Conservatives didn’t cherry-pick religious minority refugees: Alexander

Valid defence of the policy but the documents suggest a more interventionist approach. Alexander, in the article, is silent about the tiny numbers admitted (which suggest more ‘cherry picking’ – see Conservatives cherry picked certain Syrian refugee files: documents).

More interesting, he does not comment on the implications of the PMO audit: that PMO did not trust Alexander, CIC, or PCO to ensure that the policy direction of preference for religious minorities was being implemented, and what would likely be unprecedented PMO involvement in a refugee file .

When I worked in PCO, the normal way PMO would ‘manage’ what was considered a problematic file (one that departments were not managing well), was through PCO, not directly:

Former immigration minister Chris Alexander is defending his government’s approach to resettling Syrian refugees, denying that the Conservatives cherry-picked cases by prioritizing religious and ethnic minorities.

Every country working with the United Nations refugee agency on the humanitarian crisis in Syria operated under agreed-upon criteria for how to decide which refugees they’d accept, Alexander said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

The basic principle was to focus on the most vulnerable, but additional priorities had to be applied, Alexander said.

“To determine who was the most needy, who is the most vulnerable among four million people, you need to set some priorities,” he said.

“And that’s what the Syria core group has done from the beginning and that’s what Canada’s operation to resettle Syrian refugees has striven to do.”

Alexander, who lost his Toronto-area seat in last fall’s election, was at the helm of the Immigration portfolio when the Conservatives announced last January they would increase the number of refugees accepted by Canada from 1,300 to 10,000.

But they also announced they would concentrate on bringing in members of religious and ethnic minorities, prompting accusations of an anti-Muslim bias and charges that the government was violating UN rules.

Most religious minorities in the region are from Christian groups. The UN also specifically asks countries not to use religion as a factor in determining who to take in.

‘Areas of focus’

How exactly the Conservatives applied their approach was made clear this week via documents tabled in the House of Commons in response to a question from the NDP.

In them, the Immigration department said visa officers working in Lebanon and Jordan pulled cases that met the “areas of focus” criteria and processed those on a priority basis, while others were processed on regular timelines.

‘The principle we respected all along was humanitarian need. There were a variety of priorities under that heading’ – Former immigration minister Chris Alexander

Alexander said religion and ethnic status were not the sole area of focus and that they were working from a set of principles agreed upon by resettlement states.

A document he provided outlining those principles makes no mention of religion or ethnicity, but Alexander said they were understood to be part of a category described as people “belonging to a group for whom the authorities are unable to provide protection.”

He also pointed to another document, available on the website of the British arm of the UN refugee agency.

“Refugees who face serious threats to their physical security, particularly due to political opinion or belonging to an ethnic or religious minority group, may also be prioritized,” the document states.

In prioritizing religious minorities, the Conservatives were not picking a single faith, Alexander noted.

But applying that lens to the program reflected the nature of the conflict, which includes Islamic militants targeting Christian minorities or the Assad regime in Syria going after Sunni Muslims.

“This is the way this conflict is unfolding and those groups who face persecution because of their faith, or their ethnicity or their political views deserve special forms of protection,” he said.

Source: Conservatives didn’t cherry-pick religious minority refugees: Alexander – Politics – CBC News

Conservatives cherry picked certain Syrian refugee files: documents

Not one of the previous government’s finest hours, even if a case could be made to prefer those from threatened minority communities:

Newly released government documents paint the clearest picture to date of how the Conservative government’s controversial approach to Syrian refugee resettlement played out last year.

Before last winter, the previous government had only committed to take in 1,300 Syrian refugees from the millions fleeing the civil war there and spilling into surrounding countries.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper had been under intense pressure — including from inside his own cabinet — to increase that total, but only agreed to accept a further 10,000 provided that religious and ethnic minorities were prioritized.

The policy, unveiled last January, was contentious. The vast majority of the Syrian refugee population is Muslim. The decision to hone in on “religious minorities” prompted allegations the government was biased against Muslims and was also violating United Nations principles governing refugee resettlement.

