University of Regina
In August the MV Sun Sea, a ship carrying 497 Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka - fleeing the violent reprisals which Tamil populations have been subject to in the wake of the civil war - was captured and boarded by the Canadian Navy off the coast of Vancouver Island. They are now being detained - the men in a maximum security prison; the women in minimum security – while their refugee claims are reviewed. As of this writing only one refugee, a pregnant mother of three, has been released.
The response in Canada has been disturbing at best. Almost immediately upon news of the Sun Sea hitting the media, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the ruling Conservative party began to fan the flames of fear. The Globe and Mail reported that “[t]he Harper government said intelligence sources give it reason to believe the passengers include human traffickers and people linked to the Tamil Tigers terrorist group,”
this despite having little to no knowledge of who was actually on the boat (suspicions are that the intelligence sources to whom Harper was deferring was the Sri Lankan government itself). Public Safety Minister Vic Toews claimed that that the Sun Sea was a ‘test case’, saying “[t]his particular situation is being observed by others who may have similar intentions and I think it's very important that Canada deals with the situation in a clear and decisive way.” All the while, Harper ominously intoned “We are responsible for the security of our borders.”
Despite anything remotely resembling proof, with the specter of terrorists being smuggled into the country, and with hordes more apparently just over the horizon, a disturbing portion of Canadians have embraced the government’s fear-mongering. In an Angus Reid poll “Fifty per cent of poll respondents want to deport the passengers and crew of the Tamil ship back to Sri Lanka, even if their refugee claims are legitimate [emphasis mine]” More broadly, “46 per cent of Canadians believe immigration is having a negative effect on the country, a five-point increase from August, 2009.”
On the elite side of things a new right-wing think-tank, ‘The Center for Immigration Policy Reform’, has been launched, focusing on asserting “moral contracts” with migrants. As Gilles Paquet, professor of governance at the University of Ottawa, and member of the center’s advisory board helpfully explains “Canada is not a bingo hall. When you come to this country, I expect you to abide by a number of things.” (This, I suppose, reassures those of us who were deeply concerned about the impending “bingo-hall-ization” of Canada.)
The desire is to dismiss this as a momentary xenophobic panic, whipped up in a fairly obvious bit of voter manipulation by desperate politicians. The Conservative party, already unable to secure a majority of parliament in the last two elections, has been falling in the polls recently, and in response has begun a series of fairly shameless vote grabbing maneuvers, of which this is the latest. If that were all this is, then we could hopefully just wait for the furor to die down and sanity to be restored.
Unfortunately, there is a long history of this kind of panicked response to migrants and refugees in Canada, happening in almost unnervingly similar ways, in seemingly regular cycles. Just a little over 10 years ago there was another public panic over immigration, this time caused by the arrival of several boats of Chinese migrants, again off the coast of Vancouver Island. There the arrival of the so-called “boat people” (it is instructive that the term ‘boat people’ has been reapplied to the Tamil refugees) prompted sizeable protests and numerous denunciations in the press. Going further back, in 1939 the St. Louis, a ship carrying mostly Jewish refugees from Germany, was refused entry and forced to return to Europe where most of its passengers were killed in the Holocaust. In 1913, the Komagata Maru, a ship carrying 376 primarily Sikh passengers, was held in Vancouver Harbour for two months, before the Navy finally drove them out. The ship returned to Calcutta “where 20 of its passengers were killed in a shootout with colonial police suspicious of their politics and others were jailed for refusing to return to the Punjab.”
These reoccurring uproars have to be put in the context of Canada’s overall immigration situation. Canada has one of the highest per-capita immigration rates in the world - a rate which is rising. According to projections from Statistics Canada, by 2031 the Canadian population will be between 25% and 28% foreign born. Additionally, according to the report “nearly one-half (46%) of Canadians aged 15 and over would be foreign-born, or would have at least one foreign-born parent.”
As a result, between 29% and 32% of the Canadian population would be visible minorities, the first and second largest groups amongst which would be those of Chinese and South Asian descent.
Additionally, these demographic shifts are intensified by Canada’s status as a settler nation which has never properly dealt - politically, ethically or psychologically – with indigenous peoples and its colonial past and present. In recent years, settler society has becoming increasingly unable to continue its traditional approach of ignoring First Nations demands for justice and self-determination, through a combination of increasingly successful legal challenges, political movements, and demography growth which in many ways mirrors that of immigrant populations. As a result, the hypocrisy of Canadian settler society’s attempts to maintain the moral high-ground on matters of immigration (as ‘Native Canadians’), becomes a little more obvious.
These profound demographic shifts challenge easy and supposedly stable images of what Canada, and Canadians, look like. In such contexts, attachments to supposedly cherished principles of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘diversity’ run the risk of becoming weakened. Multiculturalism, and robust immigration and refugee policies, might be an acceptable practice when one can guarantee that it will happen in a cultural context which is dominantly white, Christian, European and colonial. As white privilege in Canada become increasingly challenged, pluralism becomes much more of a gamble. Accelerating immigration challenges established accounts of identity and puts pressure on stable narratives of identity and community. The perception of the loss of impermeable borders leaves people feeling increasingly adrift in a world of accelerating global flows. In such a context, there is a tendency to seek out authoritative narratives, ones which will hopefully re-affirm traditional borders and boundaries, inscribing both space and identity. Hence the seemingly widespread acceptance of the Conservative party’s claims that these migrants are ‘terrorists and queue jumpers’. Such an account transforms the refugees into foreign others who can be legitimately excised from the moral and political space of the nation, a tactic which reinscribes the boundaries of identity and releases us from any responsibility for them, or sense of community with them.
Most dangerously is the way in which this uncertainty, resentment and fear might be used to change Canada’s refugee and immigration policy. On September 9th The Globe and Mail reported that federal immigration minister Jason Kenney was traveling to Australia to “study its tough policies aimed at deterring asylum seekers.”
‘Tough’ does not quite do the situation justice. Over the last decade, Australian refugee policy has been the source of extensive human rights abuses. When boats aren’t openly turned around at sea, refugees have been subject to indefinite detention, with little hope of release, in privately run refugee camps on Christmas Island, far from the Australian mainland. Australia’s refugee policy has been criticized by both Amnesty International (who called Christmas Island “an extremely harsh and stark environment to detain people seeking asylum") and the United Nations High Council on Refugees, which said “[t]he combination of mandatory detention, suspension of asylum claims and the geographical isolation of detention facilities… - all without any effective judicial oversight - is a deeply troubling set of factors.”
The very fact that Australia is being looked to as a potential model for refugee and immigration policy is deeply disturbing, and goes against everything that is best in the tradition of Canada. Careful attention will need to be paid to what kinds of changes the Harper government attempts to make to refugee and immigration policy. Canada is a country that is supposed to embrace principles of inclusion and multiculturalism, of generosity and pluralism. Cases like the Sun Sea are exactly the cases which test these principles, and the occasions to which Canadians must rise.