Dear Mr. Jason Kenney,
I am writing to express how pleased I am at the creation of Journey to Freedom Day to commemorate the Vietnamese boat people who travelled to Canada in the 1970s.
I always did think that Canada had an unreasonably negative view of refugee boat people, and it’s absolutely wonderful to see that we are changing our policy in this regard. I look forward to you scrapping the “irregular arrival” designation that you introduced in 2012 in order to remove certain rights specifically from refugees who arrive by boat. The fact that it was arbitrary and up to your discretion never seemed entirely ethical. I applaud you in reversing this stance, which I assume will be a part of Journey to Freedom Day celebrations.
I also look forward to the Government of Canada apologizing to the Tamil boat people, who of course are the modern-day equivalent of the Vietnamese boat people. We really didn’t treat them very well when they arrived in 2009 on the MV Ocean Lady and in 2010 on the MV Sun Sea. I congratulate our government in recognizing the parallels with the Vietnamese boat people, and for learning from the past. Journey to Freedom Day is long overdue. It is a day that we can be proud of, a day signalling our return to a more humane and generous attitude toward refugees.
I have written a fair amount about refugees, for reasons that are easy to explain. These are ordinary people who, by virtue of plain bad luck or in some cases from sticking to their convictions, have been forced into unimaginably vulnerable positions, often into extreme danger—their needs so immediate as to even negate attempts at pity. They are also a warning system of sorts to a complacent world: you know something truly awful is going on when people start fleeing their homes and everything they know. And so when we turn our backs on them it strikes me as a particularly deplorable affront to our common humanity.
Well, we have been turning our back on them a lot lately—or at least our government has, and so, too, the rest of us by association. This month we did it again.* I have tried writing about this particular item a couple of times, but I can’t seem to find the right words. Not that this time it’s any more or less deplorable than anything else we’ve done, it’s just that it’s all beginning to feel absurd. How do we talk rationally in the face of such irrational behaviour? How do we talk sensibly about the nonsensical? How do we talk about compassion in the face of such contempt? It becomes an exhausting and utterly depressing game of catch-up.
For a long time I have avoided the elephant in the room. And the elephant is this: that our government hates refugees, plain and simple. I’m a fairly reasonable person—it is important for you to understand this. I choose my words carefully, and I am not prone to hyperbole. But this is the conclusion I have come to. Our government hates refugees, and they are doing a heck of a job convincing us to hate them, too.
We have let them convince us about a lot of things. We have learned that refugees are not using the correct, legal channels to enter our country. That they aren’t playing by the rules. That they are jumping the queue (indeed, that there is a queue). That some deserve assistance and some do not. That alarming numbers are fraudsters, even criminals. That they are taking advantage of our generous system. That they are a drain on our economy. That they receive better health care than Canadians. That cuts to their benefits are not only justified but will save us money. That our old system was threatening to make us the doormat of the world. That Canada is taking in its fair share of refugees.
Flat out lies. All of it. Each one is a big fat lie.
But the problem with exposing lies is that it doesn’t seem to be getting us anywhere. It is getting us nowhere because the government is controlling the conversation. They have taken control of it, in fact, systematically and deftly. And here we are, running around, trying to defend a system as it falls apart around us.
We need to control the conversation and turn things around. We need to set the agenda. This is not a discussion about who deserves what. And there is no economic argument. These things aren’t even relevant. It’s like trying to explain the religious significance of a Fudgsicle. It is irrelevant and it is absurd to do so.
Our response to refugees must instead come out of, and be a part of, a discussion about who we want to be—as national and global citizens, as members of community, as moral and ethical beings. Who do we want to be? Who do we really want to be? What kind of a society do we want to live in? What values are important to us? Do we, on a fundamental level, want to be governed by greed, or by compassion? The essential equality of all human beings and our responsibility to each other—these need to be the touchstones against which all policy is tested. Not economic benefit, not merit, not fear. Those are just Fudgsicles.
When we go to court to prevent pregnant women and young children from receiving medical treatment, we cannot, must not, ask ourselves if it is worth spending our money on them. It is imperative that we ask ourselves, instead, if we really want to push people into even more vulnerable and marginalized lives. If it is worth putting their lives at risk. If it is worth dismissing their basic humanity.
