Back in February, 19-year-old University of Sherbrooke student Yassine Aber tried to cross the border in Stanstead, Que. to compete at a track meet in Boston. Instead, he was held for five hours and questioned by border officers, who eventually denied him entry into the United States. Though the exact reason for turning him back remains unclear, it has been suggested it was simply because he was tagged in a group photo with someone alleged to have joined extremist forces in Syria.
Also in February, Fadwa Alaoui, a resident of Montreal, tried to travel with her two children to Vermont to do some shopping. U.S. border agents there turned her away, too, but not before asking her questions about her religion and her views on President Donald Trump. They were particularly interested in her devotion to her Muslim faith.
The U.S. can obviously deny entry to whomever it wants, but it takes a certain level of willful blindness to deny the underlying thread connecting these two and other similar stories. The fact is, many Canadian Muslims are unfairly questioned and profiled at the border. And now, Canada's government is poised to pass a bill that would give U.S. border guards even greater powers, which will disproportionately affect Canadian Muslims trying to travel to the U.S.
Bill C-23, which is based on a deal signed by Stephen Harper and Barack Obama back in 2015, was tabled by the Liberals last July and recently debated in Parliament. It essentially expands the existing pre-clearance arrangement between Canada and the U.S., which allows Canadian travellers to clear customs on Canadian soil, rather than upon arrival at a U.S. airport. Pre-clearance sites already exist at several airports across Canada, and this bill would expand the number of locations in Canada and also allow for pre-clearance sites in the U.S. (where there currently are none). The idea is to expedite the process of crossing the border. Good news, right?
Sure. Except that under Bill C-23, a U.S. border guard would be able to detain a Canadian traveller even if he or she decides to withdraw from the pre-clearance process. Presently, travellers can simply change their minds about trying to enter the U.S. and exit the pre-clearance process without question. Under C-23, a border guard would be able to ask travellers to identify themselves and explain why they want to exit the process. If the pre-clearance officer has "reasonable grounds" to believe the person withdrawing from the process committed an offence, that person can be detained for further questioning and possibly arrested by a Canadian member of law enforcement.
In Parliament last month, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale defended the measure, saying it would "prevent the illicit probing of pre-clearance sites by people trying to find weaknesses in border security before leaving the pre-clearance area undetected." Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chimed in by downplaying concerns about detentions by U.S. border guards, saying that detainees' rights would be safeguarded because they'd still be on Canadian soil. "When you're doing pre-clearance in Canada the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and Canadian laws are in place, so there is extra protection," he said.
Even so, the NDP has warned, rightly, that the bill could see unwarranted detention of visible minorities, particularly in the context of increased racial profiling at the border. Indeed, under Bill C-23, if Yassine Aber went to a pre-clearance site, decided not to hand over his phone and wanted to withdraw from questioning, U.S. border guards could ostensibly detain him under an ambiguous notion of "reasonable grounds." Similarly, if Fadwa Alaoui decided she did not want to share her private political views or religious practices, suspicious pre-clearance officers could hold her simply by asserting they believe she may have committed an offence.
At a time of such political volatility and ever-frequent acts of racism and hate, the move to further empower U.S. border officers is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous, especially under the purview of a Trump administration that seems to routinely target visible minorities. Canadian Muslims are already a convenient target at the border. C-23 will make things worse. If the government really wants to stand with Canadian Muslims, it should not support a bill that enables the abuses it so often claims it is trying to prevent.