‘There’s a perception that Canada Is being invaded’

Samuel, The Atlantic, May 26, 2018

Trudeau’s government has started rejecting more refugee claims from migrants
who cross the U.S.-Canada border on foot.
seekers walk down Roxham Road to cross into Quebec at the U.S.-Canada border in
It may
seem paradoxical. Last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appeared to
issue an open invitation to refugees with a tweet
declaring, “to those fleeing persecution, terror & war …
#WelcomeToCanada.” This year, his government is working hard to deter thousands
of people who are walking over the U.S. border to seek asylum in Canada.
has begun granting refugee status to fewer irregular border crossers—that is,
people who walk into the country without going through a designated port of
entry. Since President Donald Trump was elected, over 27,000 people have
crossed into Canada overland. (By comparison, only 2,000
people did this in 2016.) In 2017, the country granted refugee status to 53
percent of such border crossers, but that number was down to 40 percent in the
first three months of this year, Reuters
. Did Trudeau change his mind about Canada’s welcoming
posture in general? Or is something else at work here?
has built a reputation for warmly embracing Syrians. But most of the newcomers
are from elsewhere. At first, it was mostly Haitians in the U.S. who made the
journey. Some said they were spooked by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and
worried about losing the temporary residence status they’d been given in the
U.S. following the 2010 earthquake in their native country. In recent months,
Nigerians have become the most frequent border crossers. Many get visitor visas
to come to the U.S., then take a bus or taxi to upstate New York, where they
walk north into Quebec—straight into the arms of Canadian border guards waiting
to arrest them.
migrants are typically detained for a few hours and then bussed to an emergency
shelter in Montreal, where they stay and work on their asylum applications. While
they wait for their cases to be adjudicated, they can access healthcare and
send their children to public school for free, just like any Canadian. And some
citizens are not too thrilled about that.
a perception that Canada is being invaded,” said Wendy Ayotte, a member of
Bridges Not Borders, a Quebec-based volunteer group that formed last summer to
support the asylum seekers. “The perception is that these people are illegal
and that they’re violating Canada’s borders and that they’re just queue jumpers
trying to get freebies on welfare.”
those who crossed into Canada irregularly between February 2017 and March 2018 and
have had their refugee claims finalized,
Haitians were accepted at a rate of 9 percent, Nigerians at 34 percent, and
Syrians at 84 percent. Ayotte said the needs of Haitians and Nigerians may be
perceived as less legitimate than Syrians’. Syrians have been fleeing a war
that has killed some half a million people and displaced millions more. The
hardships that Haitians and Nigerians have endured are in some cases less
obvious. But such comparisons between groups can create a false dichotomy,
Ayotte said, with “one being bona fide refugees and the other not being bona
far-right groups like Storm Alliance and La Meute argue online that this
situation amounts to an “invasion” of “illegals” at the border. They also
promote this view in the streets—one street in particular. Roxham Road, where
Quebec and New York meet, is the most popular crossing for people walking into
Canada. Over the past month, a few Canadian politicians and commentators have
issued calls to build a wall
or fence
Saturday, Ayotte and her group gathered at Roxham Road to demonstrate in favor
of open borders. Also present—as an observer, not a participant—was Faith
Goldy, a Torontonian who identifies as a nationalist, a Catholic, and an
independent journalist (she formerly worked for Rebel Media, a right-wing
Canadian outlet, but was fired following her coverage of Charlottesville).
Goldy is vehemently opposed to the overland influx of asylum seekers, partly
because she believes Canada is undergoing a “demographic and spiritual
replacement” that will see white people become a minority in the country within
25 years.
believe that demographics are destiny,” she told me. “And I believe that the
Canadian populace should at the very least be asked who we want coming into our
country—if for no other reason than we see what’s happening across Europe …
It’s the emboldening of a new type of immigrant who seeks to change and indeed
erase our history. And I, for one, won’t stand for that. I, for one, am proud
of Canada’s European history and wish that Canada remains European.”
have referred to Goldy as a member of the alt-right, a label she rejects.
“Alt-right is an umbrella term, and it’s not specific enough for me,” she said,
adding that she prefers “dissident-right.” She also rejects another label
critics attach to her: racist. “The term ‘racist’ is a tool of oppression used
by the left to shut up commonsense nationalists like myself,” she told me.
activists on the left, however, insist that the border protests against
asylum-seekers are inflected by racism. “The Haitians and Nigerians have been
featured in a lot of the media and I think there’s a pushback specifically
about them because of anti-black racism,” said Moira Kilmainham, a member of
Solidarity Across Borders, a volunteer group working with asylum seekers in
Montreal. “Trying to depict these people as welfare bums and security threats
and criminals is a racist attitude. Canadians hate when you say that we’re
racist, but we are.”
