The House

300 asylum seekers in one day: pressure point at the Canada-U.S. border

This week on The House, hundreds of people have been lining up in recent days to illegally cross into Canada. What is behind this latest surge in the number of asylum seekers hopping the border? We talk to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen.
An RCMP officer moves a barricade as they wait for the arrival of asylum seekers crossing the border into Canada from the United States at a police checkpoint close to the Canada-U.S. border near Hemmingford, Que., on Thursday, August 3, 2017. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

The federal minister of immigration is urging against "asylum shopping," as a surge of border crossings near Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., overwhelms police, border services and housing resources.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen speaks during a news conference. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"Canada is a very, very attractive destination right now for those seeking protection. We have always welcomed those in search of sanctuary. However, our position is also that if you are an asylum seeker seeking protection you should claim asylum in the first safe country that you land in and the United Nations supports our position because it's based on the principle that you shouldn't conduct asylum shopping," Ahmed Hussen told The House this week.

"I urge anyone contemplating coming to Canada through the United States to claim asylum to do so in the United States. You have access to fair hearings, appeal procedures and other mechanisms to allow you to make your case."

During a single 24-hour period from Tuesday into Wednesday, close to 300 asylum seekers crossed the border at Roxham Road, a police source told CBC.

Hussen was warned by his top bureaucrat in March that the trends in illegal crossings between ports of entry were continuing "despite strong collaboration among Canadian agencies and with United States counterparts" and that "a major humanitarian or security event could create an urgent need to revisit existing policies," according to documents obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

The warnings are laid out in a memorandum prepared for the Minister by associate deputy minister Marta Morgan ahead of a March 10th 2017 face-to-face meeting with then United States Secretary of Homeland Security John F. Kelly in Ottawa.

"Obviously if the numbers keep going higher and higher we would have to make sure that we find additional ways to relieve pressure from these borders," Hussen said.

Though official numbers for July have not been released, the provincial organization tasked with helping asylum seekers estimates that 1,174 people crossed into Quebec last month, compared to 180 people in July 2016.

The federal minister of immigration is urging against "asylum shopping," as a surge of border crossings near Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., overwhelms police, border services and housing resources. 12:02

That number is dwarfed by the figures Jean-Pierre Fortin, president of the Customs and Immigration Union, told The House. He said 1,100 people crossed into Canada at the makeshift border crossing on Roxham Road in Quebec on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week alone.

"I've never seen such a crisis," said Fortin. "Actually, it's major."

Jean-Pierre Fortin, National President of the Customs and Immigration Union, says more than 1,000 asylum seekers have crossed into Quebec from New York this week alone. (CBC)

"We need more resources," he said, explaining that the union is fielding complaints from border services agents who say they're not being kept abreast of the federal government's plan for managing the crisis. "We don't see a clear direction right now... Our people are working something like 25 days in a row, and overtime."

Fortin said the RCMP officers helping with security at the border are also struggling. He said they are working out of cramped facilities and, in this hot weather, "it's not a very easy task they are performing."

The union said late last month his officers gave U.S. Customs and Border Protection members a tour of the Canadian facilities. 

"They were astounded to see these people laying down everywhere. I guess they didn't understand what was going on really on our side of the country," he said.

"They were really impacted and shocked."

Jean-Pierre Fortin, the president of the Customs and Immigration Union, outlines his concerns with the situation at the Canada-U.S. border. 11:46

James Moore joins Team Canada

Industry Minister James Moore answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa on Thursday, May 28, 2015. The Trudeau government has tapped former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose to give advice on the imminent renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Other members include Moore, a former minister in the previous Conservative government, and Brian Topp, a veteran NDP strategist, one-time NDP leadership contender and former chief of staff to Alberta's NDP premier, Rachel Notley. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Former Conservative Industry Minister James Moore said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has done a "very good job" ahead of NAFTA renegotiation set to begin in two weeks.

"I think Prime Minister Trudeau, broadly, has done a very good job of builiding relationships in the United States. I think [Canadian Ambassador to the United States David] MacNaughton has done a fantastic job," Moore told The House.

