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Ahmed Hussen raised his right hand in front of 483 newcomers and their families from 72 countries, leading their oath of citizenship — first in French, then in English. On stage in University of Toronto’s largest auditorium, towering over the handful of people around him, he slowly enunciated every syllable firmly and patiently, pausing for the hundreds to follow.
This was the largest Canadian citizenship ceremony the federal immigration minister of two years had ever attended. Standing at a podium in front of a stand-alone “Immigration Matters” poster, he spoke to the crowd briefly in the moments before they became Canadians, reminding them that they had “chosen to join the Canadian family” — a step that he too had taken as a Somalian refugee decades ago, as had countless others before them.
He told them that Canada was imperfect, “an unfinished project,” that needed all the help it can get. “We don’t get it right all the time,” he said, smiling, reminding them that they could contribute and invest back into the country that invested in them. “When newcomers succeed, Canada succeeds.”
The ceremony was five days after the maximum limit of 27,000 applications to bring parents and grandparents to Canada was reached 11 minutes after the first-come-first-served family reunification process opened online. That sparked public frustration and condemnation from the Conservatives, who accused Hussen of favouring asylum seekers over families.
He led the oath of citizenship two weeks after a Syrian refugee was charged and then released in the case of an alleged terror plot in Kingston, Ont. During the course of that day, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer tried to turn the tables on Hussen in a tweet after Prime Minister Trudeau warned the public to be wary of “fear-mongering” about immigration.
And, almost a month before this ceremony, Trudeau engaged with a man at a town hall in Regina who asked about Canada’s border security and suggested that Christianity and Islam “don’t mix." The crowd booed and heckled the questioner; Trudeau asked them to stop.
“Democracy only works in a country like Canada if people are free to express their fears, their concerns, their opinions, and we get an opportunity to respond to them,” Trudeau told the Regina audience. His words went viral.
In the days and weeks before and since these events, Hussen has been targeted by an online Conservative campaign accusing him of prioritizing refugees over all else, and by doing so, threatening the stability of Canada's security, social services and economy.
Hussen, however, employs a simple logic to counter the attacks: he said every policy he has proposed comes from an extensive consultation with Canadians and what they want from their immigration and refugee system. The Conservatives don’t consult Canadians about immigration, he told National Observer in an interview after the ceremony. Between him and his predecessor John McCallum (recently fired as Canada’s ambassador to China), the Liberals “have criss-crossed Canada four times” to consult Canadians.
Much of the work on these files has happened “very quietly, very modestly, in a very Canadian way,” Hussen said, whether it’s the way in which Canada has exported its private sponsorship model to seven countries around the world, or the government's work with an organization called Talent Beyond Boundaries, which helps refugees find a way to apply for skilled immigrant status.
“I think that (immigration) is an issue that presents itself as ripe for debate, as ripe for an exchange of views and I welcome that,” Hussen said, echoing Trudeau's comments in Regina on Jan. 10. “When you encounter that level of misinformation and fear and division against your own constituents and Canadians, you have a responsibility as a public official to engage to correct that misinformation.”
Hussen learned this inadvertently. He was appointed immigration minister two weeks before U.S. President Donald Trump’s first travel ban. He said he “had to hit the ground running,” and the duty of debunking misinformation quickly fell on him. He became accustomed to it and made a plan that he has tried very hard to stick to: First, you engage. Then, “fight fear with facts.”
‘When the Conservatives focus on us, we’ll focus on Canadians'
Immigration is shaping up as one of the most important, contentious issues in this federal election year. Hussen is caught in the middle of a storm of rhetoric already underway. Hussen refuses to delve into it, but members of his team said the backlash against the immigration minister became more noticeable over the summer of 2018, when Progressive Conservatives under Doug Ford won the Ontario election and intensified the spotlight on asylum seekers crossing the U.S.-Canada border.
In Ontario, provincial immigration minister Lisa MacLeod criticized Hussen for not giving Ontario enough resources to house and aid irregular refugees coming to Toronto. MacLeod refused to attend a press conference after her first meeting of provincial ministers with Hussen — a decision Hussen called “unCanadian.” MacLeod responded by suggesting the minister “sit down, have a nice cup of tea, calm down a little bit and maybe phone me and apologize.”
Delete your account. https://t.co/f9saN3VkQ5— Lisa MacLeod (@MacLeodLisa) December 18, 2018
In Quebec City last summer, a mock wanted poster with Hussen’s face was seen on the streets. On Dec. 10, 2018, the day he signed the Global Compact on Migration in Morocco, there were calls on Twitter for his lynching.
Hussen brushed those attacks aside. He said immigration policy drove him into politics. He likes to tell stories of Canadians — newcomers and old — that he has heard, noting that he decided to run for office in 2014 after the community services he relied on as a refugee from Somalia were being cut by the Harper Conservatives amid a cloud of misinformation about their effectiveness.
Under Liberals, Canada has introduced multi-year immigration targets for the first time, so that provinces can plan their economies for the long term, Hussen explains. In 2017, he announced Canada would welcome nearly one million immigrants over three years. The annual number of migrants would climb to 310,000 in 2018 from 300,000 in 2017. That number was to rise in 2019 to 330,000 and in 2020 to 340,000. Last year he announced a threshold for 2021 as well: 350,000 immigrants.
When these numbers were announced in August 2018, Rempel told reporters,“Justin Trudeau has no credibility to set Canada’s immigration levels." People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxine Bernier, then still a Conservative MP, also took issue with the increasing threshold, calling the levels "too high" and a government "social engineering" plan for ideological and electoral purposes.
"Successful immigration depends on social acceptability and the maintenance of social harmony," Bernier wrote in a tweet. "Many people have asked how do I know that there is "too much diversity." When I see that half of Canadians believe immigration levels are too high, I know we've reached that point.
