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Lana Payne: Federal Tories fanning flames of racial intolerance, xenophobia and division

Conservative MP Michelle Rempel stands with MPs Pierre Paul-Hus (left) and Larry Maguire as she speaks to reporters ahead of an emergency meeting of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday.
Conservative MP Michelle Rempel stands with MPs Pierre Paul-Hus (left) and Larry Maguire as she speaks to reporters ahead of an emergency meeting of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday. - The Canadian Press

Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives seem to be betting that the path back to 24 Sussex Dr. is paved with racial intolerance, xenophobia, and stoking the flames of division.

It’s barbaric cultural practices 2.0, more nuanced, but the intent is the same.

Scare, fear, hate.

It’s one thing to have a debate about immigration policies, it’s another to use language and images — as they have done in recent social media posts — that are designed to promote racism.

Consider the highly charged rhetoric from the federal Conservatives regarding the increase in asylum seekers, crossing the Canada-U.S. border.

Listen for it.

They use the word “illegal” virtually every single time. This is deliberate, meant to paint the government as doing nothing to stop the flow of these “illegals.”

The facts? Well, they are missing in action.

The Conservatives know there is no way for Canadians to differentiate between a refugee who applied at a designated entry point and someone who didn’t. They know that someone who crosses at an undesignated entry point still has the right to seek asylum. They know and they don’t care. There are no political points to be scored from facts.

And those who cross at undesignated entry points are not doing so in order to sneak into Canada as the Conservatives would lead us to believe, but rather to actually make an asylum claim that is otherwise impossible under the Safe Third Country Agreement.

But they are OK with inflaming racism against refugees and with playing footloose with the facts and reality.

Related story:

Baloney Meter: Are a majority of asylum seekers to Canada doomed to rejection?

Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel has been leading the charge. Her motion in the House of Commons earlier this year called on the Government of Canada to: “address the crisis created by the influx of thousands of illegal border crossers travelling across our southern border between ports of entry.”

Yes. There’s that word again: illegal.

When called on it, she dismissed her critics by claiming it is a matter of semantics.

If it were merely a matter of semantics, she would stop using the word.

It is more than semantics. It is bait.

Given the U.S. ban on Muslims, the recent ripping apart of families at the U.S.-Mexico border and the highly charged rhetoric about migrants, there is good reason for people who flee intolerable conditions, to feel they now have lots to fear in Trump’s America.

In addition to tearing families apart, the United States no longer considers gang violence or domestic abuse as reasonable grounds for refugee status. This is a very different United States.

It also contravenes international treaties, including the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights and its convention on refugees. The United Nations defines a refugee as someone who is forced to leave their country because of fear of persecution, violence or war. The convention which Canada has signed onto also says refugees should not be penalized for seeking asylum through irregular means.

To be very clear, it is not illegal to seek asylum.

Immigration Canada would obviously prefer that refugees crossing the Canada-U.S. border did so through a designated entry point, but crossing at a non-designated point does not take away your right to seek asylum.

It does, though, protect you from being returned to the United States through the conditions of the Safe Third Country Agreement. An agreement signed at another time, following 9/11 and when the refugee systems in both countries were more comparable.

Many refugee advocates say the agreement should be suspended given Trump’s immigration policies.

The agreement requires asylum seekers to make a claim in the first country in which they arrive unless they cross at an undesignated entry point.

Immigration Canada refers to these crossings as “irregular migration trends,” careful not to use language like “illegal” which stigmatizes asylum seekers.

Indeed, the media should just stop using language like “illegal asylum seekers” or “illegal border crossings.”

As pointed out in a Toronto Star commentary by two Osgoode Hall law students who work with refugee claimants, crossing the border to seek asylum at a non-designated entry point is not an offence in the Criminal Code of Canada. They also argued against using criminalizing language.

Jesse Beaton and Kylie Sier noted that “refugees often lack access to the press and to podiums, so their public image and identity tends to be defined by others. Stigmatizing labels embolden a populist politics that positions refugees as outsiders, burdens, and potential criminals. These labels in turn support problematic policies by making it easier to scapegoat refugees for social ills they are not responsible for. There is a great responsibility for those with elevated voices to not prejudge and malign refugee claimants as ‘illegal’.”

Unfortunately, those who persist in describing refugees as illegal are more concerned with scoring cheap political points and stoking the flames of division.

They should consider who they are maligning — a group of human beings who for the most part are desperate, scared, vulnerable, and fleeing violence.

Perhaps Scheer, Rempel and their followers should ask themselves what that makes them?

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor. She can be reached by email at lanapaynenl@gmail.com. Twitter: @lanampayne Her column returns in two weeks.

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