This has be our approach to anyone who is marginalized, whether a refugee, or Indigenous, or suffering from a mental illness, or driven into poverty or crime or addiction, or of a gender that confuses us or an ethnicity that frightens us.
We cannot think in terms of “us versus them.” It is a cancer. Refugees are not merely refugees—they are human, and they are just like us. It is a very simple concept that we can’t seem to get through our frighteningly thick skulls. If we cannot help them, then we are incapable of helping ourselves, because the two are fundamentally interchangeable.
Earlier this November, the federal Conservatives made an astoundingly reckless gamble, risking—and narrowly avoiding—being found in contempt of court. Why? Because they’ve refused to comply with a Federal Court order to reinstate health care for refugees. Earlier in the year the court deemed the Conservatives’ gutting of the refugee health care program “cruel and unusual,” and unconstitutional, and ordered the policy reversed. The Conservatives responded by appealing the decision, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money to do so. They eventually agreed to comply (temporarily, pending the appeal), and to be fair they did restore some of the cuts. But for the most part they were just lying through their teeth. They only restored some benefits to some categories of refugees, quite selectively.
The government’s breakdown of what they restored and what they didn’t is a bit wonky, so I made up my own. For starters, mine actually indicates the three main categories of refugees. The government, insisting on preferential treatment to the bitter end, begins their breakdown with the two categories of resettled refugees, then tucks their least favourite category—the main one, ordinary refugees—further down the list, calling them “non-designated country of origin refugee claimants,” whatever that means.
Last week Canada suffered an attack in our nation’s capital, at our very centre of government. It was an attack on both our democracy and our values as Canadians.
No, I am not talking about the shooting that left one soldier dead. That attack was horrendous and violent, and much has been and should be said about it. Our leaders have expressed resolve not to let that attack change our nation, but the truth is, Canada has already changed.
The day after the shooting, the government resumed sitting, and the Conservatives tabled their latest budget bill. It was yet another omnibus budget. This may hardly seem newsworthy, but it needs to be said again and again: the Conservative’s omnibus budget bills are nothing short of an affront to our democratic system. The Conservatives have made a habit of stuffing their budgets with a vast array of non-budgetary items, ensuring that none get the scrutiny they deserve and require. Debate in the House is limited, and the only examination a budget gets is from a finance committee, which for obvious reasons is inherently ill-equipped to scrutinize unrelated matters.
Prior to the Conservatives taking power, budget bills hovered in the range of 50 to 120 pages. The controversial 2012 omnibus budgets weighed in at 425 and 443 pages—the latter, it was noted, being roughly the length of Crime and Punishment (my partner suggests War and Peace as more apt, given that no one can get through it). This most recent omnibus budget surpasses those two, at 458 pages.
Pity the poor refugee
Buried somewhere in those 458 pages is a change to how Canada treats its refugees—to once again make things more difficult for them. There is currently a safeguard in place to allow refugee claimants to access social assistance, in that provinces (who administer social assistance) are not allowed to impose a minimum residency requirement for eligibility. The omnibus budget bill will remove this safeguard, opening the door for provinces to deny refugee claimants much-needed financial assistance during the months or years that it takes to have a claim accepted.
For refugees who come here with few, if any, resources, social assistance is one way of ensuring that they integrate into society and do not remain marginalized. It is a humanitarian and compassionate measure that we as a nation put in place deliberately. Why did we do this? Because we believed in not just equality of opportunity but the value and dignity of every person and the right to a decent, prosperous life. We believed that it was important to help our neighbours, no matter their place of origin, and to build inclusive, supportive communities.
These are Canadian values, or at least they should be.
After Wednesday’s shooting, Prime Minister Harper addressed the nation, saying that attacks “on our institutions of governance are by their very nature attacks on our country, on our values, on our society, on us Canadians as a free and democratic people who embrace human dignity for all.”
He was not talking about what I wish he was talking about.
The Conservatives have added five new countries to its arbitrary list of countries from which it doesn’t want to receive refugees—known as Designated Countries of Origin (DCOs). Now included is Romania, a nation known for its systemic discrimination of the Roma. In Canada, refugee claimants from DCOs are given less time to prepare a refugee claim and face faster deportation. They are also denied the right to an appeal and denied basic and emergency health care, available to other groups of refugees.
