Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

The Trudeau government has dropped the other shoe on refugee policy.

As we reported in this space last week, sources close to the Prime Minister’s Office had been whispering for a while that the government might insert legislation into its 2019 budget implementation bill to discourage asylum seekers from crossing into Canada from the U.S. through unguarded back roads and unplowed fields.

That not entirely surprise move came on Monday evening, April 8.

Buried in the middle of this year’s 367-page budget implementation bill was an amendment to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. It stated that refugee claimants will be ineligible if they previously “made a claim for refugee protection to a country other than Canada.”

As it stands now, the safe third country agreement with the United States allows Canada to turn back all refugee claimants who arrive from the U.S. at official border crossings. But under current law and international agreements Canada must fully consider the claims of asylum seekers who get themselves onto Canadian soil through unofficial back routes. The new provision will allow the Canadian government to deal expeditiously with a good many of those irregular arrivals.

The amendment means all refugee claimants who have previously sought asylum in the U.S. (or another country) will be denied access to Canada’s impartial Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB). No Canadian official will consider the substance of their claims of persecution or endangerment. Before such asylum seekers are sent packing, all they will be entitled to are pre-removal risk assessments, the purpose of which is to ascertain if they face any demonstrable and immediate danger if deported.

And so, the government now has a weapon to wield against those back-route asylum seekers. A good many of them first sought asylum in the U.S., but then headed north, believing they could never get a fair shake from Donald Trump’s government.

A few weeks ago, Canada’s federal court threw out a provision in Canada’s refugee law that discriminated against asylum seekers from an arbitrary list of safe designated countries of origin. That was a rule Jason Kenney came up with when he was Stephen Harper’s immigration minister. Given a chance, that same federal court just might throw out the amendment the Liberals slipped into the budget implementation bill. But any court decision is very unlikely to happen before the next election.

With a challenging campaign looming in the fall, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals can now throw a bone to those Canadians who are feeling anxious about what they perceive as a dangerous invasion of refugees. There is no such invasion, relative to our capacity to absorb newcomers. But a good many politicians, from Quebec Premier François Legault to Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, have incited that fear as a vote-getting tactic.  

Human-rights groups and refugee advocates are expressing shock at this move by a government that has been, overall, far friendlier to refugees than most of its predecessors.

Critics point out that the U.S. cannot be considered a safe country for refugees — not these days, at any rate. Indeed, Donald Trump’s administration does not want would-be refugees to see the U.S. as a safe haven. That is why U.S. officials are incarcerating so many asylum seekers who arrive at the southern border, and why, for a while, they separated small children from their parents. Trump and his officials were frank about the message they were sending. Do not come here claiming to be a refugee. We do not want you, and consider you to be, in the president’s words, “bad people, very bad people.”

The NDP is also critical of the change to the refugee rules. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been especially caustic about the fact that the government chose not to introduce this measure as immigration legislation. Instead it is sneaking it through parliament in a budget bill. The Trudeau Liberals did the same for the deferred prosecution measure, designed as an eleventh-hour life raft for SNC-Lavalin, but that’s another story.

Refugees are not popular with politicians

If the government were to introduce the new refugee measure in the usual manner, as immigration legislation, the immigration committee would be charged with considering it.

At the immigration committee, there would be ample opportunity for expert witnesses to defend or critique the measure. MPs on the committee would be able to thoroughly question the witnesses, and could propose modifications to the government’s refugee law amendment.

As it stands, though, this important change in refugee law will get only cursory consideration from the finance committee, which is tasked with reviewing the entire, massive, multi-part budget implementation bill.

Even Conservative leader Scheer says he disapproves of the way the Liberals have chosen to proceed with this measure. That is a bit rich. The Harper government passed a large piece of its entire legislative agenda — including major changes to environmental laws — through budget implementation bills.

The cruel fact is, though, that, politically, refugees are not a popular cause.

The prime minister takes all of the questions during question periods on Wednesdays, and on Wednesday, April 10, two days after the government had tabled the budget implementation bill, the opposition had ample opportunity to question him about the proposed change in refugee law.

Here is what they did ask questions about.

The Conservatives leapt with glee on the prime minister’s foolish threat to sue Andrew Scheer over statements he made on SNC-Lavalin. They dared Justin Trudeau to take them to court, and pointed out that if the PM were to utter false statements about the scandal in court it would constitute perjury. They also jumped on a report about RCMP participation in planning for the prime minister’s ill-fated vacation in the Bahamas as a guest of the Aga Khan — a bit of a shaggy dog story that’s almost ancient history now.

For their part, New Democrats also hammered the PM on SNC-Lavalin, but were less interested in goading the PM than pushing their own proposal for a full public inquiry.

NDPers also expressed well-rehearsed outrage at the fact that the environment minister has just very publicly given the highly profitable Loblaw’s corporation a cheque for 12 million dollars in order to buy more energy efficient refrigerators for its grocery stores. That money, part of a fund earmarked to help Canada reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, should, NDPers suggested, go to small business people who might really need it, not the multi-billionaire Weston family.

There was not a single question from anyone in the House about the just-announced change in refugee policy, a change which could have a devastating effect on thousands of vulnerable people. For some asylum seekers, it could, in fact, have life and death impact.

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Photo: Adam Scotti/PMO

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...