The Sunday Magazine

Canadians are not as open to immigration as we'd like to think

Concordia University professor Yasmin Jiwani talks about a dark side to Canadian attitudes towards newcomers and asylum-seekers.
An RCMP officer warns a group of people who claimed to be from Haiti not to illegally cross the border into Canada from Champlain, New York in August 2017. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

Canada's acceptance of some 35,000 Syrian refugees beginning in 2015 was not only ambitious and logistically daunting, it was a national feel-good story that almost took on the dimensions of a nation-building project.

It also cemented our country's reputation as a model of openness and diversity, at a time when populist xenophobia and anti-immigrant fervour were seizing so much of the democratic West in response to a global refugee crisis.

The tone of Canada's national discourse on immigration and refugees has taken a harsher and darker turn since the photo ops with Syrian arrivals, though.

More than 30-thousand asylum-seekers have entered Canada through unofficial border crossings in the past year-and-a-half, sometimes overwhelming staff who process refugee claims and putting a strain on housing and social services in the municipalities where they've ended up.

A man from Syria hugs his daughter after they were detained by the RCMP as they illegally crossed the US-Canada border near Hemmingford, Quebec in February 2017. (Geoff Robins/AFP/Getty Images)

National pride over Canada's embrace of refugees has given way to criticism of the federal government for losing control over the border. There's talk of a border crisis. There are emergency parliamentary committee meetings on asylum-seekers, and angry words between federal and provincial immigration ministers. This past week, the federal Conservatives pulled an attack ad on Liberal immigration policy, after criticism that it was racist.

According to Yasmin Jiwani, a professor in the Communications program at Concordia University, the language used in the media and political discourse surrounding asylum-seekers and immigration more broadly, colours the public's attitude toward people trying to enter Canada through unofficial means.

We constantly hear [that] there's a 'surge' of refugees... There are 'waves.' This is an 'invasion' of sorts.- Yasmin Jiwani

"We constantly hear [that] there's a 'surge' of refugees," Jiwani told The Sunday Edition's guest host Nahlah Ayed. "There are 'waves.' This is an 'invasion' of sorts. What [these words] do is immediately spike the level of anxiety. It's like, 'Oh my God, are we going to be engulfed? Are we going to be taken over?'

"And then we have this whole notion of the crisis. Crisis for whom? If we are talking about it from the perspective of that asylum-seeker, the crisis is theirs in being displaced. The crisis is theirs in terms of what they have to go through in order to find a safe place to live. But the way this issue is being framed, it's our crisis because we don't have enough resources. So we're no longer talking about it in terms of humanity; we're talking about it as our systems [being] in crisis because we're being flooded."

While many Canadians felt united by the national response to the Syrian refugee challenge, policy on immigration, refugees and the border has become a divisive issue that's shaping up to be a major theme in next year's federal election.

When you think of people as problems rather than as people first... what does that say?- Yasmin Jiwani

But Jiwani points out that Canadians were, at best, ambivalent about accepting large numbers of Syrian refugees — despite being aware of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Syria — until the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi's lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach. When that image shocked the world's conscience, public resolve to help Syrian refugees was galvanized, as Canadians learned more about the refugees' stories of unspeakable horror and suffering.

"[There was] really strong media coverage that focused on what was happening in Syria," said Jiwani. "So we got to know about the kind of violence that was being enacted on the people over there and the oppression they were facing. And so we had a bit of history about that, and that makes a big difference. We really don't have much of a history about the people who are crossing the border here.

"When you have a dehumanizing discourse, when you think of people as problems rather than as people first, and when you don't (know their) context, what does that say?"

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear the full conversation with Yasmin Jiwani.