“I have a job to do,” Hussen said when asked about the Conservative backlash to his policies, asserting that the Liberal government was elected to office in 2015 because people “wanted something better and were tired of the politics of division and fear.”
Conservative politicians across the country, on the other hand, are irresponsibly taking issue with the facts, Hussen said, and presenting no alternative plan or policies of their own. Last week, MP Michelle Rempel, Conservative immigration critic, issued a statement alleging that “Justin Trudeau is prioritizing tens of thousands of illegal border crossers to gain entry into Canada,” instead of strengthening the family reunification program.
“This is exactly the kind of example that I use to show how the Harper Conservatives spread misinformation,” Hussen said. “For them to pit asylum seekers against family reunification is irresponsible...for them to claim that asylum seekers are somehow threatening family reunification is not true.”
Hussen responded to Rempel’s press release without naming her, tweeting facts about the family reunification program, while also comparing his office’s work to the Conservative record on the file.
Thread— Ahmed Hussen (@HonAhmedHussen) January 29, 2019
Our government is committed to family reunification, which is why we increased the intake of parent and grandparent applications from 5,000 under the Conservatives to 20,000 this year.
Here’s how we have improved the program: pic.twitter.com/uCou8xrnTx
“At the end of the day you cannot shy away from debate. I also wouldn't stop advocating for what I believe to be the best for our country,” Hussen said. Debunking misinformation has become a huge part of his day, he noted, describing it as necessary because Canada’s immigration and refugee system aids the most vulnerable around the world.
Hussen said he wishes he could engage with more Canadians to explain that refugees “are not just passive recipients of aid, they are active agents. They can take initiative, they have skills, they have diversity, they have goals. They’re regular people who, because of circumstances beyond their control, have to flee their home and their communities.”
In 2018, according to official statistics, 20,660 people claimed asylum in Canada at land ports of entry. Another 8,755 people claimed asylum at Canada's airports, marine ports and the Canada Border Services Agency's inland offices.
The number of those crossing the border to claim asylum has gone from 2,560 in April, to 1,869 in May and 1,263 in June 2018 — numbers Hussen frequently cites to dispel any misinformed fears about border security and refugee-related threats.
Hussen insists that while the Conservatives “talk a really good game about the border,” their past policies suggest otherwise. Under Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government, funding to the Canadian Border Services Agency was cut by almost $400 million. And, while Rempel has accused the government of spending “hundreds of millions” to normalize the crossings, including $50 million on temporary accommodations for people, the Conservative Party has yet to provide a detailed immigration plan. The Party has offered a "fair, orderly and compassionate" vision without offering specifics, saying they would encourage immigrants to become self-sufficient, prioritize the most vulnerable, match the skills of economic migrants with industries that need workers in Canada.
They would also close a "loophole" in the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States — an agreement that requires most people seeking refugee protection to file their asylum claim in the first of the two countries they arrive in, but doesn't apply to those who cross at places other than standard border checkpoints.
The Liberals, Hussen said, are the one who are reinvesting in the border services agency, the RCMP and the Immigration Refugee Board to deal with the changing demands of immigration and refugees in the country.
The immigration file has never needed more engagement than today, when the world is facing strong opposing views about refugees and their resettlement, Hussen noted. He doesn’t regret the policies he has proposed, but does hope to strengthen them through more conversations — whether it’s questions about the refugee screening process, or how Canada will bring in more skilled immigrants from around the world.
“You know when the Conservatives started talking to Canadians about immigration?” Hussen asked. “Last fall, and that’s the difference.”
“That’s why, when the Conservatives focus on us, we’ll focus on Canadians.”
Canada ‘can demonstrate to the world the benefits of being open to ideas, open to talent, open to people’
Every once in a while, Hussen said he pauses to reflect on what Canada is doing on the world stage when it comes to refugee issues and immigration issues. “It’s fascinating and I think if more Canadians knew they’d be even more proud of their country,” he said.
“The Conservative approach of fear-mongering and the politics of fear and division certainly are not conducive to an ambitious immigration policy,” Hussen said, reflecting on the federal election ahead. “Canada is not immune to the anti-immigrant, anti-refugee rhetoric around the world but we have a choice to make ...we can demonstrate to the world the benefits of being open to ideas, open to talent, open to people.”
To do that, Hussen has hosted delegations from around the world in Ottawa to train them in the private sponsorship model — “a concrete example of how Canadian leadership is leading to a concrete increase in resettlement spaces around the world,” he said.
His ministry has created “how-to” products for civil societies to conduct private sponsorship in a number of different languages so the work of resettlement goes beyond government. He has started a pilot program that allows skilled immigrants to find a job before they land in Canada, and a small loan program for those who have landed here to go back to school for training without worrying about a loss of income.
Hussen has also launched a program for rural and northern Canada to attract and retain immigrants and refugees there to help with population decline and employment services. Canada’s small towns “get it,” Hussen said. No one is more demanding or welcoming of immigration than them, he said.
“These are things we have done in spite of the anti immigrant rhetoric around the world,” Hussen continued, noting that the voices on the opposing side were louder, but also full of falsehoods. “So yes, we are taking the opposite approach and we're doing it unapologetically.”
That’s what he told the 483 new Canadian citizens at the University of Toronto. He told them he’d been thinking about why diversity was Canada’s strength for a while, and he finally had it figured out.
“When you have institutions in a country like Canada that have to adapt to serve people from all corners of the world, people with different languages and different experiences, those institutions have to adapt to that population,” he said. “It's easy as a public institution to serve one community, one language, one culture. It’s much harder to do that with a number of experiences and languages and cultures.”
“That’s what makes us strong.”