Public Debates on Canada’s Refugee Policy: A Look at the Past 40 Years

By Yasmeen Emadi

Canadian views towards refugees in the last forty years contains an underlying assumption that immigration is only positive when it does not reduce the standard of living of established Canadian citizens. Contrary to the economic prosperity of the 1950s and 60s that allowed Canada to admit large numbers of refugees, the economic downturns in the latter half of the century increased public hostilities towards newcomers that did not directly contribute to the re-stabilization of the Canadian economy. Consequently, the mandate on incoming refugees favoured those who proved a long-term potential to become Canadian citizens.

The overarching influence of economic priorities upon refugee matters encouraged Canada to admit the most economically adaptable refugees as opposed to those with the greatest need for political asylum. Gallup poll data from 1949 to 2001 shows that Canadians have almost never ranked refugee acceptance as a national priority. This is particularly true in times of economic downturn, where fears of high costs and economic strain have stalled the assistance of refugees.[1] Chilean refugees experienced this reality firsthand. Despite being on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ urgent list, many of these refugees lacked what Canadians considered to be a requisite to adapting to life in Canada. In this case, the government was referring to their communist sympathies. Just years prior to the political crisis in Chile, Canada openly welcomed in thousands of Hungarian, Ugandan, and American refugees. Refusing entry to Chilean refugees simply on the basis of their communist sympathies suggested that Canada’s response to refugees had political rather than humanitarian motives. Although Canada welcomed a few Chileans in, they did so grudgingly, without any special waivers to the normal standards of admission.[2]

Although many Canadians and humanitarians have condemned refoulement, the practice of turning back persons claiming to be refugees at a border, the government has continually used the doctrine of state sovereignty to justify policies that reject refugees at ports of entry[3] and rigidly regulate the flow of refugees across its frontiers. Provisions and regulations aim to deter what came to be called ‘asylum shopping’, where would-be-refugees seek the most materially satisfying nation to reside in. The introduction of a ‘Safe Third World’ agreement in 1987 restricted and controlled the admission of what Canada considered fraudulent claimants from economic and political migrants. Opponents of this agreement were quick to point out that it decreased the chances of legitimate refugees from entering Canada. It also posed a particular threat to rising numbers of refugees from the Global South that were confronted by civil war, ethnic strife, political upheaval and natural disasters in the 1980s. Dan Heap, the NDP immigration critic, called the agreement racist, because it discriminated against Asian and African refugees that did not have direct air routes to Canada. These claimants could not fly directly to Canada the same way that an Eastern European refugee for example, could.[4] Others critiqued the agreement because it dramatically reduced the number of permissible refugees into Canada each year, 40% of which came from the United States. In response to the retaliation, the Mulroney government justified this policy as a necessary step in sharing the responsibility of refugees with other nations. Instead of providing international refugees a safe haven, Canada increased its defense budget and increased military personnel across its borders.

Canada’s decision to admit Hungarian and Czechoslovakian refugees, in 1956 and 1968 respectively shows how political factors have also been involved in shaping Canada’s refugee policy. During the early Cold War era, the government felt compelled to respond to mounting domestic pressures from Canadians who wanted to embarrass the Soviet Union by accepting refugees who were fleeing from its oppression. They also saw the admittance of those disillusioned by one’s ideological opponent, in this case the communist Soviet Union, as a great chance to make good national propaganda.[5] Political conditions have also encouraged Canada to limit the admittance of certain refugees. Anti-Semitic attitudes among Canadians prohibited the entry of a vast majority of European Jews during the Holocaust.[6] Similarly, a lack of public interest in Latin American affairs and Canada’s ideological opposition to communist Chilean refugees resulted in a series of restrictive admission policies.

The creation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 fundamentally challenged the assumptions that governed Canada’s immigration and refugee policies. It transformed the legal rights of refugee claimants in Canada by granting them the same protections as Canadian citizens. The right to fundamental justice guaranteed each and every claimant with a full oral hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board, formally only functioning as an Appeal Board. Most notably, the Singh decision had profound implications for Canada’s refugee determination system and was considered one of the greatest victories for refugee advocates across the nation. Harbhajan Singh and six other appellants who were denied an appeal to their refugee status by the Minister of Immigration and the former Immigration Appeal Board, appealed these decisions to the Supreme Court of Canada. The justices of the Supreme Court referred to basis of the Bill of Rights and the Charter of Rights to conclude that the appellants were warranted the review that they demanded. In comparison to the United States and other refugee-receiving countries, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed the same procedural protections to refugee claimants, that they did to Canadian citizens.[7] The Singh decision raised concerns among Canadian taxpayers, many of whom questioned why their government’s inability to manage a clogged refugee determination system was carried out at their expense.

