Canadians shouldn't forget their compassion
By Amarnath Amarasingam
Canadians have long been struggling with the place of immigrants and refugees within their borders. The competing forces of humanitarianism that is ingrained in the Canadian identity and the equally important need for national security often clash in public discussions about immigration and refugee policy. The question of which of these dual forces is winning out in terms of public opinion often depends on when the question is asked.
In a 2005 Gallup poll, for example, 58 per cent of Canadians stated that they would like to see the level of immigration in Canada remain the same, 27 per cent wanted to see the number decrease, and 20 per cent wanted an increase. This is in stark contrast to Great Britain and the United States, where 65 per cent and 58 per cent, respectively, wanted to see lower levels of immigration.
As Philippe Bourbeau, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa, has shown, 1994 was the only year in which the majority of Canadians, at 53 per cent, stated that they were letting in "too many immigrants."
This number continued to decline even after the arrival of the "Chinese boat people." During the summer of 1999, four boats carrying 599 migrants from the Fujian province of China arrived in B.C.
In the media, and among certain groups in society, the reaction to these Chinese migrants foreshadowed many of the sentiments heard after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea, which docked in B.C. in early August carrying 490 Tamil refugees. Fears of tuberculosis, test boats, and queue jumping appeared in media reports and statements by public officials.
The Toronto Sun, for example, wrote on July 25, 1999, that "their gamble of jumping to the head of the immigration line by arriving illegally on our shores paid off. They and the smuggling ring that ran the operation rightly calculated that Canada was a weak, easy mark."
With the arrival of these boats, "there were all kinds of unnecessary hand wringing and concerns over Canada being flooded with refugee claimants, that the system was broken, and that this encourages abuse," says Scott Watson, a professor of political science at the University of Victoria.
Many scholars have noted that in addition to its humanitarian tradition, Canada has been moving toward a securitization of migration over the last few decades. What this means is that the movement of people across borders has slowly moved from being viewed in economic, humanitarian or racial terms to being incorporated into a framework of national security and defence.
While this shift to securitization has occurred at the bureaucratic and policy level, it does not seem to have trickled down to the public. When Canadians were asked, in 1997, whether they agree or disagree with the statement, "Immigrants make an important contribution to this country," 67 per cent agreed with the statement. Asked the same question in 2000, the number increased to 77 per cent. This increase occurred, it is important to remember, a year after the arrival of the Chinese boats in British Columbia.
"I don't think that securitization is the dominant view of Canadians," says Watson, "There is a securitized narrative, but I don't think it is necessarily the dominant one. At this point, it is still competing with the humanitarian representation."
This humanitarian representation again took a hit with the arrival of the MV Sun Sea. With reports that a migrant ship was on its way, many Canadians once again abandoned their expressed commitment to multiculturalism as well as the UN Refugee Convention.
In its place, again, appeared a stunning ignorance of Canadian refugee policy, confusion about the Tamil community, fears of test boats, concerns of tuberculosis, and suspicion that Tamil Tigers were constructing a base of operations in Canada.
These nebulous sentiments found online and heard on talk-radio were concretized when Angus Reid released the findings of its national poll on Aug. 20. Many in the Tamil community were saddened by the results. One result in particular was particularly jarring: 48 per cent of Canadians believe that the passengers and crew of the MV Sun Sea should be deported even if their refugee claims are legitimate and even if it is found that they have no discernible link to a terrorist organization.
In other words, many Canadians would send these refugees back, even if they are no different from refugees who come to our borders on a daily basis.
The results of the Angus Reid poll may be partly due to the fact that it was undertaken only a few days after the arrival of the MV Sun Sea. The results may reflect an uncharacteristic alarmism and fear that, if other polls and surveys are true, often subsides with the passage of time. As Canada continues to struggle with issues of national security, we would be best served to take seriously our equally important commitment to humanitarianism.
Amarnath Amarasingam is a doctoral candidate at Wilfred Laurier University.
This article first appeared in The Province, British Columbia