Raj: Ottawa should scrap the logistical and political nightmare that is the Safe Third Country Agreement

Interesting that while the government defends the STCA, a “senior” IRCC official is quoted as saying “in our estimation, it might not change that much, because what would happen is you wouldn’t have a Roxham Road, the people could cross at the ports of entry and they might therefore go to different ports of entry.”

Politically, of course, it appears to undermine the assertion that immigration is managed and controlled, a point that the Conservatives have hammered in the past before IRCC backlogs became a top issue:

It challenges our conception of who we are as a country, questions the values core to the Liberal Party of Canada and yet, Thursday, the federal government is expected to be at the Supreme Court defending a longstanding agreement with the United States that it should have ditched years ago.

The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) aims to reduce the number of refugees crossing into Canada from the United States. By blocking access to asylum seekers at official ports of entries, however, it encourages them to use a back door, known to most of us as Roxham Road. That loophole is becoming untenable politically, especially in Quebec, and it’s causing logistical nightmares and year-long delays in refugee processing that even the government’s own immigration department suggests could be alleviated if the deal was scrapped.

Under the STCA, asylum seekers arriving by land at official crossings are turned away and handed back to U.S. authorities, where they often end up in detention in questionable conditions — unless they fall in specific exemption categories (e.g. if they have family in Canada, are an unaccompanied minor, or face the death penalty in the U.S.).

That’s at the core of the case before the Supreme Court. Does handing asylum seekers back to the United States — where they are detained, reportedly in freezing conditions without proper food, where they have fewer chances of being accepted as a refugee, and can face persecution when returned to their homeland — breach the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms? 

Refugee advocates say yes. The government says no. In fact, Ottawa has been unsuccessfully trying to get Washington to expand the STCA all across the border to address Canada’s current asylum crisis — a miniature one the Biden administration must envy.

The STCA came into effect in 2004, but it wasn’t until Donald Trump became president of the United States in 2017 and started deporting undocumented immigrants that people began to pay much attention. 

Eight days into Trump’s presidency, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

It was on-brand for Trudeau and the Liberals who were elected two years earlier on a promise to bring in tens of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing persecution.

The welcome mat was laid out at Roxham Road. This illegal border crossing is really a ditch at the Quebec-New York border that’s now surrounded by infrastructure to handle the thousands of people arriving there each month. It’s a well-publicized route to enter the country quickly and have your case heard (not so quickly) with the tiny wrinkle that you must break the law (in a consequence-free manner) to cross into Canada.

There are no statistics for RCMP interceptions of asylum claimants on the government’s website prior to 2017. But that year, the numbers in Quebec jumped from 245 in January to 1,916 in December. In total, 18,836 persons were apprehended crossing the border irregularly into Quebec. That yearly trend continued up until the COVID-19 pandemic shut down Roxham Road and the Canada-U.S. border in 2020 and asylum seekers were told to wait to make their claims. In December 2021, the numbers were back up and so far this year, 23,196 irregular migrants have been intercepted at the Quebec border — more than any other year. Perhaps, it’s pent-up demand from the pandemic, or perhaps it’s just the new normal settling in.

It’s no wonder Quebec politicians are alarmed. Coupled with Premier François Legault’s focus on identity politics and concerns over the survival of the French language, provincial politicians fervently denounced the situation on the election trail, demanding the road be closed.

Parti Québécois Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, for example, suggested the federal government left Roxham Road open purposefully to “destabilize” Quebec society. 

Ottawa is uninterested in closing Roxham Road. It argues blocking access would lead asylum seekers to more dangerous crossings and could line the pockets of organized crime. Making it an official crossing would have the same impact — and is unlikely since the U.S. would have to agree to place agents there. (Imposing the STCA on the entire border would also lead migrants to find underground routes, but I digress.)

Instead, an official in Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino’s office said the situation is “difficult, but it’s also not unmanageable.”

Right now, the system is breaking down. It gives the appearance of queue-jumping (it’s not), but does reward for circumventing the law. It’s also costing Ottawa hundreds of millions of dollars — so far more than $761 million in accommodation, security, health and transportation costs. It’s squeezing Quebec’s resources too, and a lack of personnel is forcing asylum seekers to wait nearly a year or more before obtaining a work permit and many years before having their cases heard. 

In court, the federal government has argued scrapping the STCA would lead to a flood of asylum claims at Canada’s official ports of entry. 

But a senior official from Immigration and Citizenship, speaking to the Star Wednesday, said that while Ottawa is contingency planning in case that happens, “in our estimation, it might not change that much, because what would happen is you wouldn’t have a Roxham Road, the people could cross at the ports of entry and they might therefore go to different ports of entry.”

