Martin Regg Cohn: Canadians should beware Premier Doug Ford using ‘illegal’ refugee claimants as a wedge to drive us apart

Agree that wedge politics being played here, arguably by both sides, with the more corrosive discourse and approach by Ford. One thing to argue over funding – yes, the federal government is largely on the hook – but another to refuse participation in all three level of government coordination and cooperation:

One week in power, and Doug Ford’s government has declared war against Justin Trudeau.

By taking aim at asylum claimants who cross into Canada.

That was fast. Don’t shed a tear for the prime minister, who can presumably take care of himself — whether rebuffing a Ford missive or repelling a Donald Trump tirade.

But ask yourself what happens to the inevitable casualties of this conflict between Queen’s Park and Ottawa:

No, not just the people crossing the border to claim refugee status. Think about the rest of us, and what this does to us — the way we treat border crossers, and the way we treat each other.

This will test all of us, not just Ontario’s new premier and his federal counterpart.

The rise in migrants slipping across the border has already challenged our border security and police officers, who have comported themselves with Canadian decency and dignity. It is testing our refugee determination system, which (lest we forget) is burdened and bound by due process.

Now, the border-crossing story that landed in Quebec a year ago, and then crossed over into eastern Ontario, has landed hard on Toronto’s doorstep. Just in time for Ford’s new Progressive Conservative team to seize on it as a wedge issue that drives people apart.

Beware the wedge that exploits refugee claimants — for while many may indeed be economic migrants gaming the system, a good number might well be legitimate victims of persecution seeking sanctuary. You never know, until you know for sure (see: due process).

Yet Ford’s government is wagging its finger at “illegal border crossers” in official statements that misstate reality and incite hostility. It is an axiom of international law that desperate refugee claimants often cross borders by hook or by crook, but that doesn’t make them criminals (it’s precisely how both my parents escaped post-war Communist Europe).

Ontario’s new minister of children and social services, Lisa MacLeod, points an accusing finger at Trudeau for supposedly triggering a mass migration when he “tweeted out that everyone was welcome here, and as a result of that, we’ve had thousands of people cross the border illegally.”

Was this truly the tweet that launched a thousand ships? Or dispatched thousands of taxis to our border, there to disgorge their human cargo on our doorstep as per the PM’s precise GPS directions?

Were it so simple, Trudeau need only delete the troubling tweet. But he never offered directions to those unauthorized border pathways, nor invitations to cross over at leisure.

Yes, Trudeau and countless Canadians took turns humble-bragging and boasting about our supposed virtue in welcoming Syrian refugees after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives behaved churlishly and Barack Obama’s America acted ungenerously. But to draw a direct line between a Trudeau tweet and an imagined human stampede to the border is to elevate the prime minister’s Twitter feed to Trumpian influence.

Let’s be clear here. The migrant movement that began last summer emanated not from any misplaced magnanimity by the PM, but from fear of a looming Trump clampdown on Haitians still enjoying sanctuary in the U.S. after a 2010 earthquake.

It bears repeating that Canada had previously ended that sanctuary status — yes, faster than the Americans — and was systematically deporting Haitians who were here back to their homeland. Oblivious to that fact, thousands of Haitians crossed over into Canada, making up 85 per cent of migrants at the outset.

Under an existing bilateral agreement, the U.S. automatically takes back any refugee claimants who show up at our side of official border crossings. But by slipping over out of sight of those official crossings, migrants exploited a loophole by which the Americans wouldn’t take them back.

Since then, there has been a long and awkward debate about what to do to avoid turning a trickle into a tide.

Federal Conservatives have suggested we declare the entire border one big crossing — as if this would force the Americans to take back their asylum claimants. But Trudeau can no more demand that Trump do as we say on refugees than he can insist that the president undo the tariffs he slapped on our steel and aluminum.

Shall we stand our ground and instruct our police to point guns and draw bayonets at asylum-seekers to keep them on the American side? Or heave them back across the border, throwing their bags after them? Do we build a Trump-style wall across our undefended border and demand Mexico pay for it?

Not really so easy, except in the virtual reality of Twitter.

It’s perfectly fair for the provincial and municipal governments to demand that Ottawa come up with the money and plans to deal with the pressure points in local facilities — in Ontario as in Quebec. To his credit, Mayor John Tory has been pressing the case for Toronto’s needs without turning people against migrants in need.

Ford’s government could learn from the mayor’s approach, instead of delegitimizing asylum-seekers as illegal, and demonizing Ottawa for following a legal framework. On Thursday, when Trudeau met him at Queen’s Park, a statement from the premier’s office declared, provocatively:

“This mess was 100 per cent the result of the federal government.”

In truth, there are no easy answers, just the certainty that public support can easily be turned against asylum-claimants if politicians want to press those buttons (see: Europe and America). All the more reason for all levels of government to start working together, rather than driving people apart.

Source: Martin Regg Cohn: Canadians should beware Premier Doug Ford using ‘illegal’ refugee claimants as a wedge to drive us apart

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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