Former Citizen and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney introduced the DCO list in 2012, in a bill that also scrapped plans to include human rights experts in a refugee board consultation committee, opting instead for arbitrary powers for the immigration minister. The DCO list was ostensibly created to speed up the refugee claim process, which has become backlogged due to understaffing at the refugee board. A major motivation for the list was the proportionally large number of Roma refugees coming to Canada—refugees the Conservatives have consistently labelled “bogus” and accused of taking advantage of our “generous” refugee system.
The list is curious. It is supposed to include “countries that do not normally produce refugees, but do respect human rights and offer state protection,” according to Immigration Canada’s website. However, included on the list are such countries as Hungary, from which the majority of Roma claims are made, and the Czech Republic, another major source country. Both countries are well-known for their systemic discrimination of the Roma.
According to a 2012 report from Human Rights Watch: “In Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia, the situation is even more alarming, with violent attacks and anti-Roma rhetoric and little progress towards ending housing and school segregation.”
Canada has slapped visas on the two other EU countries singled out in that report—Bulgaria and Romania—a measure known to efficiently and effectively deter refugees. As well, a month after Hungary was added to the DCO list, in January 2013, the Conservatives ran a publicly funded billboard campaign in the Hungarian city of Miskolc to discourage Roma from making refugee claims in Canada.
The Roma face persistent discrimination and marginalization—including physical violence and forced evictions—in the very countries we claim are free from this sort of behaviour. We are not just turning a blind eye to the widespread suffering of the Roma, we are actively participating in it, and allowing their home states to act with impunity.
Canada has made it known, yet again, that it doesn’t welcome Eastern Europe’s most vulnerable. But it’s not like we don’t want any Eastern Europeans: the same day that Romania was added to the DCO list, the Conservatives also launched a Business Express Program for Romania and Bulgaria, making “legitimate travel” quicker and easier for the more well-off. Lucky them.
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy—a dark and revealing event in Canada’s history. On May 23, 1914, a ship chartered by 376 Indians reached Canada’s west coast. The SS Komagata Maru was detained for two weeks, its passengers driven to near-starvation before being turned back, ultimately into the violent hands of the British army.
In 2008, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued an official apology, though many in Canada’s South Asian community doubted his sincerity. Their doubts were confirmed the following year, when 76 refugee claimants fleeing the fallout of a brutal civil war in Sri Lanka were similarly detained. Then another ship arrived in 2010, the MV Sun Sea, carrying 492 Sri Lankan refugee claimants. This time the Harper government clamped down, not only detaining the refugees and branding them criminals, terrorists and “queue jumpers,” but ferociously gutting Canada’s refugee policy—creating a system that is arguably as restrictive and discriminatory as the one that greeted the Komagata Maru in 1914.
Today, the Harper government commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Komagata Maru tragedy, sending out a press release that I read with great curiosity. It did not disappoint: their press release was titled, “Learning From Canada’s Past.” Ah yes, government spin is an awesome thing to behold. So impressed was I that I immediately wrote to the appropriate ministers (Ministers Jason Kenney, Chris Alexander and Tim Uppal), suggesting, among other things, that the title must have been a clerical error.
For despite apologies and press releases, the government’s message is the same today as it was in 2010: that when it comes to refugees, or any migrants for that matter, Canada has absolutely no intention of learning from its past.
Unlike the MV Ocean Lady and MV Sun Sea, the passengers of the Komagata Maru were not refugees. They were, however, British subjects (just like Canadians) and as such had every right to enter Canada. The voyage was bringing immigrants, but it also represented a direct challenge to Canadian racist policy, which favoured “White” immigrants over all others, who were deemed “undesireable.”
I recommend reading up on the Komagata Maru, especially if, like me, you weren’t taught about it in school. A good place to start is this article about the centennial at The Tyee. It opens with a rather shocking quote from our Prime Minister at the time, Wilfred Laurier: “The people of Canada want to have a white country…”
For more thoughts on the contemporary context, read the open letter at komagatamarulegacy.tumblr.com, penned and signed by members of Canada’s South Asian community. There is also this piece from the Toronto Star, as well as this reflection at The Tyee on the connection to today’s Temporary Foreign Worker’s program.
