The next federal election is just eight months away. Immigration, and particularly asylum seekers and irregular border crossers coming from the US, is sure to be a thorny issue for the current federal government. These crossings, following on the heels of large numbers of Syrians seeking asylum in Europe, have stoked fears among many Canadians that the country is facing its own refugee “crisis.” Opponents have been quick to criticize the federal government, saying it is not doing enough to stem the flow of irregular border crossings. The Prime Minister’s rivals have repeatedly pointed to his January 2017 tweet saying that Canada will welcome those seeking refuge as the instigator of this increase in asylum claims. The Prime Minister faces stiff opposition from both his federal rivals and his provincial counterparts.
If Canada is to weather the inevitable ratcheting up of political rhetoric and the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment in the Western world, the federal and provincial governments will need to work together to manage asylum seekers. It is a tall order to ask politicians to take the high road and to find common ground on such a tricky file. It is even harder when immigration politics mixes with intergovernmental relations and fiscal federalism. But the survival of Canada’s immigration system may very well depend on it, and this election presents an opportunity for political leadership.
In 2018, 19,419 persons crossed the border between Canada and the United States outside of regular ports of entry. A majority did so with the hope of claiming refugee status in Canada. These movements are a reflection of the increasingly inhospitable global climate toward refugee resettlement and of the anti-immigration policies of U.S. President Donald Trump.
These border crossings are considered “irregular” because of Canada’s Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, signed as part of a bigger package of reforms to coordinate border management policies after 9/11. Under the agreement, both countries are designated “safe third countries” because they allow and process refugee protection claims according to international standards and obligations. The core principle of the agreement is that persons should seek protection and asylum in the first safe country they arrive in. So, migrants who land first in the United States cannot claim asylum at a regular port of entry in Canada, and vice-versa. Significantly, the agreement does not apply outside of designated ports of entry. People crossing at locations that are not regular ports of entry, such as the now famous Roxham Road in Quebec, may therefore make asylum claims.
The well-publicized increase in total asylum claims over the past two years is not unprecedented in Canada: similar spikes occurred in the recent past. For example, there were 44,640 claims in 2001. But the numbers in the last two years are extraordinary: 50,390 claims in 2017 and 55,020 in 2018, a sharp rise from the recent low of 10,365 in 2013. The surge in crossings at non-designated ports has driven the increase: there were over 20,593 such crossings in 2017 and 19,419 in 2018. Arrivals are not distributed evenly across provinces; Quebec received more than 90 percent of “irregular” arrivals in 2017 and 2018, and Ontario is the destination of a large share of these individuals and families while they await status determination. In August 2017 alone, over 5,500 people crossed the border into Quebec. By 2018, though, the number of border crossers seemed to have levelled off to a more consistent flow of around 1,500 people a month.
The combination of drivers behind these arrivals means that there are no easy solutions to dealing with this new normal. Proposals range from making the entire border a port of entry to cancelling the Safe Third Country Agreement. Canada needs to find workable solutions that humanely manage the flow of asylum seekers crossing the Canada-US border without actively encouraging it.
The sharp increase in asylum seekers in the past two years has exposed the weak points in the system and led to considerable federal-provincial conflict.
While the focus is often on Ottawa’s response to asylum seekers, all three orders of government play critical roles. In addition to border security, the federal government is responsible for the initial intake and screening of asylum seekers, along with funding and managing their claims for refugee status. The provinces are responsible for providing housing and social services while people wait to hear if the Immigration and Refugee Board will approve their claims. Cities, particularly Toronto, face the significant challenge of having to find shelter space and provide on-the-ground services. For the system to work, the federal government has to take leadership and quickly process the claims to help resolve people’s status in Canada, while the provinces and municipalities provide the necessary support that allows them to settle into their new life and thrive in their communities. The sharp increase in asylum seekers in the past two years has exposed the weak points in the system and led to considerable federal-provincial conflict.
