Trudeau must dispel the myth there's 'always a place' for refugees in Canada: Robyn Urback

Last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a group of reporters (wrong audience, but solid effort) that illegal entry into Canada doesn’t confer any special benefits. I'd wager that desperate refugees probably weren't watching that press conference.

PM should speak to Haitians and reveal low rate of acceptance for claims

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tells reporters in Maxville, Ont., that Quebec has enough resources to cope with the recent surge in asylum seekers crossing the border into Canada illegally from the U.S. (CBC)

What can Canada do about the thousands of asylum seekers now pouring over the Quebec border from the United States every month?

The solution is very simple, according to some:

Send them back.

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But alas, it is not so simple: Canada is bound by the Safe Third Country Agreement, which mandates that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe country on which they land. Asylum seekers who first landed in the U.S. must be sent back there if they attempt to enter Canada through an official point of entry — except these asylum-seekers are crossing into Canada illegally, meaning the Safe Third Country Agreement does not apply. 

So fix the agreement.

Ah, but this would require the United States to agree to amend the 13-year-old law, which until relatively recently, has been working out all right. Plus, it's likely that President Donald Trump is rather pleased to see Haitians who have been in the U.S. under temporary protected status — and who have been told that they will have to leave the country in the next six months — exit on their own accord, even if it is just to Canada. It spares the U.S. from having to deal with that messy deportation business. 

Because of a 1985 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, refugee claimants have to be processed, interviewed and given a hearing. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

So Canada should arrest them and send them back to their countries of origin.

The Singh vs. Canada ruling of 1985 means any refugee claimant who has stepped foot in Canada has the right to a hearing. Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, he or she cannot be charged with a criminal offence for illegally entering Canada. These refugees have to be processed, interviewed and given a hearing. 

So change the law(s).

There are political, legal and potentially international human rights implications to doing so. But sure: have at it. Meanwhile, winter is coming and the flow of refugees into Canada has only slightly slowed. 

So I repeat: what can Canada do about the thousands of asylum seekers pouring over the Quebec border?

The answer: very little. 

As I see it, the only thing this government can actually change, immediately, which might have even the smallest effect on the flow of irregular border crossers is its messaging. 

Forget about the anemic Twitter thread that Transport Minister Marc Garneau, an unknown figure on the international stage, posted last week about measures to tackle what the Immigration and Refugee Board has called "clearly unsustainable." 

Forget, too, about the deployment of Haitian-Canadian MP Emmanuel Dubourg to Miami to try to relay the challenges of actually immigrating to Canada to diaspora communities. 

The message needs to come from the top, using a forum that would-be asylum seekers might actually follow. Granted, it could ruin Trudeau's heartthrob progressive world leader cred, but it's just about the only immediate measure that could stymie the flow of migrants. Put it on Facebook, on Twitter, in a Snapchat story: You are not guaranteed a spot in Canada. Don't cross the border illegally.

Wrong audience, but solid effort

Last week, Trudeau told a group of reporters (wrong audience, but solid effort) that illegal entry into Canada doesn't confer any special benefits. 

"If I could directly speak to people seeking asylum, I'd like to remind them there's no advantage," Trudeau said. "Our rules, our principles and our laws apply to everyone."

The prime minister might've forgotten that he can speak directly to people seeking asylum, something he did in January, when he tweeted: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada"

The official @CanadianPM Twitter account followed up a couple of months later, tweeting: "Regardless of who you are or where you come from, there's always a place for you in Canada."

It would be naive and overly simplistic to assume that the approximately 3,800 people who crossed into Quebec in the first two weeks of August, for example, did so based on a couple of months-old tweets from the prime minister.

Surely anti-immigrant rhetoric from Donald Trump, the promise of deportation from the Department of Homeland Security, and the enduring struggle to rebuild parts of Haiti seven years on from that massive earthquake that displaced these refugees in the first place have all contributed to the decision by these asylum seekers to cross into Canada.

But the prime minister's tweets are part and parcel of the narrative this government has been working hard to build globally about Canada as a haven of inclusivity and welcome.

We are peacekeepers, not fighters; we will take in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, even as the U.S. closes its doors; we encourage immigration, instead of blaming it for our problems. If you were a Haitian refugee facing deportation from the U.S., why would you not try your luck with Canada? 

The RCMP have set up a temporary processing centre to handle asylum seekers crossing the border illegally in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle near Hemmingford, Que. About 65 per cent of the refugee claims from Haitian applicants that have been processed so far were rejected in the first three months of 2017. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)

While anecdotal, many interviews with refugees suggest Canada's reputation for inclusiveness has been a deciding factor in the decision to cross the border. In practice, however, most applicants won't land a permanent spot in Canada. Indeed, around 65 per cent of refugee claims from Haitian applicants that have already been decided were rejected in the first three months of 2017.

A much harsher reality

For some, those odds will still be good enough to take a gamble. But the reality of the situation is nevertheless much harsher than Canada's carefully crafted open-door narrative would suggest.

Crossing into Canada does not mean a brand new life: it means possible detention, living in a tent, waiting months for a hearing and, more likely than not, a rejected asylum claim.

Practically speaking, there's not much Canada can do that will instantly fix the border crisis. But at an absolute minimum, our prime minister can dispel the myth that there's "always a place" for refugees in Canada. That's simply not true.

Don't tell a room of reporters. Tell the people who are banking on a new life in Canada. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: