Supporting refugees in a small Quebec border town

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Supporting refugees in a small Quebec border town

Frances Ravensbergen is a resident of Hemmingford, Quebec, a small town near the U.S.-Canada border. It lies quite close to Roxham Road, which has become well-known as the most frequently used location for refugees wanting to cross irregularly -- that is, not at a formally recognized border crossing -- from the US into Canada. Scott Neigh interviews Ravensbergen about Bridges Not Borders, the migrant justice group that she and other residents of Hemmingford formed in 2017 to support refugees who come to Canada.

After Donald Trump took office as president of the United States, there was a jump in the number of people wishing to cross from the U.S. into Canada to claim refugee status. Mostly, these were refugees from a range of countries in the Global South who had left their homelands in the wake of war, persecution, torture, famine and a range of human rights abuses. The increase was a response to the harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies of the new administration.

The Canadian media has at times used the language of "crisis" to characterize this increase, and concern about it has been actively enflamed by forces on the political right. However, the number of people crossing irregularly actually remained quite modest. In 2017, the total number of refugee claims received by Canada was around 50,000, of whom about 18,000 arrived irregularly. While the overall number of claims was anywhere from a two- to five-fold increase over the immediately preceding years, it was quite comparable to numbers from not so long ago – for instance, the 45,000 claims received in 2001. It represents a tiny fraction of people who cross the U.S.-Canada border in a given year (for example, more than 24 million tourists visited from the U.S. in 2018). It represents an even tinier fraction of the 65 million people currently experiencing forcible displacement around the world, and is much lower than the number of reguees taken in by certain countries in the Global South.

The movement of refugee claimants between Canada and the U.S. is currently governed by what is called the Safe Third Country Agreement. The dubious premise of the agreement is that the U.S. is a safe and just place for refugees to seek asylum, and therefore those already in the U.S. should not be eligible for consideration here.

Under this agreement, though there are some exceptions, most people who enter Canada from the U.S. via an official crossing on land and attempt to make a refugee claim will be turned away. On the other hand, if someone crosses the border from the U.S. not at a formal port of entry but at some other site, then they are entitled to present a refugee claim and have it considered. Anti-immigrant forces and sometimes the media use the stigmatizing language of "illegal" to describe such crossings, but there is actually nothing illegal about it according to the United Nations -- they are, at most, "irregular." Migrant justice organizations have long argued that the Safe Third Country Agreement should be scrapped.

It should be noted that since this interview was recorded, the federal Liberals have included language in the 2019 budget bill that would make many more people ineligible to claim refugee status in Canada. That includes anyone who has opened a claim for refugee protection in another country, regardless of how or where they cross the border into Canada. 

Bridges Not Borders got its start after the number of people crossing at Roxham Road increased in 2017. There had been some informal activities already in the community to act in support of the refugees, so  Ravensbergen knew there would be interest in starting a group. But when she and some friends called a meeting, she really only expected five or 10 people to show up. Instead, there were more than 50 residents of Hemmingford who came and wanted to get involved.

Over the last two years, the group has engaged in a wide range of activities in support of refugees. That, at times, has included direct support work, whether that is offering material aid to those who cross or witnessing at the border to keep an eye on the behaviour of the RCMP. It includes public education, both locally in the Hemmingford community and more broadly via their media work, often focused on dispelling the many toxic myths that circulate about refugees. And it includes lobbying government officials to push for changes in policies that would be more just and welcoming towards refugees and other migrants. Along the way, they have also collaborated with migrant justice groups in Montreal and elsewhere. And on those occasions when far-right hate groups have have mobilized nearby, they have done what they could to quietly but visibly hold space and make it clear that refugees are welcome in Hemmingford but the far right is not.

Image: Used with permission of Bridges Not Borders.

Theme music: "It Is the Hour (Get Up)" by Snowflake, via CCMixter

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Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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