Canada is committed to signing onto the United Nations pact on migration, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen says, despite angry protest from right-wing political activists both here and abroad.
Speaking from Marrakech, Morocco on Friday, where a UN summit on migration is to kick off next week, Hussen said the Global Compact on Migration is an important agreement that will set out, for the first time, an official international framework for countries to work together on the causes and impacts of migration.
For Canada, one of the key benefits will be an opportunity to work with source countries of irregular asylum seekers, who have been crossing into Canada via non-official entry points by the tens of thousands over the last two years.
Canada will have a more official way, through the compact, to address the problems that cause migrants to leave their countries for Canada, Hussen said.
"People talk about how we should approach irregular migration — one of the ways to do that is to work with other countries," Hussen said. "One of the things that we do is work with partner countries to assist them with job creation and skills-development programs that enables source countries for migrants, like Morocco, to ensure a better future for their people here so that they don't have to take risky journeys for migration and engage in irregular migration."
But despite two years of work at the UN level and consensus reached after six rounds of negotiation on the final text, a movement of protest against the agreement has grown in Europe over the last year, leading several European countries to quit the compact.
Australia, Israel, Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Italy, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have said they will not support it. Poland and Estonia also may not sign and Belgium's coalition government is so divided over it, the question of whether to sign the pact is threatening to topple its government.
The United States will also not sign the compact.
In Canada, opposition to the agreement first appeared on the controversial news website Rebel Media. It called the compact a means to normalize mass migration and silence media critics. Recently, many of these same arguments have been taken up by Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer and Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel. Scheer held a press conference earlier this week to say he strongly opposes the pact, on the grounds that it would give foreign entities influence over Canada's immigration system. Rempel has argued the agreement would be legally binding on Canada and would therefore pose a threat to Canadian sovereignty.
These arguments mirror those being circulated in Europe, and are "completely erroneous and fundamentally misunderstand the nature of international relations and international law," said Craig Damian Smith, associate director of the Global Migration Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto.
"What they're doing is they're importing this xenophobic political rhetoric from openly illiberal political parties in Europe, and the reason is, it sells domestically and they think they can hammer the Liberals with it," Smith said. "That's the completely unvarnished truth about what's going on with this discourse in Canada."
He stressed there is nothing in the compact that is legally binding, nor would the agreement somehow cause more migrants to cross into Canada or destroy Canada's sovereignty.
The Global Compact on Migration was born after the 2015-16 refugee crisis, when UN member states realized that, unlike flows of goods and services or capital across borders, no international regime covers migration. It's an issue that tends to become politically polarizing when large flows of migrants begin to move, which is why a formalized agreement was sought, Smith explained.
"The idea is, the international community needs to start building a global governance regime for migration because only through co-operation do you get the positive dividends of well-managed and safe international migration. That's the goal."
Hussen did not mince words in his assessment of Conservative opposition to the compact. He pointed to a report released Thursday by the Commons committee on Immigration that studied the agreement, including expert testimony and submissions, and ultimately recommended Canada sign on.
"They're peddling in a conspiracy theory that's beneath a mainstream political party that has access to evidence, that has access to testimony from experts who have clearly said this agreement is not a threat to Canadian sovereignty, it will not erase our border," Hussen said.
"They've chosen to take this position because they're losing supporters to the People's Party of Canada and they feel this is what they need to do to win support from people who support the People's Party of Canada," he added, referring to the new party created by ex-Conservative MP Maxime Bernier.
Bernier has indeed spoken out against the migration compact, and was scheduled to speak at a rally in Ottawa Saturday to protest Canada's signing the agreement. The rally is also scheduled to include a number of far-right, anti-Muslim and neo-Nazi groups, according to an article published by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
A staffer who works with Bernier told The Canadian Press on Friday that Bernier was aware the Ottawa rally could involve the extremist groups, and was still planning to attend. Later in the day, the staffer said Bernier decided not to attend after "verifying claims about the extent of these groups being present or involved in the demonstration."