The refugees the Canadian government accepts for resettlement are chosen by the UN. They do not use ethnicity or religion as a basis for determining whether someone requires resettlement to a third country.

But documents tabled in the House of Commons this week in response to a question from the NDP show how the Conservatives found a workaround.

In February 2015, visa officers in Jordan and Lebanon were instructed to track “areas of focus” for Syrian refugees, which included tracking whether someone was a member of a vulnerable ethnic or religious minority, the documents say.

They applied that criteria to the files they were receiving from the UN.

“Cases meeting at least one of the areas of focus were identified for expedited processing,” the documents say. “Cases that did not meet the areas of focus were included in the mission’s inventory and processed as a regular case.”

The tracking stopped in November 2015.

The Citizenship and Immigration department, asked repeatedly in recent months for a breakdown of Syrian refugees by religion, has consistently said it does not track that information.

On Wednesday, however, spokesperson Jessica Seguin said while the department applied the areas-of-focus approach, it never recorded how many cases met those criteria in part because the computer system isn’t set up that way.

“It is true that for a short time this information was anecdotally tracked in a few missions, but it was never done systematically,” Seguin said in an e-mail.

“No refugees were screened out of the resettlement process as a result of the areas of focus.”

The documents also illustrate the impact of another controversial Conservative move last year — auditing government-assisted refugee case files to see whether they were in keeping with the areas of focus and security requirements.

According to the data tabled in the House of Commons, in June 2015, the highest number of government-assisted refugees admitted to Canada so far that year was 62. That same month, Harper ordered the audit.

The following month, admissions fell to just 9 people.

Source: Conservatives cherry picked certain Syrian refugee files: documents

Refugees and the long political journey: Martin Patriquin

A reminder, as if needed, just how much can change with new political direction, and the ideology and values of the previous government’s restrictive approach. Must read:

Given all this, I asked Vassallo, a 27-year CIC veteran, why the Canadian government took so long to get comparatively few suffering souls to this country. “I can’t answer that, it’s a political question,” he said, with a hint of a smile.

Unfortunately, Vassallo is right, and his non-answer is a reminder of what happens when a life-or-death issue of refugees gets fed into the cauldron of partisan politics, then further distilled by an at times ugly election campaign. In a sense, the machinations by which potential refugees are sorted and selected should be as apolitical as, say, getting one’s license renewed. Yet as the previous Conservative government demonstrated, there was a distinct attempt to shape and direct the work of its civil servants here and overseas when it came to the victims of the crisis in Syria.

Last January, Stephen Harper’s government announced plans to bring in 10,000 Syrian refugees over three years. Yet several months later, only about 10 per cent of this number had been admitted—in part, it seems, because of a directive from Harper’s office itself that attempted to halt the screening process. At the time, it was presented as a security measure “to ensure the integrity of our refugee referral system,” as Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander put it at the time.

Numerous sources, including one with first-hand knowledge of the processing of refugees, said the directive was less about security than about ensuring that Christian minorities took precedence over Muslims. “You got the feeling they were trying to cherry pick religious minorities,” one source said. (Syria, which is majority Sunni Muslim, has a sizeable Christian minority.)

It took the picture of Alan Kurdi, whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach, for the government to slacken the reigns somewhat. Because Kurdi’s family was trying to reach Canada, the political intonations on the Harper election campaign were profound. On Sept 10, eight days after the picture made headlines worldwide, the government waived the stipulation that “resettlement candidates” must provide information regarding why they fled their country of origin.

“Going forward, unless there is evidence to the contrary, visa officers will be able to presume those fleeing the conflict meet the definition of a refugee, which will make processing faster,” reads a CIC briefing document.

There is a certain irony in this. The  government to first make a significant security-related change to the processing of refugees—arguably making it easier for Syrians and Iraqis to make it to these shores—was that of the ostensibly security-first, tough-on-terror Stephen Harper. And he did so as a political calculation, out of fear of losing an election.