When a refugee flees to Canada seeking protection from persecution, entering our borders is just the first step. Canadians assist refugees out of a basic concern for human rights and human dignity, and this assistance covers everything from tending to their immediate needs to helping them integrate into Canadian society, whether their stay is temporary or permanent. Our government-funded programs and services help refugees find employment and housing, provide them with physical and mental health care, provide them with language classes, and connect them with communities both familiar and new.
Ok, ok, I’m pulling your leg a little bit here. Until quite recently, all of this was on offer, but in 2012 our government eliminated nearly all health care for refugees, and now mental health is on the chopping block, too. Refugee mental health services in British Columbia ended at the beginning of this month, leaving the 2,000 refugees and refugee claimants who come to BC each year without care.
Let’s take a moment to recall just how bad things can be for refugees. Having fled persecution, usually out of fear for one’s safety, refugees must set up in a foreign country, often with little or no family or community support, and little or no material possessions, for an indefinite period of time. No matter their circumstances, they are displaced, under stress, isolated, and vulnerable. In extreme cases they may fear or have experienced not just intimidation but the violence of kidnapping, imprisonment or torture, or have had family members or colleagues murdered.
Talk about putting a strain on one’s mental health! It’s no wonder these programs were set up for refugees. Why, then, would the Conservatives want to eliminate mental health care for people in such need of it? It’s a difficult question, and one I’m not sure I can answer. But while we’re mulling over the why, I’ll quickly explain the how.
In 2008, the federal government turned management of federally funded refugee settlement programs over to the province of BC, as part of the federal-provincial immigration agreement (each province and territory has its own agreement). The deal was, the federal government would continue to provide funding ($616,000 a year), but BC would be in charge of distributing that money to specific programs. Then in 2012 the feds changed their minds, announcing they would take back this funding control, by April 2014. This simply meant organizations would have to apply for funding from the federal government, rather than the provincial government.
And that’s what happened. Last year the four BC organizations who provided refugee mental health services applied for continued funding, as per usual. Except this time the federal government denied their applications. And just like that, BC mental health services for refugees were gone. (Note: A small amount of funding actually remained, but as with physical health care it was earmarked exclusively for government-sponsored refugees, and for two of the organizations it was not enough to keep the services running.)
Ironically, the funding cuts came into effect right in time for Refugee Rights Day (April 4), in keeping with the government’s almost comical track record of poorly timed policy changes.
So what’s going on? Was this mere bureaucratic incompetence, or was it part of a larger government policy? And why has this only happened in BC? Honestly, it’s difficult to tell. What I can tell you is that the announcement of changes to mental health funding came at the same time as the announcement that gutted refugee health care (in April 2012, by then-Immigration Minister Jason Kenney). In both cases, the government played favourites with one category of refugees—those they select themselves—over the other two categories: those sponsored privately, and those who land in Canada independent of any selection process (known in the biz as “Refugees Landed in Canada,” or RLCs).
The three categories aren’t all that important (it’s an organizational thing); all you need to know is that we have equal responsibility to all of them. Still, the Conservatives have made little attempt to hide their disdain for RLCs (the category they have the least control over): the government’s squeeze on federal refugee policy was itself in reaction to the arrival of a boat filled with RLCs, and the new policy is designed explicitly to dissuade RLCs from coming to Canada (against international convention, by the way). Even though most RLCs arrive by plane, the Conservatives only really freak out over boat arrivals—and the port of Vancouver is the major point of entry for RLCs arriving by boat. So if you want to discourage refugees from coming by boat, BC’s the place to do it.
The Most Generous Refugee Program in the World
But enough speculation. Here’s the point: the Conservatives like to say that Canada has one of the most generous refugee programs in the world. They say it again and again, as if repeating it will make it true. Refusing to support the basic mental health needs of refugees, however, is a major strike against this claim.
