Policing the borders means policing Canadian journalism?

| July 20, 2011

While awaiting an important, far-reaching speech by Canada's Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Tuesday, I was chatting to a fellow reporter when organizers kicked me out moments before it began -- despite having a press invite and the complimentary cookie they gave me in hand. 

As a young freelance -- published in rabble.ca, Briarpatch, Media Co-op, the United Church Observer and the Anglican Journal -- there is sometimes a nagging doubt that I really belong in the places I report, particularly in the case of the federal government and its increasingly slick public relations machine.

But yesterday, after I was accredited with an official press badge and info packet at a "public consultation" event with the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, I felt comfortable, and spent almost an hour inside chatting to fellow reporters awaiting his speech. Unceremoniously, I was suddenly -- and sternly -- ordered to leave by police from behind the official media table, moments before the minister spoke.

Although this deeply concerns me as a journalist (reminding me of Stephen Harper's "five questions" limit on reporters during the federal election campaign), as someone who has reported on refugee rights and migration issues, it seems indicative of the increasingly hostile and draconian climate towards migrants in Canada, a climate which should concern all of us.

The occasion could have significance to the future of how immigrants are accepted into Canada, and how many are allowed in. Kenney gave the speech at the Vancouver Board of Trade as part of what he has termed a round of "public consultations" across Canada on immigration policy. This comes as the Conservative government tore a page from Australia's books and tabled legislation mandating up to a year detention for migrants, increased deportations of refugees, and restrictions on family unification. Ironically, it was the same day as riots in the troubled Christmas Island detention centre in Australia. 

Perhaps I misconstrued the nature of a "public consultation," but evicting a professional journalist and charging $100 for a steak lunch is simply baffling.

The rationale: I lacked official press credentials. Never mind that my colleague, an intern from the Globe & Mail, also did not have press credentials, and nor did a few others at the media table (few freelancers or intern reporters do these days), or that I offered an editor's contact information for verification. I was simply not welcome.

"I don't care what other journalists have or don't have, or how unfair you think it is, you are not wanted here and that's final," said the police officer who escorted me to the door while a trade board representative looked on, seemingly apologetic. Outside, a small group of migrant justice activists picketed against Bill C-4, a proposed immigration bill that will dramatically change the face of Canada's already troubled immigration system.

In his speech notes (since I was prevented from hearing his actual speech or asking questions), Kenney said the government has allowed record numbers of immigrants into Canada and touted his department's cooperation with provinces in setting immigration numbers. However, migrant justice activists picketing outside the event disagreed with these claims and accused the federal government of racism.

Activists picketing outside the event raised questions about the government's policies on immigration and disagreed with CIC claims of increased immigration levels.

"Under Kenney, deportations have increased, while the number of people accepted as refugees and sponsored family members have drastically dropped," said Harsha Walia, with the migrant justice organization No One Is Illegal. "We don't have $100 per person to hear Kenney spew his racist lies and propaganda about so-called illegals abusing the system -- that's why we're picketing outside.

"Using the guise of human smuggling and deterring the arrival of boats such as the MV Sun Sea, Bill C-4 blatantly criminalizes refugees and targets them for detention and deportation."

Contrary to government claims, the Toronto Star reported recently that Canada has actually slashed the number of permanent resident visas issued by 25 per cent, from 84,083 last year to 63,224 in 2011.

The Vancouver Board of Trade event was the second of a series of much-publicized Kenney 'consultations' which began in Calgary on July 12 and will continue to Toronto (July 20) and Montreal (July 22), followed by online discussions later this summer, which the government says will be open to the public.

According to CIC, the purpose of the consultations is "to seek feedback on immigration levels, including the appropriate level of immigration for Canada, and the most suitable mix between economic, family class and protected persons," according to a press release.

I had signed in to the event as a professional journalist, and offered my identification and names of publications for which I have reported. The Board of Trade approved me, and issued an official press pass, guided me to sit at the media table inside, and provided a press release.

My forced removal recalls a pattern of restriction and censorship that brings to mind the federal election campaign, when the Stephen Harper restricted reporters' access, prevented journalists from asking more than five questions between us all per day, and removed several people from public events because of perceived political affiliations.

As well as the election restrictions placed on reporters earlier this year, journalists have also recently decried the government's axing of a widely used online database of freedom of information requests.

Both the Vancouver Board of Trade and Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) refused to comment on this story.

David P Ball is a freelance journalist in Vancouver, Coast Salish territories. His website can be found here.



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