Meanwhile, the “security concerns” that supposedly prevented the Harper government from increasing the numbers of refugees brought to Canada were seemingly a partisan mirage. “There have been no shortcuts to the process. They’ve accelerated it in the sense that they’ve sent over additional personnel,” Tim Bowen, chief of operations for Canadian Border Services Agency, told me. According to CIC staff, this includes the addition of some 500 officials deployed overseas to help with the effort, including between 50 and 70 visa officers.

Thankfully, there is a happy ending. First and foremost, refugees are finally arriving. Secondly, the Conservatives are critiquing the effort exactly as they should: on purely financial grounds. The refugee resettlement program will cost $671 million. It is a huge amount of money, and Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel promised to hold the government to account. “It is one thing to inspire Canadians, it’s another thing to be accountable to them,” she said.

That Rempel said as much without a fear-mongering whisper about “security concerns” shows how far the party has come in two months.

Source: Refugees and the long political journey –

Clinton e-mails reveal Canadian foreign service enmity towards Harper Tories – The Globe and Mail

Not unique to the newly-renamed Global Affairs but nevertheless particularly striking and reinforces the Conservative government’s suspicion of public servants, particularly the foreign affairs and aid public servants.

And this strikes me as disloyalty to the former government, not in keeping with the public service ‘loyal implementation’ obligation:

The U.S. special co-ordinator for Haiti said Canadians were worried about budget cuts that would have slashed down an operation from 11 employees to four, for a country that was ostensibly a major Canadian foreign policy priority.

“I was a little astonished at how openly the career folks at the foreign and assistance ministries disliked their new political masters and wanted us to convince them not to cut Haiti,” said Tom Adams, in a May 2012 e-mail forwarded to Clinton and released Monday.

“In my many years here I have never seen such open disloyalty with a change of administrations. Although the political appointees told me there was no need to have the Secretary talk to Baird about Haiti, the senior career folks, on the margins, implored me to have this done.”

The dynamic described in that e-mail was on public display recently after the federal election, when employees at the foreign ministry cheered during a visit from their new Liberal bosses.

Clinton replied that she was happy to call her counterpart John Baird, if necessary. The presidential contender’s e-mails are now being released in instalments, after an uproar over her use of a private home-based server that couldn’t be searched for freedom of information requests.

Source: Clinton e-mails reveal Canadian foreign service enmity towards Harper Tories – The Globe and Mail

The Conservative Legacy on Multiculturalism: More Cohesion, Less Inclusion 

This post updates an earlier article on how multiculturalism changed under Minister Kenney and the Harper government, taking into account their use of identity politics before and during the recent election Canada Today: Less Hotel, More Live-in Condo). This complements my ‘transition advice’ post, Multiculturalism: Getting the Balance Right – Reflections for a new government.

How has government language and programming changed under the Conservative government, and what is the legacy of Jason Kenney, the Minister for Multiculturalism? And what has been the impact of the niqab controversy and Conservative wedge politics on that legacy?

The overall context is that Canada’s diversity continues to increase, given increased non-European immigration. Diversity varies regionally and municipally, with B.C. and Ontario the most diverse, the Atlantic provinces and cities the least.

Along with this increased diversity, Canadian multiculturalism has continued to evolve since the policy was announced in 1971. The policy and subsequent act had two main aspects: cultural  recognition and equity, both designed to further integration.

The following table captures the evolution from “celebrating differences”to the Harper government’s emphasis on social cohesion. To respond to perceived faith and culture clashes, greater emphasis was placed on shared values, and the original metaphor of the cultural mosaic shifted to “conforming,”a contrast to the “harmony/jazz”of a more fluid approach to integration and accommodation.

CRRF Power of Words Webinar - Short.001

But what were the main policy and program changes made by Minister Kenney since 2007?

Early on, he articulated his vision of multiculturalism, linked closely to citizenship, as follows:

But having criss-crossed this great country; having attended hundreds of events and talked to thousands of new Canadians, I am certain of this: we all want a multiculturalism that builds bridges, not walls, between communities.

We want a Canada where we can celebrate our different cultural traditions, but not at the expense of sharing common Canadian traditions.

We want a country where freedom of conscience is deeply respected, but where we also share basic political values, like a belief in human dignity, equality of opportunity, and the rule of law.