Conflict between the three main players — Ottawa, Quebec and Ontario — has largely defined the federal-provincial relationship in responding to the asylum issue. Quebec has been vocal in calling for support from Ottawa to help it deal with the costs associated with being the main point where the crossings are happening. Ontario — where a large portion of the asylum seekers are landing, particularly in the Greater Toronto Area — has repeatedly asked the federal government to help cover the cost of housing and social services for these individuals. Ottawa has dedicated approximately $150 million to help provinces and municipalities with the costs of resettlement, in addition to the estimated $1 billion it plans to spend over the next three years on processing asylum claims. It is also taking steps like reopening a previously closed Immigration and Refugee Board office to speed up processing. But these first moves have not gone far enough to resolve the tensions. The spat got so heated that Ontario pulled out of discussions on how to deal with the entire issue, a move that also signals the provincial government’s lack of desire to fully engage to find a mutually agreeable solution. The lack of engagement has led mayors from Toronto and other big cities to make their case directly with Ottawa.
In the past, the provinces and the federal government largely agreed on the basic objectives of the immigration program.
This period of conflict is unusual. As our past research shows, immigration is an area where the federal and provincial governments have increasingly cooperated to develop policy. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the provinces expanded their role in selecting and settling migrants. And, in recent years, federal-provincial-territorial collaboration has been a defining feature of immigration policy. So, what is the difference when it comes to dealing with asylum seekers?
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In the past, the provinces and the federal government largely agreed on the basic objectives of the immigration program. Expanding the provincial role in selecting migrants helped achieve a shared goal of streaming migrants away from settling mainly in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. It also helped ensure that the skills of migrants matched labour market needs. In short, there was a measure of consensus that the provinces needed to play a role in the program to ensure that the benefits of immigration were shared equally across the country and for migrants to succeed in their new lives. This consensus generated cooperation.
No such consensus on how to manage asylum seekers seems to have emerged yet. The lack of consensus reflects the traditional lack of provincial engagement in asylum policy, where the federal government has long taken the lead. Quebec, Ontario and Ottawa also have competing interests at the moment. Quebec is on the front line, and is understandably concerned with stopping irregular border crossings into its territory. Ontario — Toronto in particular — is facing a major challenge housing the influx of people. Ottawa is focused on dealing with the mounting backlog of refugee claims while ensuring the process remains rigorous and fair.
Politics, of course, is also playing into the conflict. Doug Ford wants to score points battling the federal Liberals. François Legault’s newly elected government is requesting that Ottawa support its plan to lower immigration levels and is asking for more powers under the 1991 Canada-Quebec immigration agreement. Justin Trudeau has built his brand on the value of pluralism and support for immigration, something that the Liberal Party has traditionally proposed must be achieved through centralization. These are difficult positions to reconcile. But political differences can be overcome to find workable solutions: the height of federal-provincial cooperation on immigration came when there was a Conservative federal government and Liberal governments in Ontario and Quebec.
The federal and provincial governments must work together once again. Their shared goal should be a balance between protecting the integrity of our immigration system and treating asylum seekers with compassion. Strong federal leadership is necessary to achieve this goal, along with a clear recognition of the interdependence of all three orders of government in successfully managing the file. The federal government needs to inject considerable cash into the entire system, chiefly focusing on speeding up the processing of asylum claims. Ottawa controls the principal levers, direct and indirect, to manage the influx of migrants — and so it needs to work with the provinces to find common ground on how it should wield these tools.
A federal-provincial agreement on the broader policy approach, as well as on funding the resettlement of claimants, would help establish this common ground. But this agreement needs to be more than a blank cheque from the federal government. The provinces must accept that they have a role and responsibility in supporting asylum seekers. If the benefits of economic migration are to be shared by all — as the provinces have fought hard for over the years — then the responsibility to assist humanitarian migration also needs to be shared by all.
Canada’s enviable immigration system relies on the public’s support. This backing is not the result of some unique Canadian openness to multiculturalism and pluralism — though these are important parts of our national identity. The public largely supports immigration because it is seen to be in the interests of the entire community. It is mainly a controlled process, bringing in skilled workers and family members.
Canada’s geopolitical position, with vast oceans on three sides and a relatively stable democracy to the south, means that the country has not been subjected to massive flows of asylum seekers. But this is a fragile situation. If the current and next governments don’t handle the new normal of consistent flows of asylum seekers properly, public support could erode, and the legitimacy of the entire Canadian immigration system could be put in jeopardy.
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