The House

Midweek podcast: Canada's cameos during Trump's speech to Congress

What did we learn from U.S. President Donald Trump's speech to Congress? This week CBC's The House gets a debrief from NPR's Tamara Keith on the midweek podcast.
President Donald Trump addresses a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, as Vice President Mike Pence listens. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)

Canada's ears were burning slightly Tuesday night when U.S. President Donald Trump addressed Congress for the first time.

Trump referred to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by name when mentioning a task force to help women in the workplace, he touched on the Keystone XL project, and he pointed to Canada's "merit-based" immigration system.

It came on the heels of a number of Canadian cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Bill Morneau, making the trip to Washington to meet with their U.S. counterparts.

But it's still unclear if Canada is making an impact on the real decision makers in Washington.

"At the moment, it feels like everything is being run out of the White House," said Tamara Keith, a White House correspondent with National Public Radio told CBC's The House midweek podcast.

"Someone like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it's not clear that he is influencing policy. It's not 100 per cent clear that he speaks for the president of the United States when he talks to world leaders."

One of the exceptions, she said, is Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly, the man who will be working with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Last week on The House, Goodale told host Chris Hall he would raise the issue of illegal border crossings with senior U.S. officials.

While Trump's Tuesday night speech didn't reference those asylum seekers heading north, it focused heavily on cracking down on illegal immigration.

"It's not clear that the Trump White House is clamouring to keep people," Keith pointed out.

Breaking the law often 'the only option'

His speech is unlikely to reassure Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, who has serious concerns about people risking their lives to illegally enter Canada from the U.S.

She's helping lead a charge to convince Canada to end the Third Safe Country Agreement with the United States, which states that refugees must make a claim at the first safe country they arrive in.

"Refugees are, by nature, forced to go outside the law because they're not receiving protection in their home country. Countries like Canada actually do a lot to make it difficult for them to get to a place of safety," she said.

Asylum seekers move carefully along a railway overpass in Emerson, Man., early Sunday morning. (John Woods/Canadian Press)

"Because of that, the convention states that refugees must not be penalized for entering the country irregularly or violating immigration laws because often that is the only option."

Dench argues that the U.S. doesn't protect all refugees.

"There are many circumstances where [refugees] are put into detention, they're not given access to a lawyer. Refugee determination is made in a very slap-happy way with decision makers only having a few minutes to make a decision," she said.

"And so mistakes are made and people who need protection are not granted it."

Dench said it's been hard to get clear statistics from the government about how many people have been crossing illegally into Canada from the U.S., but said there's been a dramatic decrease in the number of claims in Canada overall.

She said in the early 2000s, the country was averaging about 31,000 claims every year, but that dropped down to an average of about 13,000 from 2013 to 2015.

Dench said her organization doesn't know the act reason why the number of claims dropped, but at the end of 2012, "the government brought in a new refugee determination system and right after that the numbers really descended dramatically." 

"Gradually we've seen those numbers go up but they're still way below what we were seeing in the 2000s. So when people say the numbers are twice as much as last year, bear in mind that we're starting from a much, much lower state than we've had in the past."

The full version of The House airs Saturday mornings at 9 a.m., 9:30 a.m. NT.

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