View from the Hill by Keith Beardsley – Refugee Issue Debate – Cornwall Ontario – October 23, 2010

Cornwall ON – In the days ahead the government’s new refugee legislation will be sure to open up a heated parliamentary debate. Personally I doubt it will ever be passed by this parliament, but it will make for an interesting election issue.

Mass arrivals by boat infuriate Canadians and are seen as both a breach of our borders and a violation of our generosity in extending a helping hand to true refugees. Jason Kenney is correct when he says such arrivals weaken public support for immigration. But, they also unfairly stigmatize whole communities of new Canadians who have immigrated here through regular channels and become hard working Canadians.

Kenney certainly has a political problem. My own experience as a former Chief of Staff of Immigration in the 1980’s, is that the biggest backlash comes not from native born Canadians, but from new Canadians who see this is as queue jumping. In any future election support from these communities will be crucial for any party seeking a majority.

The new penalties for human smuggling will most likely be accepted by all political parties as it’s a despicable crime. They will be effective as long as the ringleaders are stupid enough to actually travel on a boat with their human cargo, highly unlikely should this new law ever be implemented. Another potential scenario (used by human smugglers in the 1980’s) will see ships pull up to our international marine boundary and unload their human cargo in life boats letting them drift into shore. These regulations will not catch the smugglers, but it will increase the risk for people who may very well be genuine refugee claimants.

So far we have not seen new resources offered to our border officials or the RCMP nor are there any new agreements with countries from which these ships sale. Neither does the legislation offer a faster review system with speedy deportation for those that are not genuine refugees. All of this items are crucial when addressing these problems but missing at this point.

Other aspects of the law may not satisfy the opposition parties and the immigration industry, but most Canadians will certainly support them. I suspect that most Canadians will not have a problem with the government detaining someone for up to a year while the government tries to find out who they are and what, if any security risk they pose to Canada. And note it isn’t automatically a year, but up to a year. Some claimants will be out a lot sooner once they provide proof of identity etc.

The government has also highlighted some obvious abuses that will be hot button issues for voting Canadians. If you are a true refugee claimant you are asking to stay in Canada because you fear persecution or death in your home country. Why then would anyone want to return to that country for a vacation or to attend a wedding etc.?  Why would a genuine refugee claimant but their life at risk or that of other family members? They probably wouldn’t unless of course they aren’t a genuine refugee claimant, an easy point for the government to sell to voters.

If you think this will be a hard sell, look back at the public comments when people we rescued in Lebanon went back there as soon as the fighting died down.

The same holds true for limiting benefits for healthcare to the same benefits offered to Canadians. Why on earth should someone get better care than that offered to the Canadian public? This will be another easy sell for the government.

Be prepared for the immigration industry to trot out all sorts of individuals who are genuine refugees and suffered horribly to get to Canada. But they can’t hide the fact that our generosity is constantly abused by individuals and sometimes boatloads, who are in fact economic migrants. These are your queue jumpers. They can get in line and wait their turn along with the thousands of others around the world who want to start a new life in Canada. Let us use our resources and compassion to help true refugees both here and in camps around the world.

The opposition parties would do well to stop and think before giving knee jerk reactions to this bill. Jason Kenney has spent years building trust in new Canadian communities and listening to their concerns. He would not be bringing this forward if it was political suicide for the government. Immigration will make a fascinating election issue, bring on the debate.

Keith Beardsley is a senior strategist for True North Public Affairs in Ottawa, as well as a blogger and political analyst. He can often be found running or cycling on his favorite bike trails.

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