of Iraq war resisters as bogus refugee claimants, the barring of British Member of Parliament George Galloway because of his opposition to Canada's role in Afghanistan, and Kenney's cutting of language-training funding to the Canadian Arab Federation due to the organization's involvement in pro-Palestinian efforts. "That Prime Minister Harper does not appear to put any restraints on Kenney's public commentary tells us that he is free to spread the party line on what Canada's role in the world should be," adds Bjorknas.
Outraged by this fundamental realignment in Canadian immigration policy, activists across the country have been mounting campaigns to counter the message of Jason Kenney with their own message: Deport Jason Kenney! Status for All!
Harsha Walia is a South Asian activist, writer, and researcher based in Vancouver, Coast Salish Territories. She has been involved in the migrant justice movement for a decade.