We don’t want a Canada that is a hotel, where people come and go with no abiding connection to our past or to one another, where citizenship means only access to a convenient passport. We want a Canada where we are citizens loyal first and finally to this country and her historically grounded values.

The key to building such a Canada, to maintaining our model of unity-in-diversity, is the successful integration of newcomers.

And that should be the focus of today’s multiculturalism.

Emphasis accordingly shifted from cross-cultural understanding and inclusion to integration and social cohesion. Employment equity within government was replaced by making government more responsive to the needs of Canada’s diverse population. Combating racism and discrimination and encouraging civic participation was replaced by engaging in international discussions, largely focussed on anti-Semitism. Faith communities and related issues became explicitly part of multiculturalism.

While Kenney “flirted”with replacing multiculturalism with “pluralism,” he soon recognized the long-standing “brand value”of multiculturalism and its place in the Charter. No changes were made to the Multiculturalism Act.

Government funding support through grants and contributions was reoriented to these new objectives in the new Inter-Action program. The mix of organizations supported changed accordingly. A new “events stream”was created to support “food and folklore”events that encouraged integration between communities (as well as building political support).

Explicit linkages with citizenship were introduced. The Discover Canada citizenship guide emphasized common Canadian values, a more Conservative historical narrative, and integration rather than accommodation. Symbols that highlight Canadian historical connections to Britain, including the Crown, were highlighted.

The Government delivered on historical recognition for immigration and war-time internment for a number of communities (Chinese, Jewish, Italian, Sikh, and Ukrainian Canadians). These historical events were incorporated into Discover Canada.

Black History and Asian Heritage Months continued, with more emphasis on Canadian history and military. The Paul Yuzyk Award (“the father of multiculturalism”)was created to recognize contributions to Canadian multiculturalism and integration of newcomers (as well as appropriating multiculturalism for the Conservatives).

The Canadian Race Relations Foundation broadened its programming to include inter-faith initiatives and a greater emphasis on common values. The Government invested $30 million into the Global Centre for Pluralism of the Aga Khan based in Ottawa.

Existing federal and provincial multiculturalism networks were maintained, albeit weakened given reduced resources.

Multiculturalism was shifted from Canadian Heritage to Citizenship and Immigration (CIC) in 2008 and folded into CIC’s organizational structure. Resources were reallocated to other functions in CIC. Given CIC’s “centre of gravity”of immigration and decreased emphasis, the program declined in activity and importance.

Kenney remained Minister for Multiculturalism following the Cabinet shuffle of 2013 given the importance of the “fourth sister”in Canadian politics.

At the same time, political outreach to ethnic communities increased. Kenney — “curry in a hurry” — was on the road three weekends out of four, with up to 20 events per weekend. The new “events stream” furthered his outreach. These efforts, according to the Canada Election Survey and related polling, played off particularly well in the 2011 election with older, more well-established communities such as Italian, Greek, Portuguese, Jewish, Chinese and older South Asian communities.

However, this extensive outreach failed to stem the tide in the 2015 election, where the Liberals won 30 of the 33 ridings with majority visible minority population (mainly in the Greater Toronto Area and BC’s Lower mainland). The Conservatives only won two of these seats, losing decisively in terms of the popular vote for all these ridings: 32 percent compared to 52 percent for the Liberals).

Changes to multiculturalism took place in parallel with a greater focus on economic immigration, major refugee reform to reduce the number of refugee claimants, and the 2014 changes to the Citizenship Act making citizenship “harder to get and easier to lose.”The latter makes a clear distinction between born and naturalized Canadians, as the latter (including those born dual nationals) are subject to revocation in cases of terror or treason.

So have these changes made a difference to the multicultural fabric of Canada?

First, all parties continue to actively court ethnic communities. The Conservatives, to their credit, had taken this to a new level, arguing that new Canadians intrinsically shared conservative values like hard work and family. They maintained current levels of immigration (about 250,000 per year) throughout the 2008 recession. Unlike Europe or the U.S., we have no major political party opposed to large-scale immigration. Multiculturalism generally has not been a wedge issue. While there are significant differences, Canadian debate focusses more on specific policies rather than existential debates, Quebec excepted.

