The rise of an uncaring Canada

Andray Domise: What’s behind hardening attitudes towards migrants? Some basic ignorance about the life of refugees and the reality of immigration in this country.

Content image

A taxi arrives at an unofficial border station across from Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., on Roxham Road in Champlain, N.Y., early Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. (Charles Krupa/AP)

Last week, Frank Graves of EKOS tweeted a rather alarming finding. According to a poll conducted between April 3 to 10, 40 per cent of Canadians said they believe there are “too many “visible minorities coming to Canada.”

This was, according to Graves, the first time that EKOS had found such a result in the 25 years it had been tracking Canadian sentiment on the matter. The poll was further broken down by party affiliation, which showed another striking outcome: not only did 28 per cent of NDP-affiliated respondents agree there are too many visible minority immigrants, but 34 per cent of Greens and 71 per cent of Conservatives feel the same way.

The only party showing an overall decline in this sentiment were Liberal members, 34 per cent of whom agreed in 2013, but only 19 per cent of whom would say the same today.

Here is the peculiar thing about that poll. Its respondents have few real ways of quantifying their feelings.

Statistics Canada tracks immigrants by their country of origin and ethnicity, but not how they self-identify or whether they are a visible minority. An immigrant from the U.K., for example, might likely identify as Black, and have a Nigerian background. On the other hand, an immigrant from Jamaica might likely identify as white, and have a British background.

And given that Canada‘s immigrant population is fairly broadly distributed between a range of countries (unlike the U.S., for example, where the plurality of immigrants come from Mexico), there is no real basis in fact for this “too many visible minorities” sentiment. Only the deeply wonkish would have a working knowledge of the ethnic makeup of Canada’s immigrant population, which effectively made EKOS’s poll a litmus test on Canadian racism.

Over the past few years, ever since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted a message of welcome to “those fleeing persecution, terror & war,” there has been a steadily rising wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in this country. This sentiment has tended to collapse the concept of “immigration” with “refugees,” and much of it has been directed towards irregular border crossers, who file asylum claims once they’re on Canadian soil.

READ MORE: The new underground railroad to Canada

There are a few inconvenient facts that don’t often seem to sink in with the anti-immigrant crowd. To name a few, that Canada needs immigrants in order to maintain economic solvency, that Canada has international obligations, as well as moral ones, to take in refugees, and that our total refugee intake is small compared to other G8 nations.

In 2018, the RCMP intercepted just below 20,000 irregular border-crossers, a slight drop from 2017, which saw 20,593 interceptions. For reference, Germany (a country 1/28th Canada’s size) saw 51,558 requests between January and November of 2018, and enforced 8,658 deportations during that time.

Overall, refugees represent a rather small portion of Canada’s total immigration targets (approximately 5 per cent, according to the Ministry of Immigration’s 2019-2021 plan), which are set for 350,000 by the year 2021. That number has managed to spark a widespread backlash from anti-immigrant groups, as well as right-wing columnists, who seem to be more concerned with how Canadians “feel” about immigrants, than with the realities of Canada’s need for them.

Regardless of those feelings, the fact is that immigrants account for almost a quarter of Canada’s labour force, and up to 90 per cent of its labour force growth. Without immigration, the Conference Board of Canada projects that deaths in this country would exceed births by the year 2034, that the labour force would shrink, social services would face “significant difficulties” in funding, and the necessary tax hikes would likely causes businesses to forego investment in this country (if not pull up stakes and leave).

Now normally, in the course of column writing, this is where the writer is expected to map out a thesis, lay out supporting evidence, and wrap up pithily. But the subject matter of this column—immigrants and Canadian sentiment towards them—requires much more context than a few set-up lines. In fact, this is more or less the problem with most column writing that has anything do with immigration—weighing how Canadians feel about immigration against the reality of what creates migrant patterns to begin with.

Much of that reality has to do with our own apathy (and often our complicity), towards the conditions that create what we label as “dysfunctional” and “failed” states—our willingness to look the other way, in a sense, is what creates the problem to begin with.

So let’s look towards the background of one particular refugee story.

In the reshuffling of colonial interests following the end of the Second World War, rapid change arrived to the Horn of Africa. Italian Somaliland was re-classified as a “trusteeship,” administered by Italians while under British supervision, with a provision that the territory would become an autonomous state within 10 years.

Political conflict over the Haud and the broader Ogaden region—under Ethiopian control yet heavily populated by Somalis—was further inflamed after both Somaliland territories achieved independence and unified in 1960 as the Somali Republic, re-fashioned as a Marxist-Leninist state after a 1969 military coup led by Major General Mohamed Siad Barre (more on him in a moment), and fashioned into Cold War proxy heavily influenced by Russia.