I’m betting the government wouldn’t call its refugee program a token gesture aimed at maintaining an international reputation. I’m sure they wouldn’t say they do the absolute minimum necessary (or even less, if they can get away with it) to maintain this reputation. But between you and me, that’s how it looks. If they really want to boast about having one of the world’s most generous refugee programs, they damn well better start putting some effort into it. They’ve really got to start caring—not just about their reputation, but about human dignity itself, about human rights. Because in the end only one thing really matters: we need to take care of our most vulnerable, and we’ve got to mean it.
(This post was republished on rabble.ca.)
“Canada is deeply concerned about the situation in Sri Lanka. The absence of accountability for the serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian standards during and after the civil war is unacceptable.”
Prime Minister Harper made this statement earlier this month, announcing that he would not attend the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka to protest continued human rights abuses by Sri Lanka’s government against its Tamil minority citizens.
Regardless of what you think about the usefulness of diplomatic snubs, it’s heartening to see Harper not only acknowledge these human rights abuses, but take action as well.
Should Harper continue to take this stand, his next step should be to dismantle the harsh refugee policy that he’s put in place. It’s only logical. There is, after all, a direct correlation between recent changes to Canada’s refugee policy and the human rights situation in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was embroiled in civil war for more than 25 years, fought for the independence of its Tamil community. The bloody culmination came in early 2009, when the Sinhala-majority government met violence with violence, surrounding the separatist rebel group the Tamil Tigers—along with thousands of Tamil civilians—and squeezing them into a tighter and tighter area, until the fighting was done. There were war crimes on both sides, but the government emerged the victor.
For the Tamils, the war may have ended but the fear and oppression continued. Amnesty International published several reports in 2010, highlighting continued government-led abuse, including arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, and murders. Many Tamils fled, some escaping on smuggler’s boats.
Which is where Canada comes in. In August 2010, one of these boats, the MV Sun Sea, entered Canadian waters off the coast of BC.
Canada has been known as a nation both generous and welcoming to refugees, and until August 2010, this reputation was more-or-less well-earned. But the Sun Sea changed all that. Although we’ve had plenty of experience with refugee boats, this one in particular caused downright hysteria in Ottawa. The reason for this hysteria is not entirely clear, though it seems Harper and his ministers were heeding the warnings not of Amnesty International but rather of the Sri Lankan government—a questionable source given the circumstances.
As a result, the Tamil asylum seekers were declared criminals and terrorists before their boat had even docked. Even the Public Safety Minister was brought in to stand side-by-side with the Immigration Minister, stoking fears of threats to national security. Together the two ministers announced sweeping changes to Canada’s refugee policy—changes that violated both the Canadian Charter and international law. Changes designed explicitly to keep refugees like the Tamils from coming to Canada.
Under the new policy, the Immigration Minister had arbitrary powers to declare an arrival of refugees as “irregular,” ushering in a year (later changed, under duress, to 15 days) of arbitrary and mandatory detention, including for children. Even when granted refugee status, these refugees were banned from applying for permanent residence for five years, placing them in a debilitating legal limbo. Later changes gut the already basic “temporary” refugee health plan, and restricted its use to public health risks. Groups of concerned doctors began treating refugees pro bono.
Riding the momentum, the Conservatives created a further list (of “designated” countries) that stripped health care and other rights from refugees of arbitrarily selected nationalities and ethnic groups. Refugees have been hit with restrictions to travel and family sponsorship, a loss of precious time to prepare for hearings, and a loss of appeals, including those for humanitarian considerations.
All this in reaction to one ship of asylum seekers, a ship whose passengers represented just 2% of the total number of asylum seekers arriving in Canada each year. A ship whose passengers were fleeing a nation that our government now acknowledges was (and is) awash in human rights abuses.
“We remain disturbed by ongoing reports of intimidation and incarceration of political leaders and journalists, harassment of minorities, reported disappearances, and allegations of extra judicial killings.”
Again, this is from Harper’s recent statement on the Commonwealth meeting. Now that he recognizes why Tamils continue to flee Sri Lanka as refugees, will Harper consider reversing the policy he put in place to deter these very refugees?
“If the Commonwealth is to remain relevant,” says Harper, “it must stand in defence of the basic principles of freedom, democracy, and respect for human dignity, which are the very foundation upon which the Commonwealth was built.”
My hope is that someday our Prime Minister will reflect on his own words, and take them to heart.