The right-wing minority government of Stephen Harper has just introduced Bill C-49.
The “Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada’s Immigration System Act ” that, among other things, allows the minister of public safety to declare any group of migrants coming in to Canada, a ‘smuggling incident.’
Once deemed a smuggling incident, the refugee claimants can be jailed for at least a year, with no access to health coverage. Their incarceration may be extended, with reviews only possible once in six months. If these asylum seekers gain refugee status, the minister of immigration can choose to revoke their status at any point in the next five years. At the end of the five years, the government wants to be able to assess the conditions in the “home country” and determine their safety, and if found to be safe the refugees can be deported. During these five years, the claimants are not allowed to apply for permanent residence or to sponsor their families. Those whose claims are denied have no recourse to appeal. Those found to be a “human smuggler,” defined as someone who “knows or is reckless as to whether an asylum seeker has broken the law” can be jailed for 10 years.
The Globe and Mail has thrown its weight behind it, calling it a “bold move.” This, after Canada’s premier newspaper reported the Amnesty International declaration that the act is in violation of the Canadian Constitution, as well as the 1951 Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all international treaties Canada is a signatory to.
That the law is illegal, unjust and intended to make asylum seekers suffer is not up for debate. Modeled after Australian immigration policy that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has criticized for having the effect of “discriminating against persons on the basis of race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin,” it is intended to further shut off access to full immigration status for the poor, working class and people of colour around the world.
What is contentious is how we got here. Barely three years ago, one could not have proposed an act in Canadian Parliament arguing for arbitrary jailing of refugees and asylum seekers without causing a massive uproar. Such an act goes against the grain of the myth of multicultural, immigrant-friendly Canada that most Canadians thrive on. How did this happen?
Since the Conservative government has come into power Canada’s borders have been slammed shut. People that are allowed in are either on precarious programs, easily deportable, or are western-educated, English speaking, predominantly well-off, able bodied and from hetero-normative families.
Immigration Bills, such as Bill C-50 which gave immense arbitrary powers to the immigration minister, the recently passed Bill C-11 which allows the government to declare any country to be “safe” and therefore deny asylum seekers from that country, along with multiple changes snuck in through regulations such as the 4 and 4 rule, where temporary workers who have worked in the country for four years will be banned from the country, are all part of a particular xenophobic project — a project that is using a five-pronged strategy to ensure that these changes come into effect quickly.
Examining them is key to being able to effectively challenge new attacks, and critical lessons can be learned by other progressive movements.
Spin hate, spread fear, lie
There are certain notions of law, order, system, security and safety that are deeply embedded in Canadian culture. One hears of them in the news, on TV shows, in music, and in schools. When these “values” are declared to be in danger, an immense maelstrom of fear is whipped up.
In the months following the arrival of the ship Ocean Lady with 76 Tamil refugees seeking asylum in Vancouver in 2009, the immigration minister and the public safety minister were publicly calling the asylum seekers “terrorists” before the ship had even landed. Over and over again, they repeated that the migrants were breaking the law; in fact they were not. People fleeing economic, military or environmental havoc come to Canada on fake passports, supported by global networks of so-called smuggling. The queue, that most sacred of Canadian institutions, we were told was being broken. The fact that there is no queue for asylum seekers, and that people are allowed to apply if they show up in Canada, was conveniently forgotten.
Get blessings from the gatekeepers
Canadian multiculturalism has given rise to a particular breed of immigrant service organizations. Communities have been divided into funding sets by ethnicity, language, and geographic location, limiting the capacity of migrants to organize on the basis of shared experience or struggle.
There are “South Asian” organizations, “Latino” organizations, “Filipino” organizations galore. Most of these are funded by Citizenship and Immigration Canada, and their paid staff and board members derive power and prestige from their framed photographs with political honchos. So when the immigration minister wants to create an aura of support for their lies and deception, meetings are called with these organizations who, attached to the purse strings, do the ministers’ bidding.
