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There is a fair bit happening in Ottawa right now, a lot of it wrapped up in a second piece of budget omnibus legislation, Bill C-45, on which the House started voting on Tuesday afternoon.

In light of that, why devote so much real estate in this space to Canada’s refugee policy, especially as it pertains to one group of people, the Roma of Europe?

Well, for one thing, immigration policy, broadly, is very important to the Harper government.

In his news conference last Friday, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney called immigration policy a form of “nation building.”

That sounds benign enough.

But, more than any previous government of recent memory, this government wants immigration and other forms of in-migration (notably temporary foreign workers) to be directly in the service of what Conservatives sometimes call, blandly, “the economy.”

Now, Canadian immigration policy has never been a purely humanitarian affair. Far from it – just think of the openly racist policies toward Asians and European Jews of the past.

But the current approach significantly downplays the humanitarian and compassionate side of immigration policy; a compassionate and humanitarian side that, in the 1980s, earned Canada the Nansen prize for its generous treatment of refugees.

This government wants us all to understand Canada is no longer seeking to be a “Mister Nice Guy” on the world stage.

Canadian policy, all the world should know, is tough and hard-headed.

Its policy is not, fundamentally, motivated by such matters as human rights, protecting the vulnerable or reuniting families. It is all about advancing the national interest and assuring Canadian security.

A lurid Ministerial tale of a security operation

Security, in fact, is one of the big over-arching themes for Harper’s government.

Conservatives frequently evoke security in discussions of immigrants and refugees.

Last Friday, Minister Kenney had this lurid tale, offered with no evidence, of an aborted so-called “human smuggling” operation:

“The criminal smuggling syndicates were actually staging hundreds of people in West Africa,” he offered, “[Those people had] flown from Tamil Nadu in India and Sri Lanka through Southeast Asian countries, through Addis Ababa in Ethiopia to Togo and Ghana and other countries in West Africa, where they were being staged for, in one case, a voyage that would — that was, based on our intelligence — carry about 1,000 smuggled passengers. Thanks to alert intelligence work, we succeeded in interrupting that criminal smuggling operation.”

The point Kenney was making was that desperate people, with few other means of escaping their circumstances, should not be seeking what the Government bizarrely calls “irregular” means to get to safety in Canada. Don’t even think about! That’s Kenney’s unequivocal message.

“Don’t risk your life savings,” he warned, “because chances are the ‘smugglers’ will get your money and you’ll end up getting nowhere …”

So here’s how it goes — on the one hand we, in Canada, don’t want refugees from countries such as Hungary, where one can get here simply by buying a plane ticket on a regularly scheduled flight. 

Those are “bogus refugees,” who clog the system, which should be reserved for the truly desperate who come from really dangerous places that include parts of the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

But, then, on the other hand, it’s not easy to get to Canada from those dangerous places. Some scared and desperate people might be tempted to pay admittedly less than benign operators to transport them to Canada.

In the days of the Vietnamese “boat people” such people were bravely fleeing tyranny and fully deserved Canada’s compassion.

Now, those who come in a similar manner are “irregular arrivals” who deserve not much more than the “criminals” who transport them.

Put it all together and it does not seem as though we want any kind of refugees in Canada, “regular” or “irregular,” other than those we hand pick and sponsor.

“Wherever you turn, Roma people are not liked very much …”

As for the Roma, in particular, it is striking how, as a group, they continue to be victim of the most overt and open sort of contempt and racial stereotyping.

Until last Friday’s news conference, when he expressed concern about thugs and extremists who persecute Roma and Jews in Hungary, Kenny was not shy about subtly playing on the prevailing stereotypes.

The Minister’s constant repetition of the word “bogus” fed into a widespread view that the Roma are, as a people, almost congenital thieves and cheaters. The proudly and openly bigoted Ezra Levant put it well, when he said that the ‘Gypsies’ “have been robbing Europe blind for centuries and now they have come here to do the same …”

In the end, though, if one needed only one reason to keep putting this subject before the public, this is it.

Anyone who writes anything about the Roma refugee question in Canada knows that she/he will almost inevitably receive all kinds of nasty comments and mail in response.

Here is just a snippet from the most recent such missive sent to this writer:

“Roma is a European problem Canada cannot solve. In all of EU there is not a single nation that knows how to deal with Roma issue. France for instance has deported many, even so they had a right to settle anywhere on that continent (sic). Roma in Czech Republic came mostly from Eastern Europe, with no documentation, did not speak the language, but social net was all they were looking for. . .Wherever you turn, Roma people are not liked very much including their original country India where they are at the bottom of that society called undesirable. One must asked (sic) why is that?”

Why indeed.

Canadians still have lot to learn about these people who have, finally, after centuries of rejection and persecution found some sort of sanctuary in Canada.

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...