There is a crisis at Canada’s border crossings, though it’s not the one that some right-wing commentators and politicians would have you think it is.

Last winter, Black Lives Matter activists went to see the border crossing at Lacolle, Quebec to witness how asylum seekers from the United States were being treated, and what they know about their rights. The group was prevented from talking to anyone by private security forces. Lawyer Saron Grebresellassie described the crossing as “creepy, dangerous and dark.” Police even followed them back to their hotel, stopped and questioned them.

An abandoned stroller is seen on the American side of the former border crossing near Hemmingford, Quebec, in the winter of 2017, at the end of the now infamous Roxham road where most irregular crossings have been happening. File photo by Alex Tétreault

There is quite possibly a humanitarian crisis unfolding that’s not due to the number of people crossing the border but rather due to our inadequate policies and resources that dictate how we react to these people when they arrive.

Sure, irregular border crossings are up thanks to the unbelievable political theatre unfolding under Donald Trump. But the total numbers aren’t at crisis levels. Canada processed 14,310 asylum claimants from January to June, 10,000 of whom were processed at a land port of entry, or an inland office. The numbers have started to fall, but if we imagine that nearly 20,000 people who enter by land will have had an asylum claim processed in 2018, that’s still far from the crisis that some make it out to be.

In 2017, a government report stated that 62,000 people were resettled as refugees in Canada in 2016, including refugees publicly and privately sponsored from Syria. The government aimed to attract 300,000 permanent residents and to issue nearly as many work permits to temporary workers.

To compare this with how Canadians move around, consider our significant snowbird population; a whopping 500,000 Canadians own property in Florida alone.

Canada has international commitments to accept asylum seekers. If we agree that Canada should be a safe haven for people fleeing violence or strife, then we must agree that some number of people seeking asylum in Canada is reasonable and normal and, certainly, nothing to declare a crisis over.

A convenient way out of an inconvenient truth

Part of the issue is that we have made it impossible for anyone to claim asylum from the United States, if they’re from another country. This handy loophole keeps the number of asylum seekers artificially low. Because of this prohibition as defined by the Safe Third Country Agreement, we don't have any long-term planning in place for this inevitable phenomenon. No planning means that there are few resources to manage people. Many enter the shelter system as a last resort and anti-refugee politicians at the provincial and federal levels can wash their hands as they argue that the shelter system is too full to take in more refugees.

A convenient way out for an inconvenient truth: Canada isn’t actually open to accepting refugees at all. If we were, the ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids in the United States, or children being separated from their parents, would be seen as reason enough to suspend the agreement and open our borders to U.S.-based refugee claims.

"Justin Trudeau has tacked hard right. He’s appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to be in charge of “border security” and fighting organized crime," writes @NoLore in @NatObserver #asylum #immigration #CANpoli

Instead, Justin Trudeau has tacked hard right. He’s appointed former Toronto police chief Bill Blair to be in charge of “border security” and fighting organized crime.

Bill Blair, the new Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction is seen breaking a sweat at a press conference about bill C-45 with Ginette Petitpas Taylor, then Minister of Health, and Jody Wilson-Raybould, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, on Tuesday June 20th, 2018. File photo by Alex Tétreault

In Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale’s 2017-18 departmental plan, he doesn’t make any mention of this future change. He doesn’t even hint at it; interesting, as the report is detailed in its strategic planning, budgetary and staffing commitments. Over the same period, the far-right has been in overdrive painting irregular border crossings as a crisis of illegal immigration. This has been eagerly picked up by many Conservative politicians.

Is the decision to create this role an attempt to capture the success of the racist narratives about Canada’s irregular border crossing?

Blair’s record should make all Canadians nervous about what is to come under his tenure. He oversaw the mass arrest and detention of 1,100 people in Toronto in 2010 during the G20 and during his 10-year tenure, Toronto police killed 23 people. We know how he has treated citizens who express their charter-protected rights to free expression. How will he treat vulnerable, status-less asylum seekers who are already being held in questionable circumstances?

Security pact to tighten border

The answer to this question is complicated by broader forces that shape how Canada manages its border with the United States. Our border has become more policed and, worrying still, American security forces have been increasingly granted access to Canada. This may not have worried Canadians when Stephen Harper was negotiating with Barack Obama (though it should have), but Donald Trump put our border policies in even sharper focus.

The main border initiative between Harper and Obama was called Beyond the Border. The security pact was sweeping and focused on projects that intended to boost border security and critical infrastructure while also speeding up the exchange of goods. The expansion of pre-border clearance at some Canadian airports and rail stations was part of this project.

So was the Integrated Cross-border Law Enforcement Operations Act, passed as part of the 2012 Omnibus budget bill. It applies to waterways alone, though it does allow for U.S. security forces to operate in the case of a “hot pursuit.” It was intended that the legislation would be expanded to include land, but those plans never were implemented. A memo from 2013 said that American security forces had been agitating for some legal exemptions while they operated in Canada.

In 2013, Liberal MP Sean Casey, in an article titled American Cops Don't Belong in Canada wrote, “I don't believe Canadians want American police operating and carrying guns in Canada. It's just not right.” Casey is now part of a government that hasn’t undone any of Harper’s changes.

The land-based pilot project plan fizzled due to jurisdictional debates about who should patrol what, in particular which jurisdiction would prosecute someone who broke the law in the other country. It wasn’t quashed because the Liberals too took a principled stance against this incursion on Canadian sovereignty.

While many have called for axing the Safe Third Country Agreement, Trudeau has been musing with making it even more restrictive, and Blair is going to be the guy to implement this, if they move ahead. There’s little doubt that Blair will need to feel pressure from civil liberties activists, regardless of his government’s plans for the new ministry.

Appointing Blair to this role is a sign that Trudeau is less concerned by how Canada welcomes refugees and more interested in feeding the narrative that asylum seekers pose a threat. Can we reasonably expect Blair to implement changes that divert people away from the shelter system and into decent dwellings while their cases are being heard? Was he appointed because of his track record of careful protection of vulnerable people?

Or are we in for his tenure as Toronto Chief of Police redux?

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In the interests of full disclosure - I was never a fan of Mr. Blair as the Chief of Police. Also in the interests of full disclosure I wrote to Minister Goodale to protest the act that permits U.S. police to operate in Canada and received a form reply that insisted this would never happen.

As the anti-immigrant winds gather force world wide, we ordinary Canadians fail to grasp the reality that most of us are immigrants (full disclosure I'm a U.S. citizen who chose Canadian citizenship) of one stripe or another and if you go back to the nomadic origins of the human species, we are probably hard wired to up sticks and search for a better life when the existing one becomes perilous. It might also be a shock to many of us to come up against the fact that Canadians would probably not be welcome refugees in other countries!

Humanity evolved and became a dominent species by wandering and learning to survive in alien environments. It is probably one of the wellsprings for our human intelligence. To cut off this natural cross fertilization of human intelligence is to spell the decline of our species. But then we all know that politicians (and lobbyists) will be the death of us!

In high school in the 1960s, we struggled with an answer to the question "What/who is Canada?". All we came up with was "Not the United States!". Those uncertain times were followed by heroic national policy that put this country in an outstanding peace-mongering role. As with most things that people get comfortable with and used to, many Canadians fail to notice the drift away from this position that has taken place, especially since 9/11. So it's left to those of us old enough to remember, to get busy and DEMAND a return to REAL "Canadian-ism"!!!

"to get busy and DEMAND a return to REAL "Canadian-ism"!!!"

So difficult to do when the PM is moving in a different direction.