As COVID-19 ravaged long-term care homes across Quebec in the spring, Mamadou Konate was disturbed to see the elderly residents at the Montreal facility where he worked largely left to fend for themselves.
But the 39-year-old from Ivory Coast went in to work every day anyway, cleaning the floors that housed the centre’s COVID-infected patients, according to his former roommate and friend, Amelia Orellana.
“He saw people dying every day,” Orellana told VICE News.
Konate, who came to Canada in 2016 and does not have permanent immigration status, contracted COVID-19 in late April, Orellana said, and was forced to take almost three weeks off without pay before returning to work.
Now, after Canadian officials spent the past several months lauding the country’s COVID-19 frontline workers as “guardian angels,” Konate is fighting what may be an even tougher battle: he is currently in immigration detention awaiting deportation from Canada.
“We see that when someone tries to regularize their situation, when someone tries to come out of the shadows, they are punished and imprisoned in the middle of a pandemic,” said Orellana, who recently launched the Solidarity For Mamadou campaign to try to stop the deportation.
Konate was detained on September 16 after he went to Immigration Canada with his lawyer to request a stay of deportation and re-apply for status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, the group said in a statement his month.
His asylum request previously had been denied, and an application for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was also rejected last year, Orellana told VICE News.
HuffPost Quebec reported that Konate’s asylum request was rejected on the basis that he was a member of a rebel group in Ivory Coast, but Konate’s lawyer argued that he was forced to join the Forces Nouvelles. A judge eventually rejected his claim, saying Konate had made contradictory statements, HuffPost said.
Konate is now being held in 14-day isolation at the Laval immigration detention centre, just north of Montreal.
That is the same facility where detainees went on hunger strike in March to demand their release due to fears they would contract COVID-19. At midnight Thursday, the greater Montreal area, including Laval, is moving to the province’s highest alert level amid a surge in COVID-19 cases—on Sunday, Quebec reported its highest single-day tally since May, with 896 cases.
The province remains Canada’s COVID-19 epicentre, with 73,450 total cases and 5,833 deaths since the pandemic began.
Status for some
While the details of Konate’s case are specific to him, activists and community advocates across Canada say it illustrates a deeper problem with a system that relies on migrant labourers during a devastating pandemic but does not provide those same workers with rights and protections.
“It just confirms the fact that there is no justice for migrant workers,” Orellana said. “Mamadou is just one case among thousands.”
Last month, Canada announced that it would give some migrant workers in the healthcare sector a fast-track to permanent immigration status due to their sacrifices during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While it is unclear how many people would benefit, some reports suggest that about 1,000 asylum seekers could qualify for the program. “The current circumstances merit exceptional measures in recognition of their service,” the federal minister of immigration, Marco Medicino, said at the time.
However, Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, an advocacy group demanding full and permanent status for all in Canada, said the government’s program falls short.
“For those 1,000 people this is an important, crucial step towards certainty; however, there are 1.6 million people in the country without full immigration status, many of whom are engaged in essential work, including at health facilities,” Hussan told VICE News.
He said that without permanent immigration status, migrant workers are turned into “second-class citizens” without full access to their rights in Canada, and their risk of exploitation in the workplace increases.
Protests demanding status for all have been held in Toronto, Montreal, Halifax, and other Canadian cities over the past several months, and a letter with the same demand has been signed by 350 organizations across the country.
“We’re seeing that there is a systematic and ongoing process of exclusion and intrenching precarity for migrants and undocumented people and we refuse. Fundamentally, we refuse,” said Hussan. “And so we don’t talk about status as a gift for good service, but rather as a right deserving of everyone.”
In Konate’s case, a petition calling on Canada and Quebec to stop his deportation had garnered over 3,600 signatures by Tuesday morning. A rally also was held in downtown Montreal last week to demand action, while his plight also drew the attention of left-wing provincial party Quebec Solidaire.
“Mamadou Konate risked his life to take care of Quebec’s elderly. Today, he is in prison because they want to expel him. That’s more than a slap in the face! It’s a punch to the gut,” Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois, a Quebec Solidaire MNA, said on Twitter.
Nadeau-Dubois called on Quebec Premier Francois Legault to “show compassion” and let Konate stay in the province.
A spokeswoman for Legault’s office, Nadia Talbot, said the province is “extremely grateful to all the essential workers who contributed to the collective fight against the virus,” which is why Quebec worked with the federal government on the regularization program announced in August.
But Talbot said the immigration judicial review process is under federal jurisdiction. “It is therefore not possible for us to comment on specific cases,” she said in an email.
The Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said in an email that it could not comment on specific cases due to privacy regulations.
“The CBSA upholds the fairness and integrity of the Canadian immigration and refugee system by removing foreign nationals who are inadmissible or have no legal right to remain in Canada,” said spokesman Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage.
Brissette Lesage said since mid-March, when border restrictions due to COVID-19 were put in place, the CBSA has enforced “a more limited number and type of removals.” The removals of anyone who wishes to leave Canada, as well as serious cases, including individuals who committed crimes or human rights violations, have continued, he said.
‘Race against the clock’
Still, Philippe T. Desmarais, one of Konate’s neighbours and a member of the Solidarity For Mamadou campaign who speaks to him regularly on the phone, said Konate is in good spirits, despite being in isolation in the detention centre.
Konate’s next immigration hearing is scheduled for October 19, said Orellana. But with the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in Quebec, Orellana questioned why the authorities would go ahead with his deportation.
“We won’t stop. We won’t stop making noise and put pressure on until we see concrete action and Mamadou’s demand (for status) is really looked at,” she said. “We still have three weeks to put pressure on… But it’s a race against the clock.”
Follow Jillian Kestler D’Amours on Twitter.