Clamping down on refugees: Is Bill C-31 reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?

By Ed Wiebe, MCC Canada Refugee Assistance Program Co-ordinator

This month Canada will admit some 1,000 newly arrived refugees from camps all around the world. Another 1,000 or so who came here directly to make a refugee claim inside Canada will be declared “eligible to stay” since they indeed had a bona fide reason for requesting refuge. On the face of it that sounds pretty good, quite generous.


But that is far from the whole story, and does not indicate the direction Canada’s compassion arrow is pointing. Less than a few decades ago, we did double those numbers. No one ever said we could not afford it any more, or that there were too many “bogus” refugees trying to cheat their way in.

Now, as Bill C-31 is about to become law, even the UN Refugee Agency is cautioning that Canada is risking falling into a status of non-compliance with respect to its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers, given the international treaties, conventions and other statues we have signed on to over the years.

Those agreements were entered into in our reach for stature on the world stage where Canada enjoyed an almost revered place as a good guy who always had a kind word or deed to offer to the world’s dispossessed or downtrodden.

What happened?

In part, that lofty position may not have been entirely warranted even then, since we also had a few black eyes when it came to treatment of the other. Note our lack of compassion for the refugee-laden ship, the St. Louis, which we turned back to the high seas with its desperate cargo of Jewish refugees from Europe. Or how we interred the Japanese on our own soil and only recently have offered a mumbled, belated “sorry” over that period.

Yet Bill C-31 is set to clamp down in even more harsh ways, no matter what the evidence is, or what others are now saying about us as a nation. This new bill will see us throwing new arrivals into jail – not immigration detention facilities, but jail! – upon arrival, and for up to 6 months.

No exceptions, even for women or children.

That will cost exorbitant amounts of money each month. Until recently, we gave such arrivals a quick screening on security and medical grounds, and in most instances, sent them on into communities with a temporary work card so they could pay their own way while we sorted out their refugee claims.

Polls over the past eighteen months, however, have indicated a hardening of opinions over immigration in ways that seem new in our country and more akin to the trends in Europe.

While there have often been dips in the attitude towards immigrants and immigration, the general trend in Canada over the decades has always settled back in to a state of general agreement that immigration is good for us.

What is changing now?

For the first time in my long memory, we have a government that is vocally and repeatedly negative about overall immigration. This is especially so regarding the small portion we call humanitarian and compassionate admissions such as refugees.

As the new Bill becomes law within the next short while, maybe it’s little wonder that the public is souring on “the least of these” [Matt.25.31-46] as well.

Is the government’s clamping down on refugees reflecting or shaping Canadian attitudes?

3 Thoughts

  1. Thanks Ed for this.

    I keep asking myself how we in the church can counter this growing negative attitude towards immigrants and particular asylum seekers. From the government’s side, I hear a lot about economics, and if they are promoting immigration, they make the economic case and never the humanitarian case.

    For us as followers of Jesus Christ, I think it is imperative to keep before us the notion that “welcoming the stranger” is a biblical imperative. As Richard Kearney said in a recent CBC “Ideas” program: When we welcome the stranger, we meet the Divine. (e.g. Genesis 18:1ff). I think that is something that calls for strengthening in our Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches, and there is language and a history we can point to to promote that notion.

    I think it would be great if we could make it clear that “welcoming the stranger” is also a part of the Canadian identify. The rhetoric is there periodically and in those times we can work to hold the government accountable to supporting that value. In other times that sentiment is thin; then it is more difficult.

  2. Thanks for this article, Ed. There may be a “hardening of opinion” over refugees within our government, but in broader culture (if Winnipeg is that) it feels like the presence of the broad spectrum of cultures and ethnicities is now normal and expected. Just recently I spoke with a young Muslim friend who said that her mother (originally from Pakistan) and a freind (originally Bengali) were going back to their respective regions to show that these two groups can get along. Canadian immigration represents “breaking down dividing walls of hostility” for many. This is something that many welcome in contrast to the erection of separation walls in so many places.

    Steve Plenert
    Winnipeg MB

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