However, this approach shifted dramatically in the lead up to the 2015 election and during the campaign itself as the Conservative government increasing practiced wedge politics, singling out Canadian Muslims on issues as diverse as the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, spousal abuse, ‘honour’ crimes and ‘snitch lines.’ Kenney, who had been so vocal in his condemnation in the Parti québécois’s proposed Quebec Values Charter, was complicit in this change. The end result undermined Canada’s social fabric and ultimately backfired as an electoral strategy. The Conservative Party will need to reflect upon the possible long-term effect in its efforts to gain and maintain new Canadian support.

Secondly, while all political parties have closer relations with some communities, the Conservative government was more willing to “pick sides”than others. The shift in Canadian Mid-East policy towards unequivocal support for the Netanyahu government was the most notable example.

Thirdly, the Government emphasized symbolic measures. Citizenship judges are diverse but will largely be limited to a ceremonial role under the new Citizenship Act. But, only three out of some 200 federal judicial appointments were non-white. Visible minority ministers were in junior positions (multiculturalism, sport, seniors). Senate appointments, however, were more representative.

Fourthly, broadening racism and discrimination to relations within and among communities is welcome, given that our largest cities are 25-50 percent visible minorities. However, the government’s almost exclusive focus on anti-Semitism has neglected challenges faced by visible minorities, including Canadian Muslims. While the Conservative government cultivated strong relations with Muslim minority communities such as the Ahmadiyyas and Ismailis, it made little effort to develop relations with ‘mainstream’ Sunni and Shia Muslim communities.

Fifthly, these changes need to be seen in the context of a shift towards economic immigrants and tighter citizenship rules that will likely, over time, slowly drive down the current naturalization rate of 85 percent. This change will affect some communities more than others.

Overall, under Kenney, the Canadian model of multiculturalism returned to its roots by emphasizing integration, recognizing the diverse cultural identities of Canadians so that all Canadians, whatever their origins, could feel part of Canada. However, Canadian Muslims were singled out, wedge politics practiced and equity considerations were downplayed.

As part of citizenship, Kenney implemented a more explicit approach to shared identity and values. “Harmony/jazz”ad hoc improvisation was replaced by “conforming,” to clearer expectations, correcting an imbalance that implied Canada was a clean slate or as a hotel without any sense of what was acceptable and what was not.

Had the Conservative government not played ‘wedge politics’ with Canadian Muslims, it would have ensured a reasonable legacy for the incoming government to build upon. But having done so, it has tarnished its legacy, and perhaps harmed its future political prospects.

Judicial activism in Canada: Charter fights | The Economist

The Economist’s take on the judicial difficulties of the Government:

Yet the government itself, not meddling judges, may be more to blame. Edgar Schmidt, a former lawyer in the justice department, is suing the government for not subjecting proposed legislation to sufficiently rigorous scrutiny to see if it conforms to the constitution prior to presenting it to parliament. Simon Potter, a former head of the Canadian Bar Association, cited Mr Schmidt’s points in a speech to the association last month in which he accused the government of not doing enough to defend the charter and of fostering disrespect for the judiciary. If Mr Schmidt’s allegations are correct, says Mr Potter, “the executive has decided to take as many freedoms away from us as possible, rather than as few as possible”. He is dismayed that there is more legislation in the pipeline that looks ripe for charter challenges.

One step this government is not prepared to take is to revoke the charter itself. It would involve lengthy, arduous and potentially inconclusive constitutional negotiations with the provinces. More importantly, even the government’s own surveys show the charter is hugely popular with the majority of Canadians. When it asked Canadians to suggest the people and feats they want celebrated in 2017, the country’s 150th birthday, Medicare, peacekeeping and the charter of rights and freedoms were the top three accomplishments. Pierre Trudeau, the former Liberal prime minister who brought in the charter, was the most inspiring Canadian.

Judicial activism in Canada: Charter fights | The Economist.