Public discontent over the Singh decision of 1985 and the implications of the existing clogged refugee determination system triggered the Mulroney government to introduce a controversial Refugee Reform Bill, more commonly known as Bill C-55. This Bill was confronted with considerable opposition from both the Canadian public and Parliament.[8] Critics pointed out that under the legislation claimants were guaranteed neither a hearing before a panel of the Refugee Determination Board, nor arrival on Canadian shores. This was particularly troubling for a Canadian public that for many decades rejected the practice of refoulment. Additionally, legal experts were concerned about the legislation’s ability to detain claimants for up to seven days, without a court appearance or hearing. This not only rejected the individual’s rights to habeas corpus but also directly contradicted the Canadian Charter of Rights that was established in 1982.[9] Although Bill C-55 intended on producing a new refugee determination system that operated smoothly, it failed to consider how these reforms would negate Canada’s legal and moral obligations to refugees. Indeed, it proved difficult to find the right balance between control and fairness.

Canadian interests in refugee assistance dramatically declined during the economic downturn of the early 1990s. The Canadian government felt compelled to tighten up immigration with stricter provisions that limited the entry of an increasing number of prospective “Third World” immigrants. Bill C-86 presented the most far-reaching amendment to Canada’s immigration laws since 1976. The federal decision to implement an invasive screening process, that included the practice of fingerprinting refugees to discourage their misconduct, spoke on the behalf of a larger Canadian consensus that grew increasingly aware of the globalization of money, crime and terrorism.[10] The fragility of their economy and the sheer numbers of unprocessed refugee claims convinced many Canadians that the heavily taxed determination system was being abused. Opponents of Bill C-86 demanded a more equitable determination system and called for an end to fingerprinting procedures, greater discretion for public hearings of refugee cases, and major reforms to the system’s detention procedures.

The rapidly changing economy of the 1990s shifted public support towards a more adaptable labour force and away from raising levels of immigration into Canada. According to Shirley Seward, a Director of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, the government needed to shift its focus to increasing the education level, official language ability, and skills of the Canadian labour force in order for Canada’s economy to stand a chance in competing internationally. Critic David Hoffman argues instead that a larger Canadian population will result in a larger domestic market for Canadian businesses, thus reducing Canada’s dependence on foreign exports.[11] In considering these alternative perspectives it is important to contextualize both Seward and Hoffman’s approaches to immigration. One would agree that if the government wants to increase immigration levels, it must acknowledge the need for more public services to integrate these newcomers into the Canadian population. In this case perhaps a more gradual approach to immigration would help alleviate economic circumstances and change the perspectives of Canadians who would otherwise have little enthusiasm for immigration.

The In-Canada Refugee Determination System created in March 1995 aimed to assist accepted refugees in settling into Canada. The determination system of 1978-1988 was often faulted for ‘ranking economics first and people second’[12] by unfairly screening refugee claimants to ensure their ability to adapt to the Canadian labour market. Conversely, this new system targeted a desirable blend of economic and humanitarian objectives. Bud Cullen, Canada’s former Minister of Employment and Immigration once stated “It is important that whatever number Canada allows…refugees be selected according to their ability to adapt to Canadian life…”.[13] Assessing this mentality, we must recognize the overwhelming tendency of Canadians to focus on economic performance when deciding on the desirability of immigrants and refugees. Academic Peter Li challenges us to question why we prioritize newcomers that can economically enrich our nation. He argues that it is more important to measure the effectiveness and speed with which Canada’s admission program offers a safe haven for those who are threatened, as opposed to focusing on how well these newcomers perform economically.[14]

A key component in measuring Canada’s effectiveness involves considering the on-going racism and discrimination that many of these refugees face when entering the labour force. In addition, we must acknowledge Canada’s tendency to undervalue foreign work experience. In 2004, Statistics Canada admitted that the declining wages of new Canadians was a direct outcome of the lack of recognition for foreign credentials. Today, newcomers to Canada, earn a quarter less during their first year of work than those who arrived thirty years ago. Despite having received more education, recent immigrants are finding it much harder to capitalize on their skills. This reality is particularly evident among visible minorities. Whereas in 1980, recent male immigrants earned on average 17 percent less than Canadian-born men, a study conducted in 2000 showed how this wage gap doubled in size to over 40% less.[15] Canada’s failure to recognize foreign education and work experience has serious implications for both newcomers and the Canadian economy. This perpetuates a vicious cycle that not only breeds low socio-economic circumstances among Canadians, but also a deterrence among existing citizens to assist and accept international refugees.