By 1977 Barre, having instituted sweeping nationalist reforms, set his mind to capturing the disputed region and assimilating its inhabitants into his vision for Greater Somalia. The incursion was heavily opposed by the Russians, who backed Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the United States, Saudi Arabia and several Arab oil states began entreating with Somalia. In the end, Somalia and Ethiopia experienced a near-total switch of Cold War allegiances. But heavy military support from several communist states was enough to repel and severely weaken the Somali military. Barre’s political standing was heavily compromised, and members of the military attempted a coup in 1978.

This led to increasing totalitarian rule, which eventually collapsed into all-out civil war in 1991, once the end of the Cold War all but eliminated Somalia’s strategic importance to its western and Arab allies. When the violence of this civil war tore through Mogadishu, many families fled the country as wartime refugees.

One of those was the family of a young man named Ahmed Hussen.

In a New York times interview, Hussen recounted the generosity shown to him by everyday Canadians—how to send mail, how to operate the coin washers at a laundromat—that helped him through his transition to Canadian residency, and eventually, citizenship.

READ MORE: How Canada’s border towns are dealing with a growing stream of refugees

Hussen did what is generally expected of young people who arrive to Canada as refugees—completed high school, earned a postsecondary education, and went on to become a highly productive member of society.

He worked his way through university, landed a job with a provincial political party, and later applied to law school in order to become a better advocate for Somali communities in Canada. With his law degree, and what was described in the Times article as an “encyclopedic grasp of world history,” Hussen would go on to open a law practice which, in part, represented asylum-seekers.

This legal background in working face-to-face with immigrants to Canada, as well as his knowledge of global affairs and world history, ultimately put him on the path to becoming Canada’s first immigration minister who came here as a refugee.

To the average Canadian, born in Canada, and likely having no firsthand knowledge of the refugee experience, the story of Ahmed Hussen begins the moment he arrived at Pearson airport.

Again, if we’re being completely honest, that average person would hardly have the time to research the entire geopolitical context behind Hussen’s evacuation from Mogadishu. For someone who hasn’t experienced seeking asylum, his life before arriving here barely counts as a footnote.

But refugees are, quite literally, the world’s most vulnerable people. They flee their homes with what little they can carry, leaving behind not only the lives they made prior to the conflicts that drove them out, but leaving behind their national belonging as well. They are preyed upon by smugglers and traffickers, attacked en route to safe havens and exploited by criminals after they have arrived.

Such is the case for many visible minorities who come to this country as refugees, who then find themselves having to contend with the prejudices and half-formed opinions of people who seem to believe in the idea of Canada as an informal caste system, rather than a full-fledged democracy.

The decades of western exploitation and political destabilization, the inability to function as sovereign nations and free people while in the shadow of conflict between military superpowers, and the classification as economic “basket cases” once those superpowers have left ruins behind them—none of that context seems to matter in Canada’s immigration conversation, and especially that of refugees.

What matters is the perception, stoked by immigration opponents in Canadian politics and news media, that people are arriving on our shores, bypassing our borders, and using our immigration and refugee system to claim a type of protected legal status that a formalized caste system would reject out of hand. Regardless of our own laws, and obligations under signed international charters, what matters is how the most vocal among us feel about them having the same rights and freedoms we do.

This is why, for example, Ontario MPP Lisa MacLeod can flippantly call Hussen a “bully,” when called to the carpet on her government’s misinformation campaign on the “housing crisis” in Ontario, supposedly created by asylum-seekers (and not the province’s long-term neglect of social housing).

It is also why Conservative MP Michelle Rempel can credibly classify asylum-seekers as “abusing” Canada’s asylum system on the Commons floor, and accuse them of being granted privileges unavailable to those “trying to legally enter the country.” Border Security Minister Bill Blair, Hussen’s Liberal colleague, indicated that refugees abuse the system by “asylum shopping.”  (Hussen himself used that term this month, adopting harder language around refugees as his Liberal government has abandoned its #WelcomeToCanada position.)

However one feels about his shortcomings as minister of immigration (and there are certainly valid criticisms), on one side stands Hussen, with a decades-long career in immigration and community organizing for refugees and immigrants prior to his appointment. On the other side stand immigration pessimists, in government and media, often pandering to the worst impulses of white nationalists, who carry no such bona fides.

Yet they are free to simply fabricate myths about the way asylum-seeking works in Canada and both sides in this debate, regardless of experience and expertise, weigh even on the scales of credibility.

This cancer in the discourse isn’t limited to the body politic. It’s long since spread into broader society, with real repercussions for those who can be categorized (even wrongly) into that bottom caste. This is why, for example, Jama Hagi-Yusuf (a Canadian of Somali descent) allegedly had his job application rejected on the basis of his ethnic background in the spring of 2015.