Of course, there is no shortage of racist, selfish, rich people in these groups, which makes the task easier. So this past Thursday, the act is announced in Vancouver and on Friday, just one day later, the United Macedonian Diaspora, Armenian National Committee, Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto, as well as B’nai Brith released statements in support of the act. The B’nai Brith statement declared that the ministers “took into account the views of the multicultural communities of Canada before drafting this bill and B’nai Brith Canada was pleased to voice the opinions and concerns of the Jewish community on this issue.” Other statements declared how the entire Macedonian/Armenian/Taiwanese-Canadian/Insert-Nationality-here community supported these bills. That these organizations have no communication with a majority of the voices they “represent” is completely forgotten. So blatant is this use of purse strings as puppet strings that the Canadian Press just released an article on the issue.
Fake it till you make it
Almost all the immigration press conferences and media statements herald their actions as being in response to calls from the “public.” At the press conference announcing the proposed act, Minister Jason Kenney declared, “We cannot afford to allow these smuggling operations to undermine public support for our fair and generous immigration system.”
The “public” he argued was losing faith in the Canadian immigration system and this act was needed to restore it. The fact that the “public” skepticism was generated by ministerial statements labeling those arriving as terrorists rather than asylum seekers is never exposed.
The invocation of a “public sentiment” even before the public has had a chance to respond to the act sets the terms of public debate. The notion of smugglers was drummed up for two years before the present bill was proposed. Similarly, the notion of queue jumpers was being used in government media releases as far back as 2007, before the 2009 refugee amendments were introduced. This constant assertion of “people’s desires” is backed by right-wing think tanks such as the Fraser Institute and the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform.
Similarly, the ministry is presently drumming up public fear against so-called “fake marriages” and it is quite likely that legislation will be tabled to further discriminate against family sponsorship.
And then there is the ‘Opposition’
The first set of racist immigration laws under the Conservatives were sneaked in through a budget bill (Bill C-50). Voting against C-50 would have meant an election, which neither the Liberals, the NDP or the Bloc Quebecois wanted. Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, established a list of so-called “safe countries”, and a process where asylum seekers from these countries could be discriminated against (thus fundamentally revoking the basis of the refugee arbitration process which is centered on assessing individual cases of risk).
This Bill faced little resistance. The opposition was offered a public debate already churning out the Tory poison, and the ability to make minute changes while accepting the spirit of the Bill. They quietly complied. With an elaborate spin machine now under way for Bill C-49, even “progressive” candidates like Olivia Chow responded to the “human smuggling” bill by calling for more money to be given to immigration enforcement thugs.
There is the law, and then there is regulation
Once new immigration legislation is passed, with some minor amendments squeezed in, it continues to be changed through “regulations.” The immigration minister can announce changes to law through regulations published in the “Canada Gazette,” that then automatically become law in 90 days. Late last year, the Tories put out regulations stating that migrant workers that had been in the country for four years would be banned for the next six.
This would concretize the production-line quality of the temporary work program, where migrant workers are brought in, worked to the bone, and then tossed out after four years, to be replaced a by a new crop.
This was never discussed in parliament or committee, simply printed and then made law. The same has happened under Bill C-11, where the minister can arbitrarily and through regulations decide what countries are safe. What this means is that even if a slightly “better” act is passed due to “opposition intervention,” it can continue to be tweaked to include more and more anti-immigrant measures.
So, now what?
This model is working. Immigration is the test case, and an ideal one. Shifting blame to immigrants and outsiders in the face of a shrinking economy and inevitable cuts to public spending is a tactic as old as democracy itself.
But the same model of media spin, building false community support, brow beating opposition and using bureaucracy to impose harsher laws is also working to jail more people, particularly youth, to cull the rights of First Nations communities, to drum up support for free trade agreements where necessary, and to expand Canada’s control over the Arctic and other marine ways. It is essential that these measures be fought. Or what seems like a distant possibility today might be Canada’s lurch-to-the-right reality tomorrow.
Syed Hussan is a Toronto-based writer, researcher and activist involved with migrant justice, indigenous sovereignty and alter-globalization movements.