More recently, the post 9/11 world of economic crisis and increased security has created a climate that seizes to consider some groups of refugees to be worthy ‘neighbours.’ Resistance against inclusion is fuelled with the suspicion that Canada’s lenient refugee policy has compromised Canadian security.[16] The Safe Third World Agreement, finally implemented in 2004, has portrayed considerable changes in Canadian assumptions about the nations role in the international community and in determining the ‘preferred’ immigrant. What has persisted is the belief that the acceptance of refugees is only positive if it does not reduce the standard of living of established Canadians.[17] i.e. the idea that “non-assimilable” refugees are detrimental to Canada’s national development and hence, should be excluded. Despite the arguments of some who claim it too soon to determine the long-term effects of the “War on Terror” on Canada’s response to refugees,[18] we can see how recent hostilities towards religious refugees have shaped the government’s policies. One can point to the Harper Government’s decision to exclude Syrian refugees as a direct response to his fear of terrorism and the supposed need for increased national security. Similarly, Justin Trudeau’s decision to strictly allow Syrian women and children into Canada can be conceived as a political move that balances humanitarian efforts with the concerns of the Canadian public.

As Canadian perspectives and attitudes on refugees continue to change, there is still hostility towards newcomers that do not immediately contribute to our economy, disregarding the systems that continue to discriminate and oppress them in the first place.

Footnotes

[1] Bothwell, Robert, and Jean Daudelin. “”And Who Is My Neighbour?” Refugees, Public, and Policy in Canada since 1900.” In 100 Years of Canadian Foreign, 1-310. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009, p. 159.

[2] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006. 2nd ed. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007, p. 215.

[3] Dirks, Gerald. World Refugees: The Canadian Response. 5th ed. Vol. 45. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1988, p. 2-3.

[4] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 241.

[5] Dirks, Gerald. World Refugees: The Canadian Response. p. 13.

[6] Dirks, Gerald. “Refugees Admitted Without Concessions.” In Canada’s Refugee Policy, 1-316. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977, p. 35.

[7] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 225-227.

[8] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006. p. 227-229.

[9] Dirks, Gerald. World Refugees: The Canadian Response. p. 16.

[10] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 238-242.

[11] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 237-238.

[12] Dirks, Gerald. “Refugees Admitted Without Concessions.” In Canada’s Refugee Policy, p. 2.

[13] Howard, Rhoda. “Contemporary Canadian Refugee Policy: A Critical Assessment.” 6, no. 2 (1980): 361-73. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3550005, p. 369.

[14] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 252.

[15] Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006, p. 253-254.

[16] Bothwell, Robert, 100 Years of Canadian Foreign, p. 161.

[17] Bothwell, Robert, 100 Years of Canadian Foreign, p. 162.

[18] Bothwell, Robert, 100 Years of Canadian Foreign, p. 175.

References

Bothwell, Robert, and Jean Daudelin. “”And Who Is My Neighbour?” Refugees, Public, and Policy in Canada since 1900.” In 100 Years of Canadian Foreign, 1-310. 2nd ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009.

Dirks, Gerald. World Refugees: The Canadian Response. 5th ed. Vol. 45. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 1988. 1-18.

Dirks, Gerald. “Refugees Admitted Without Concessions.” In Canada’s Refugee Policy, 1-316. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977.

Gallagher, Stephen. Canada’s Dysfunctional Refugee Policy: A Realist Case for Reform.  4th ed. Vol. 58. Toronto: Canadian Institute of International Affairs, 2001. 1-16.

Howard, Rhoda. “Contemporary Canadian Refugee Policy: A Critical Assessment.” 6, no. 2 (1980): 361-73. Accessed November 15, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3550005.

Knowles, Valerie. Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration and Immigration Policy, 1540-2006. 2nd ed. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2007. 1-310.

– – – – – – –

Woman. Iranian. Immigrant.
12969327_10156878917730599_249311241_nYasmeen Emadi is currently in her final year of study, majoring in History, Diaspora & Transnational studies, and Women & Gender studies. Coming to Canada at the age of 3, Yasmeen’s memories of her homeland grow more distant with each passing year. As she grows older, she’s become more aware of space, more aware of presence. She’s learnt to appreciate where she’s come from, despite her lack of memory, and have come to appreciate her experiences as a young, Iranian woman, living in Canada.

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