Chris Selley: Politicians need to stop insulting our intelligence if we’re going to survive

Remarkable how quickly things develop.

Chris Selley’s sensible commentary on irregular arrivals and slamming of the main CPC leadership contenders on their playing to their base is suddenly moot given the government managed to successfully negotiate an end, on a temporary basis, to the STCA loophole that allowed asylum claimants from between official border crossings (Roxham Road).

Ending the exemption was something the Conservatives tried to negotiate but were unable to do so in 2010 (A tougher refugee border pact? America said no. – Macleans.Canada (which Conservatives and their supporters tend to conveniently forget).

Not surprisingly, the surprise announcement provoked considerable commentary, ranging from partisan sniping, support, raising concern or expressing outrage:

Selley’s piece:

If we’re going to come out the other side of this virus nightmare relatively unscathed, it is imperative that Canada keeps its eyes on the prize: social distancing, food and medicine supplies, rapidly boosting hospital capacity, rolling out financial aid. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Canada got distracted: Suddenly it was controversial-to-scandalous that the officially illegal but well-trodden path between New York State and Quebec along Roxham Road would remain “open” to asylum-seekers, even as the Canada-U.S. border was otherwise largely “closed.”

“Instead of turning people away, we’re letting them in and paying for their health care and quarantine,” harrumphed Peter MacKay, presumed frontrunner in a Conservative leadership race that becomes more inappropriate with every passing hour. “There are concerns about having enough equipment just for our own citizens. This needs to stop now.” MacKay’s rival Erin O’Toole demanded that we “secure our border immediately.” Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet called on the government to “close all irregular entry points without delay.”

It is entirely understandable that Roxham Road infuriates people. But what exactly are these three men proposing? We could park a couple of tanks there, deploy some of our more hulking soldiers to glower southward. That might scare a few people off. We could build a wall. Unfortunately there are such things as maps, and maps show there are dozens of other potential Roxham Roads between Quebec and New York State and Vermont that border-crossers could illegally use instead — to say nothing of the wee ditch that marks the border in much of the Prairies.

At some point, assuming Canadian courts sign off on the idea, Washington may agree to “take back” those who cross illegally into Canada. Like it or not, that’s a potential long-term solution. But the border is not securable, and has never been secure. The only difference between now and the time when MacKay and O’Toole were cabinet ministers is that instead of a few hundred people a year clambering across the border and claiming asylum, it’s a few hundred people a week — and almost all of them in one place.

Indeed, as absurd a spectacle as Roxham Road presents, it has the benefit of making an insoluble problem — thousands of kilometres of undefended, geographically unthreatening border, and thousands of people hellbent on crossing it — as manageable as possible. Of the 1,100 irregular border-crossers the RCMP dealt with in January this year, just 14 crossed outside Quebec. That’s of even more benefit during a pandemic: We can monitor arrivals for symptoms and insist they self-quarantine just like everyone else — precisely the measures federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair announced Tuesday — and be reasonably sure no one is slipping through the net (such as it is).

The feds certainly could have done better, quicker. As was the case at airports, federal officials do not seem to have been implementing or communicating provincial coronavirus policies to people who needed to hear them. Quebec Premier François Legault strongly recommended 14 days of self-isolation for all foreign arrivals last Wednesday; as of the following Tuesday morning, six days later, according to Customs and Immigration Union president Jean-Pierre Fortin, irregular arrivals were not being told to self-quarantine. That is frustrating to say the least. But assuming the new federal policies are being implemented, they are about the best we can hope to make of this situation.

Basically, we’ve got 99 problems, but Roxham Road ain’t one. It is singularly unhelpful, borderline insulting, for people like O’Toole and MacKay to pretend otherwise.

In other news (and speaking of insulting), it turns out it is in fact possible to distinguish between a truck full of potatoes and a minivan full of senior citizens — contrary to what the federal Liberals had implied on Monday, when their new travel ban inexplicably exempted Americans. “Canadians and Americans cross the border every day to do essential work or for urgent reasons. That will not be impacted,” Trudeau assured us in his Wednesday press conference, but tourism would be verboten. This brings Canada’s coronavirus border policy vis-à-vis Americans roughly in line with its policy for other countries, which was announced Monday.

It is entirely understandable that the question of Americans might take a little longer to hammer out. You want to make double-sure you’re not going to impede essential travel; you do not want to risk enraging the president.

But that doesn’t excuse the standard-issue political spin reporters got from senior government ministers on Monday, when asked about a policy that — as it stood — made no sense whatsoever. We were to believe it was impossible to separate commercial from non-commercial traffic. We were to take solace that no American tourists would come anyway, which is just as true of tourists from everywhere else in the world. It did not inspire much confidence.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu came closest to explaining what was actually going on: “What we do on the American border is going to have to be done thoughtfully and in partnership with our American cousins,” she said at one point — and, later, “we’ll have more to say in the days to come.” That’s all she or any of her colleagues needed to say.

Source: Chris Selley: Politicians need to stop insulting our intelligence if we’re going to survive

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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