If elected prime minister, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he would put an end to "illegal" border crossings in Canada.
Scheer included that as one of several general commitments outlined in a speech delivered in Toronto Tuesday outlining his vision for immigration in Canada — part of a series of policy announcements ahead of the fall federal election.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters at a conference centre, Scheer said he would close a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States that has allowed asylum-seekers who slip into the country by avoiding border checkpoints to make refugee claims that would be automatically rejected at official crossings.
"I will work to put an end to illegal border crossings at unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road," he said, citing the busiest such crossing point where two rural roads in Quebec and New York practically touch. He added that he believes the loophole in the agreement allows these irregular migrants to "skip the line and avoid the queue."
Scheer told the crowd he believes Canadians have lost confidence in the fairness of the immigration system thanks to the influx of irregular migrants. Since the beginning of 2017, over 43,000 asylum seekers have arrived in Canada through unofficial entry points.
He placed the blame squarely on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, accusing him of undermining not only the integrity of the border but of causing a growing number of Canadians to believe that immigration levels should be reduced.
A number of polls over the last year have shown a growing concern among Canadians over the numbers of newcomers Canada accepts each year.
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Scheer said he has heard these concerns most often voiced by new Canadians who have "played by the rules and arrived in Canada fair and square."
"They are the most offended at Trudeau’s status quo, where some are able to jump queues, exploit loopholes and game the system."
Scheer said he is confident he can restore Canadians' trust in the immigration system with his own approach to immigration policy — changes that would include: improved language training, better recognition of work credentials and refocusing the government-sponsored refugee program on victims of atrocities.
He also pledged to work toward reuniting survivors of genocide who have already resettled in Canada, such as Yazidi women and girls, with their families and promised to promote more private sponsorships of refugees.
He further reiterated his intention to bring back the office of religious freedom, a unit in Global Affairs Canada that advocated for threatened religious minorities.
As for the numbers of newcomers admitted each year in Canada, Scheer acknowledged it is a controversial topic.
But he called the debate about immigration levels a "red herring" because on either side, political ideology is put ahead of the economic and social realities in Canada: that as Baby Boomers retire, Canada will need skilled newcomers to fill labour gaps and secure economic growth.
That's why Scheer said he would set Canada's annual immigration levels "consistent with what is in Canada’s best interests."
"That number may change every year, and I'm not going to get into an ideological debate or, worse, an auction about immigration numbers," Scheer said. "The number will reflect what Canada needs and, just as importantly, who needs Canada."
Few details were attached to his commitments; Scheer said he would provide more details during the election campaign in the fall.
The Conservative leader also dedicated a good portion of his speech addressing accusations from the Liberals that Conservative concerns about the immigration system are rooted in racism.
"I find the notion that one’s race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation would make anyone in any way superior or inferior to anybody else absolutely repugnant. And if there’s anyone who disagrees with that, there’s the door," he said.
Scheer took issue with being accused of racism, calling the issue personal to him. He shared a story about his mother, who spent time just before her death a few years ago volunteering to help Syrian refugees at her local church.
When she was in the hospital, he said, many of the refugees she had helped visited her to repay her kindness.
Conservatives should be free to question the Liberals' management of the border without being called racists and bigots, Scheer said.
"To ascribe those motives to those who simply want stronger security screening procedures or less people entering the country illegally makes a mockery of such hateful forces."
Scheer ended his speech by taking a phrase often used by Trudeau when talking about immigration and expanding upon it to reflect his own vision for Canada's immigration system.
"Justin Trudeau says that diversity is our strength, but I think he’s missing the big picture. The reasons why waves and waves of immigrants from all corners of the world have come to Canada — it is because we are free," Scheer said.
"Diversity is the proof of our strength. And our strength is and always has been our freedom."
Mathieu Genest, press secretary to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, said Canadians have already rejected the Harper immigration plan once. He said Scheer is promising to return to those failed policies.
"That means a return to backlogs in the hundreds of thousands, wait times of years to be reunited with spouses and children and cruel cuts to refugee health care," Genest said in an email.
Genest also said it is a myth that asylum-seekers take the place of other refugees.
"This lie, which has been debunked many times, is being repeated in order to demonize people seeking Canada's protection. It erodes trust in the system and fuels anti-immigrant sentiment."