"I think it's been a cross-partisan, full-court press in order to have a team of Canadians who will work together to keep the momentum going, to keep the dialogue going about the benefits of NAFTA."

Moore is one of 13 members advising the Trudeau government in a newly-created advisory council on NAFTA, announced Wednesday by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

The council cuts across partisan lines, with former interim Conservative leader Rona Ambrose and NDP strategist Brian Topp among its members.

The appointment of Moore and Ambrose came after Conservative leader Andrew Scheer recently called out Trudeau for "mishandling" the NAFTA file.

"I've always been worried about Justin Trudeau's attitude towards trade. We saw during the softwood lumber negotiations that he failed to get an extension while president Obama was still in office," said Scheer in a July interview with The House.

"He seems so focused on a trade deal with China — that nobody wants — that they're forgetting, and not prioritizing, a trade deal that everybody needs. They're not working hard enough on this NAFTA [file] and they're trying to confuse issues now. So I think they're mishandling the trade file."

Moore, however, defended Scheer, adding there should be debates over what a new NAFTA will look like.

"Because people raise concerns or are critical of it doesn't mean that they don't want ultimate success, and that's part of the job of the leader of the opposition is to raise concerns and to try and do it in a throughtful way," Moore said.

"There will be domestic debates that will influence and inform, I think, the discussions that the minister and the government will be having around NAFTA."

Talks on changing the NAFTA agreement between Canada, the United States and Mexico are scheduled to begin in Washington on August 16.

Former industry minister James Moore talks about his role as part of the NAFTA advisory council. 7:32

Passenger rights

Emergency crews surround an Air Transat flight that sat for hours at the Ottawa airport on Monday night. (Stephane Beaudoin/CBC)

You don't have to look far to find flying horror stories.

This week, an Air Transat flight from Brussels was kept on the Ottawa tarmac for six hours, before an exasperated passenger finally called 911. Passenger Laura Mah told CBC News that passengers were stuck in a sweltering cabin without air conditioning after the plane ran out of fuel. 

"I'm super pissed," Mah said on Monday. "I'm just really hot, I'm sweating, and I haven't eaten… I'm hungry and they only rationed the food to give little snacks to kids, which is good. Luckily, they started bringing in bottles of water from the outside, like 45 minutes ago, but no food. I'm starving."

MP ​Karen McCrimmon, parliamentary secretary to the transport minister, says the new air passenger bill of rights would punish airlines for keeping people on the tarmac longer than three hours by forcing them to compensate passengers.

"Airlines will get their act in gear because you can't afford to do this," she said. 

But the proposed bill would not compel carriers to disembark a plane delayed for long periods.

"It's the airlines' responisibility to keep its passengers secure and safe. If we had people leaving the aircarft beacuse they've had enough and maybe they had to clear customs, maybe they had to do immigration, maybe there's a danger out there that the passengers aren't aware of," she said.

Bill C-49 has yet to make it past parliament and the Senate's scalpel, but until then McCrimmon says passengers need to keep speaking up about their rights.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Transport talks about the government's proposed passenger bill of rights. 5:55

In House panel

In January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: "To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada."

It was a tweet that read like a beacon. 

In January Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, "to those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength."

And they're fleeing in drives.

The number of asylum seekers, most of them Haitian, crossing illegally near the Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., border crossing has tripled in the past two weeks — from about 50 a day earlier this month, to 150 a day, according to the Quebec government.

It's believed they may be flocking to Canada before the special status granted to Haitians by then U.S. President Barack Obama in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake is withdrawn in January.

"We're seeing a cause and effect here," said Globe and Mail Parliamentary reporter Laura Stone. "I think it's going to be more of a wait and see approach until we take more of a hard line."

While hundreds are crossing into Canada, their futures are far from guaranteed. Many asylum seekers will likely have their cases rejected.

"It will be fascinating to see how the politics of that plays out . It just doesn't dovetail well with the sort of, 'hey, come to Canada' rhetoric that we've heard from the government up until now," Macleans' bureau chief John Geddes.

New NAFTA advisory panel, a new U.S. ambassador to Canada, and a renewed charm offensive in the fall. As we get closer to NAFTA talks, our In House panelists John Geddes and Laura Stone discuss the latest developments. 10:02