Thomas Walkom

Opinion: Immigration issue is a dangerous game

The refugee issue has long simmered beneath the surface of Canadian politics. It was there when former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government passed the infamous Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, a thinly-disguised attack on Muslims. It was there when Conservative leadership contender Kellie Leitch called for immigrants to take a so-called Canadian values test. In 2016, Canadians congratulated themselves on their generosity after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government admitted thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war. Yet even then, an Angus Reid poll showed that 44 per cent of Canadians opposed the move.

Now refugee policy is back in the forefront. Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford has accused the Trudeau government of encouraging “illegal border crossers” to enter Canada and claim refugee status.

Ottawa’s actions, Ford’s office says, are creating a housing crisis in Ontario and threatening “the services that Ontario families depend on.” The Ontario government, it says, will no longer support these asylum seekers. Ottawa must pick up “100 per cent of the bills.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory has warned that refugee claimants making their way into Ontario now occupy more than 40 per cent of the city’s available shelter space. For his part, Trudeau has used the refugee issue to burnish his progressive credentials. He has, in effect, dismissed Ford as a know-nothing, saying the premier doesn’t understand how the system works.

On CBC Radio Friday, the prime minister blamed unnamed conservative politicians at home and abroad for trying to create divisions within society over the refugee issue.

You can bet that Trudeau is teeing up for the next election campaign during which the Liberals will try to present the Conservatives as anti-immigrant troglodytes in the thrall of Harper, Ford and U.S. President Donald Trump.

Yet at the crux of the refugee issue is a real problem. Many migrants have discovered how to get around the Safe Third Country Agreement, a pact designed to prevent those already in the U.S. from making refugee claims in Canada.

They do so by walking across the border away from a legal port of entry and making their refugee claims from within Canada. They then have the right to stay until their claim is heard, which can take years.

According to government figures, some 9,481 asylum seekers took this route between January and May of this year, with most crossing illegally into Quebec. An additional 10,600 refugee claimants entered Canada legally at official ports of entry – including 7,190 in Quebec.

Quebec’s social services have been swamped by the influx. So Ottawa is encouraging many to move on into Ontario.

Many costs incurred by refugee claimants, including medicare, pharmacare, and some dental and vision care are picked up by the federal government.

Asylum seekers are also usually eligible for welfare, a provincial program, and can apply for work permits. Shelter costs are often shared by different levels of government.

The reality of the refugee system is quite complicated.

But it appears that the politics of the issue will be much simpler. The Conservatives are blaming what they call Trudeau’s naivete. In particular, they chide him for once tweeting that Canada welcomes those fleeing persecution.

At base is the assumption that a good many of the asylum seekers who took advantage of what the Tories see as Trudeau’s misplaced generosity are not legitimate refugees but merely economic migrants trying to jump the queue.

Incidentally, this is a message that might work well among immigrants who did play by the rules.

As Leitch found, making immigration an issue can be a dangerous game. Some of those around Ford are from Harper’s team and remember the troubles that the barbaric cultural practices act gave him.

But resentment is a powerful force. In effect, Ford is saying to Trudeau: “A lot of the refugee claimants you are letting in are bogus and we don’t want to pay for them.”

We shall see what kind of traction this has.

Thomas Walkom is a national affairs writer.

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