In fact, suspending the STCA might relieve the bottleneck at the Quebec crossing and spread the burden of supporting asylum seekers across provinces.

“It might help a bit,” the official said, noting that bringing Roxham Road migrants who intended to go to Ontario to that province had helped them get their interviews faster.

Of course, scrapping the deal won’t solve everything. “The numbers are such that even if they were spread across the country, it would still lead to some problems,” the official noted.

Canadians have shown themselves ready to do more to respond to refugee crises around the world. But the system must be seen to be fair. People must be processed quickly, and given the tools to help them support themselves.

In the meantime, if the government’s own department doesn’t believe there is pent-up demand beyond what we’re already seeing, why is the Liberal government insisting on defending the status quo?

Source: Ottawa should scrap the logistical and political nightmare that is the Safe Third Country Agreement

Raj: NDP puts minority rights aside as it courts Quebec

Of note:

The federal NDP and the Green Party’s Elizabeth May voted to endorse the use of the notwithstanding clause and Quebec’s controversial Bill 96 Wednesday, by supporting Bloc Québécois legislation that strips the rights of non-francophones in the province.

The Bloc sought to amend several pieces of federal legislation to impose French as the dominant language in the province and tried to prevent Ottawa from contesting Quebec’s contentious language moves.

Its bill C-238, which was defeated Wednesday, would have changed the Citizenship Act so that Quebec residents can only become citizens if they have “adequate knowledge of French.” Everywhere else in Canada, residents must only demonstrate they speak either French or English. 

The bill also amended the Canada Labour Code, the Official Languages Act, and the Canadian Business Corporations Act by subjecting them to Quebec’s French language charter. 

Whatever the government of Quebec put into its charter would tie Ottawa’s hands.

This is concerning when you consider the nationalist Coalition Avenir Quebec — which is likely to be re-elected with a sweeping majority Monday — passed Bill 96 earlier this year. That legislation amended the French language charter to prevent many English speakers from speaking to each other in English at work (or in a language other than French); made it difficult for employers to require employees know any language other than French; and banned many people from accessing government services in English — even when they are available. It even gave the province the right to enter private businesses without a warrant to ensure emails, for example, are being sent in French and gave individuals the right to seek damages in court if their language rights are breached.

Quebec’s charter also imposes unnecessary hardship on newcomers, forcing them to learn French within six months of their arrival — after which the government only communicates with them in French. Expecting new arrivals to learn a language in six months is not only unrealistic but sets them up for failure.

And yet, this is what NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and his MPs voted for Wednesday. This from a party that prides itself on standing up for minority rights.

Quebec Premier François Legault has pre-emptively used the notwithstanding clause twice now to avoid legal challenges arising from obvious reaches of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, most recently with Bill 96 and previously with Bill 21, a law that prevents Quebecers employed in certain professions such as teachers, judges, and police officers from wearing religious symbols. Just last year, an elementary teacher in Chelsea, Que., was removed from her classroom for wearing a head scarf.

It’s hard to believe this is the kind of behaviour the NDP — or Elizabeth May, now a candidate for the leadership of the Green Party — wants to be associated with.

The decline of French in Quebec is a real concern. It is one shared by many allophones and anglophones in Quebec too. But subjecting federal laws to a provincial government, especially one that has questioned publicly why it should be subject to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is another thing altogether.

And while the NDP wants to have it both ways — by claiming it is standing up for the protection of the French language and respecting anglophone minority rights — its actions this week show it isn’t doing both. It also raises questions about whether the party is ready to contest for power if it is unwilling to assert Ottawa’s jurisdiction.

New Democrats note that they’ve always supported the idea that federal institutions operating in Quebec should be subject to the province’s language charter. The NDP’s only Quebec MP, Alexandre Boulerice, noted last spring that it made little sense for credit unions in the province to operate under different laws than federally-regulated banks. Bill 96, however, has changed that conversation.

Language is touchy in Quebec. The vast majority of Quebecers support Bill 96. Most of the province’s political parties do too. In fact, Quebec Liberals are polling in the single digits with francophones, likely due to their opposition to Bill 96 and Bill 21. 

For nearly two decades now, the NDP has embraced asymmetrical federalism with Quebec, including supporting the principle that 50 per cent plus one vote is enough to split the country. That position is credited for the party’s big win in 2011. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that yet again the NDP places chasing francophone support in Quebec above all else.

Montreal Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who helped convince his own caucus and lobbied opposition MPs to vote against the bill, said he was “very relieved” by its defeat. “Using the notwithstanding clause to deny people rights … is just very alarming,” he told the Star.