But the Somali community is not alone in its struggle. A spate of high-profile anti-refugee incidents have cropped up in Alberta, including anti-Syrian graffiti spray-painted in a Calgary LRT station and on transit vehicles, anti-Syrian graffiti spray-painted on the walls of a Calgary junior high school, the arrival (and later fragmentation) of far-right anti-immigrant groups in Edmonton, and a viral outburst from a Denny’s patron, who was captured on video shouting, “You’re not dealing with one of your Syrian bitches right now. You’re dealing with a Canadian woman” to two men who turned out to be of Afghani background.

The complex background of the Syrian Civil War, mired in the forces of post-WWII colonial withdrawal and Cold War politics, factor not at all into the rhetoric of immigrant skeptics.

Kyle McKenzie, who was convicted for vandalizing the Tuscany LRT station, said, “I did all of the tagging as I was mad at ISIS because they shot up the people of Paris and I am French Canadian…I don’t hate all Muslims, but I do hate what ISIS stands for.”

In other words, Syrian families survived bombs being dropped over their homes—the outcome of a series of political conflicts rooted in the French occupation of former Ottoman regions—only to be categorized as terrorists by a French Canadian, as an excuse for the hate crimes he committed against their community after their arrival in Calgary.

Additionally, the Yellow Vest movement, which purports to advocate for oil pipelines and jobs in Canada’s oil patch, as well as opposition to a federal carbon tax, has also given itself over to fringe anti-immigrant elements. Its scattering of Facebook groups, boasting thousands of members, are often saturated with anti-immigrant posts and anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, and yet some of the most prominent politicians in Canada are willing to legitimize them.

While Alberta has seen a nearly 40 per cent rise in hate crimes as of 2017, the province is far from unique in this regard. Reported hate crimes are rising the fastest in Ontario and Québec (67 per cent and 50 per cent, respectively), and most hate crimes across the country are committed against those who are Black, or are of West Asian backgrounds. Crimes targeting Muslims (which very much capture the aforementioned groups) have risen by 83 per cent.

To say this emerging pattern represents a phenomenon outside of politics or media coverage was absurd before the EKOS poll. But to persist in such willfully blind beliefs after the poll’s release is outright denialism. Even as members of our government continue to insist that hate crimes and tough-on-immigrants legislation have nothing to do with one another, it’s almost impossible to miss the correlation.

So when Doug Ford’s government presents a budget that slashes legal aid services to refugees—again, the most vulnerable people on earth—after months of slagging both asylum-seekers and the federal government’s immigration policy, Ford’s supposed bona fides with non-white communities in Ontario ought to weigh far less heavily in the conversation than the actual effects of his government’s policies.

To what extent does the premier’s supposed tolerance of ethnic minorities matter to an ethnic Roma like Janos Timku, whose people face outright violence and hostility from everyday Hungarians and the Hungarian government itself? Should asylum seekers facing the inhumane family separation and internment camp conditions sanctioned by the U.S. government, if deported, be comforted that no one really means them any harm, and that Ontario simply places the political victory of “balancing the budget” ahead of their mental health and safety?

These are the kinds of questions that rarely get asked, in the blizzard of political news cycles, unless industrious journalists make it a point to do so. And in the absence of proper context, the absence of accountability from our political and pundit class, and the absence of accurate information about the vital contributions that immigrants provide to Canada’s ability to sustain itself, what we’re left with is the type of person who can overhear the laughter of patrons speaking another language in a Lethbridge diner, and decide that a threat to “leap across this table and punch you in the f—king mouth” is a reasonable response.

Because, if truth be told, as a nation we don’t very much care about the Scramble for Africa, the Arab Cold War, or the pogroms against the Roma in Hungary. Despite what we’d like to think of ourselves, an entire 40 per cent of the electorate has, on no quantifiable basis at all, decided that we are taking in too many non-white immigrants and refugees.

And in response, we have placed confidence in several provincial parties who have accepted white nationalist sympathizers in their ranks, pledged to withdraw support for asylum-seekers, and tabled legislation to force religious minorities to choose between expressing their religious faith and remaining employed.

And so we find ourselves, not so many years after celebrating our country’s willingness to take in a Somali-born youth and furnish him with the opportunity to become the face of Canada’s immigration policy, turning towards a nationalistic sentiment that would rather have shut him out.

Two out of five people in this country—enough to elect a majority government—look at an educated young man like Jama Hagi-Yusuf and feel some tug of sympathy towards the alleged bigot who denied him a job.

Heaven help the rest of us if they get what they want.

EDITOR’S NOTE, APRIL 22, 2019: This post has been updated to include Ahmed Hussen’s recent use of the term ‘asylum shopping’.

CORRECTION: JUNE 5, 2019: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Statistics Canada does not track immigrants by their ethnicity.