Why we should listen to Elizabeth May – Paul Wells

Good commentary by Paul Wells on the shrinking role of government and the reduced capacity it implies:

In 2009, after the opposition forced him to run very large deficits as the price of Conservative political survival, Stephen Harper made a simple, crucial decision: He would eliminate the deficit over time, not by cutting transfers to the provinces for social programs, but by cutting direct spending on the things the government of Canada does. The government of Canada operates embassies, labs, libraries, lighthouses, benefits for veterans and Arctic research outposts. Or rather, it used to. These days, each day, it does a little less of all those things.

The sum of these cuts is a smaller role for the federal government in the life of the nation. Each of the steps toward that destination is trivial, easy to argue both ways (who needs fancy embassies?) and impossible to reverse (if a future government decides, “We need fancy embassies,” it can never get back the prime real estate this government is now selling).

In his long-delayed appearance before the cameras (sorry), Trudeau depicted the Harper government as devoid of ideas. “Its primary interest is the well-being of the Conservative Party of Canada and not of Canadians.” May, on the other hand, is sure the government has ideas; that it is pursuing them even when the rest of us are grandly bored with details; and that it is changing the country. She’s right.

This is not to say that period trimming of government is not needed – it is – but the stealth approach (i.e., the PBO should not have to submit ATIP requests for information on cuts), and limited public debate are worrisome.

Why we should listen to Elizabeth May – Inkless Wells, Opinion, Paul Wells –

Jonathan Kay: Even some Zionists should find the Tories’ Israel zeal to be disturbingly manic | National Post

Interesting commentary by Jonathan Kay of the National Post on the messaging of PM Harper and the Conservative government. Ironically, it is possible that such unqualified support may, over time, undermine support for the Government’s activities and initiatives against antisemitism, given the relative silence of the important linkages with other forms of discrimination that impact on a wide range of communities in Canada:

Perhaps the best adjective I can use to describe the Conservatives’ zeal for Israel — and, indeed for all things Jewish — is manic. In interpersonal terms, it reminds me of a couple that professes their status as soul mates — loudly, and very repeatedly — as they bask in the bloom of first love (as opposed to the occasional bickering that characterizes the long, solid marriage between Israel and the United States). In my email inbox, I have lost count of the number of messages from Jason Kenney advertising his government’s support of Israel, its steadfast opposition to anti-Semitism, and its diligent observance of some anniversary or memorial day honouring a figure connected to Judaism. Many times, whole days pass in which this is the only type of message I get from his office. In each individual case, the spirit is admirable. But the overall effect comes across as a sort of monomania.

This fixation is beginning to express itself in somewhat reckless gestures. One of the members of Harper’s official delegation in Israel, for instance, is a Rabbi who has offered public support to Pamela Geller, an anti-Islamic conspiracy theorist. When taken to task for the Rabbi’s inclusion, the PMO shot back with the lazy, apparently baseless, and possibly libelous charge that the Muslim group raising the objections has “ties” to Hamas. This is the not the way a serious government responds to the legitimate concerns of its citizens.

The Harper government is to be lauded for the overall tendency of its foreign policy — which is to offer full-throated support for democratic nations that share our values. But where the Jewish state is concerned, our support is crossing the line into a sort of emotional mania. And it has never been on fuller display than this week, during the Prime Minister’s trip to Israel.

Jonathan Kay: Even some Zionists should find the Tories’ Israel zeal to be disturbingly manic | National Post.

Editorial: Open up the government

Yet more commentary on the government’s failure to comply with its obligations under the Access to Information Act, this time by the Ottawa Citizen.

The government should listen to Legault because there is nothing to fear from openness. Access to information is fundamental to our system of government, and a key tool of citizen engagement. A Conservative government that rode accountability to office should not stand in the way. It should be a champion of openness.

Editorial: Open up the government.

Harper’s Greatest Hits: the science of fundraising | iPolitics

One of the stronger critiques, and a bit over the top, of the Conservative government’s rejection of science-based evidence, fitting into one of the themes in Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, evidence or anecdote.

Harper’s Greatest Hits: the science of fundraising | iPolitics.