The silver lining in Wednesday’s vote came from the Liberals and notably Conservative MPs who unanimously stood opposed. Just 18 months ago, on a similar motion, all but one Conservative voted with the Bloc.

A new leader and a 2021 election that saw the Conservatives’ hopes for a big win in Quebec dashed seem to have contributed to an epiphany. That or Pierre Poilievre realized there are more votes to be had fighting the notwithstanding clause outside Quebec than endorsing it inside the province.

Source: NDP puts minority rights aside as it courts Quebec

Raj: Quebec is using the Constitution to take away the rights of minorities. What if that becomes the norm?

Good question although the solution of opening the constitution to provide “guardrails” for use of the notwithstanding clause would be opening a Pandora’s box given that other issues would emerge, not to mention garnering sufficient provincial support:

Fatemeh Anvari has started a national conversation.

The school teacher in Chelsea, Que., removed from her classroom this month because of her hijab, has put a face to Bill 21, the Quebec law that prevents those wearing religious symbols from holding certain public-sector jobs.

The law is popular in Quebec, where Premier François Legault defended it again Monday as reasonable and important to ensure secularism and the appearance of neutrality.

“People can teach if they take off their religious symbol while they teach, and when they are in the streets, at home, they can wear a religious symbol,” Legault told reporters.

The shocked parents of students at Chelsea Elementary School want to use their outrage to cast a light on Bill 21’s injustice.

But a Quebec Liberal MP hopes Anvari’s case prompts broader thinking. Anthony Housefather wants a national discussion on the use of the notwithstanding clause, and how to prevent the majority from using its position to curb the rights of minorities.

Anvari lost her ability to teach because Legault pre-emptively used the Charter of Rights and Freedoms’ notwithstanding clause, section 33, giving the Quebec government the ability to trample on fundamental rights and shield its action from the courts. (It is doing so again with language Bill 96.)

“I’m not naïve about it,” the Mount Royal MP told me. Amending the Constitution to add parameters around the clause or eliminate it completely requires the approval of at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the Canadian population. The only other direct option would be Ottawa’s power of disallowance, last used to invalidate provincial law in 1943.

Source: Quebec is using the Constitution to take away the rights of minorities. What if that becomes the norm?

Raj: Erin O’Toole denounces religious persecution abroad. Why can’t he do it in Canada?

Good question. And other political leaders need to step up as well:

“I cannot in good conscience keep silent on this anymore,” Conservative MP Kyle Seeback tweeted Thursday morning. “This is an absolute disgrace. It’s time politicians stood up for what’s right. Bill 21 has to be opposed. In court, in the house of commons and in the streets.#bill21mustgo #cdnpoli

It was an unusual statement from a Conservative MP, and a risky one. This is not Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole’s position on Quebec’s controversial law, which bars individuals who wear religious symbols from holding certain jobs in public institutions. Since his election as leader, O’Toole has defended Quebec’s right to enact such discriminatory legislation. After his first meeting with Quebec Premier François Legault, back in September 2020, O’Toole pledged not to challenge Bill 21 in court. “We need a government that respects provincial autonomy and provincial legislatures,” he told reporters.

For the MP for Dufferin—Caledon to go out on such a limb publicly, amid a climate of fear and retribution (O’Toole’s team has threatened caucus expulsions to those who don’t toe the party line), is commendable. Behind closed doors, Tory MPs tell me Seeback has been pitching to caucus and to the party leadership that a strong position denouncing Bill 21 is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart political thing to do.

While his pleas resonate with some of his colleagues, they don’t appear to have nudged his leader.

But Seeback, who declined an interview request, is right. Opposing Bill 21 is a great wedge against the Liberals on an issue where the Tories desperately need to rebrand, and in an area of the country where they need to win.

The Conservatives have a GTA problem and a visible-minority problem. Out of the 56 ridings in the Greater Toronto Area, the Conservatives hold six (although all but two are located on the periphery), while the Liberals have 50. It wasn’t always this way. In 2011, Stephen Harper found his majority in the GTA, sweeping the ethnically diverse areas of Brampton and Mississauga.

But over the past decade, the Tories pursued policies that alienated many of these communities. From immigration minister (now Alberta Premier) Jason Kenney’s niqab ban during citizenship ceremonies, to the barbaric practices snitch-line, to leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch’s values test, to the Tories fervent opposition to M-103, a motion denouncing Islamophobia.

In 2015, Brampton and Mississauga showed Harper the door. Seeback lost his seat in Brampton West. The same happened in 2019, and again in 2021.

Source: Erin O’Toole denounces religious persecution abroad. Why can’t he do it in Canada?