politics takes on a particular cast in Quebec because of the “national
question” in the province, where many are concerned about preserving
francophone culture and language. Even though some of the Haitians walking over
the border speak French, the pure-laine (literally “pure wool”) version of
Quebec nationalism would still exclude them because their ancestry isn’t
French-Canadian. The far-right French Canadians who periodically protest at
Roxham Road have come bearing not only the Quebec flag but also the
controversial Patriote flag used by the Quebec sovereignty movement.
a tendency to view people who appear at the border as more of a threat to
sovereignty, because we didn’t choose them,” said Audrey Macklin, a professor
at the University of Toronto who formerly served as a member of Canada’s
Immigration and Refugees Board. “People and governments are more comfortable
with the idea of resettling refugees that they get to choose and pre-screen.
Right now, asylum-seekers are entering through irregular means, and that
produces an image of disorder and chaos and illegality.”
But their
entry is not illegal, Macklin said, for two reasons. First, the 1951 United Nations
refugee convention, to which Canada is a signatory, contains a provision that
has since also been incorporated into Canadian law.
It states that should you enter through irregular means, your mode of entry
won’t be held against you if you are found to be a refugee. That if is the
tricky part, because it creates what Macklin called “an epistemic lag”: Canada
can’t know until after your refugee claim has been adjudicated whether you
entered irregularly due to desperate circumstances, in which case that mode of
entry would be deemed legitimate.
Canadian immigration law, unlike U.S. law, doesn’t say you’ve committed a
breach if you didn’t enter at a designated port of entry. It says that should
you enter in some other way, you must go without delay to a port of entry. And
that’s precisely what the asylum seekers do: They get arrested by border
guards, who promptly escort them to the nearest port of entry. So what rule are
they breaking exactly?
the Canadian border without reporting at a port of entry is an offense,”
explained Beatrice Fenelon, a Canadian government spokesperson, “under the
Customs Act.” Amazingly, the regulation that asylum seekers breach is one that’s
more typically intended to ensure you pay duty on your cross-border shopping.
also emphasized that Canada’s refugee system has two separate streams: the
Refugee and Humanitarian Resettlement Program, for people seeking protection
from outside Canada, and the In-Canada Asylum Program, for people making
refugee claims from within the country. “When we talk about resettled refugees
such as the Syrian resettlement initiative …  refugees are screened abroad
and undergo security and medical checks prior to being issued a visa to come to
Canada,” she said. The asylum-seekers walking in overland have not been vetted,
which may go some ways toward explaining why they’re meeting with a different
reception. There’s also the fact that Canada’s refugee system is already
backlogged and strained.
country is not used to people showing up unannounced. “Canada has been
insulated by geography from large numbers of asylum-seekers,” Macklin said,
referring to the fact that the country’s only land border is with the U.S.
Aside from the era of the Underground Railroad, she couldn’t think of a time
when so many people moved across the Canadian border in a comparable way. But
historical comparisons don’t make much sense here anyway, because up until
recent years the U.S.-Canada border was more porous—until 2009, you didn’t even
need a passport to cross it. “The border has become a thicker, harsher, meaner
In fact,
Macklin said, Canada is now particularly restrictive: “Canada expends more
energy and resources than many people realize on deflecting potential asylum
seekers. But because we do a lot of this remotely, extraterritorially, people
don’t notice it—it doesn’t have the visible violence of border policing.”
One way
for Canada to impose a restrictive attitude is to maintain a Safe Third Country
Agreement with the U.S., stipulating that refugee claimants must seek status in
the first safe country where they arrive—with the idea that most will never
reach Canada as a result. Another way is to make it harder for people from
specific countries—Nigeria, say—to get travel visas. Yet another way is to send
immigration officials directly to a place like Nigeria, and have them dissuade
people there from coming to Canada. Trudeau’s government has done all that, and
also sent a member of parliament to Miami to discourage Haitians from coming.
This is
not the first time Canada has used such deflection tactics. “During the 1990s,
Canada was trying to prevent Roma asylum seekers from Hungary from coming,”
Macklin said. “So it rented out billboards in Hungary to essentially say ‘Don’t
come to Canada.’”
tactics contrast sharply with the views of most Canadians, who believe
accepting immigrants and refugees is the best way their country can be a role
model for others, according to Canada’s
World Survey
, a public opinion poll released last month.
Even as
Canadians clash over whether to make their southern border more or less porous,
it’s clear both camps agree on one thing: They’re angry at Justin Trudeau.
Goldy said he has welcomed in too many refugees by “executive order,” without
consulting the citizens to make sure that’s what they want. Kilmainham said he
has welcomed in too few refugees given the promises he made during his election
campaign, and she called his actions “hypocritical.” Meanwhile, the government
spokesperson said that at Quebec’s popular crossing, about 75 people continue
to walk into Canada each day.