The Phony ‘Illegal Immigrant’ Crisis and the Slow, Sad March to the 2019 Election

The Conservatives are trying to turn asylum into an election issue and the Liberals have let them succeed.
Andrew Scheer and Justin Trudeau | Images via CP. 

Is Canada in the throes of an illegal immigration crisis? This is certainly what we are being led to believe. Toronto is getting a $11 million from Ottawa to help deal with crowding in refugee housing. Quebec is barring asylum claimants from public daycare services, for fear of straining the system. Pundits and news anchors breathlessly repeat claims about “illegal crossings” and “queue jumping.” Opposition MPs are forcing the Parliamentary Immigration Committee to convene for emergency meetings in August to deal with the escalating calamity. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say something serious was going on!


It’s important to ensure Canada’s tattered social safety net doesn’t burst over Toronto and Montreal. Of course, as Vicky Mochama observes in the Toronto Star, the strain on housing and social services in Toronto long predates our current national fixation on the border. (You can also thank Stephen Harper’s changes to the immigration system for the backlog of thousands of claimants forced to wait for their hearings in housing units.) There is also no such thing as “queue jumping,” because all asylum claims are processed in the same manner whether or not someone is crossing at an official border point or an irregular entry like Roxham Road in Quebec. (Those of you white-knuckling your Canadian flags will be relieved to know that going the irregular route involves the claimants being detained, however.)

Everyone agrees that the status quo on asylum seekers in this country is untenable. But the Conservative Party of Canada (and the new Ontario provincial government) would have you believe the Canadian government is about to collapse under the weight of its broken borders. The Tories briefly even put an ad of a Black guy illegally waltzing into Canada across Justin Trudeau’s infamous “Canada loves refugees” tweet before deleting it out of a vestigial sense of shame. Something like it will soon be back; this is only the start of our white nationalist edging.

With Trudeau’s monopoly on partisan abuse of the word “feminism” revoked indefinitely, the vacuum has been quickly filled. Lisa Raitt, Michelle Rempel, and Lisa MacLeod have each staked out the ingenious position of “here is some inflammatory bullshit about ‘illegal immigration’, if you @ me you hate women.” This asinine counter-attack was probably inevitable the minute Trudeau started shouting “gender!” like it was a magic word. If not, his recent impressive appetite for male feminist crow surely sealed the deal.


This gongshow does give us a foretaste of the next federal election. That federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s response to Ontario’s provocations over asylum seekers was to characterize immigration fearmongering as “not Canadian” suggests the Trudeau Liberals a) really need to read a Canadian history book and b) still haven’t learned how to read a room. Are the culture war hawks in the PMO sure this is a fight they can win?

Things are on track to get worse before they get better. The CPC have learned that going hog wild on deliberately outrageous falsehoods in order to rile up the worst impulses in the country is a winning political strategy. Few media will outright call time on this and others will continue to grant the bloodless “both sides” pablum that allows this cancer to spread across the body politic. It’s what the Republicans pulled off in 2016 and Doug Ford established the proof of concept in Ontario a month ago. Contrary to all those beloved myths about Canada being a progressive superpower immune to the politics of resentment, all this stuff is going to work here too. Our ailing institutions don’t stand a chance.

Meanwhile, the feds are acutely aware that the next campaign will be not just against the Opposition parties but also the provincial government of Ontario. By shuffling Bill Blair into the border security file, Trudeau is demonstrating his willingness to beat Doug Ford at his own game.


Some observers were thrilled by the partisan gamesmanship of appointing an old Ford family foe to a post requiring him to directly troll Queen’s Park. Fewer seem fazed by the fact that Blair was instrumental in both Toronto’s G20 civil liberties fiasco in 2010 and the expansion of racialized carding in the GTA. Yet fewer have considered perhaps the subtlest and most insidious development of all, as expressed to the National Post by political scientist David Moscrop: “It makes the central lens of asylum seekers a security lens and not a humanitarian lens. You don’t think compassion. You think security.”

By effectively conceding rhetorical and policy ground to the “fearmongering” Tories, the Liberals run a few risks: a) legitimizing all future CPC attacks on migrants as a security threat; b) creating border policies that needlessly hammer vulnerable asylum seekers; c) losing this battle anyway because they have chosen to fight it entirely on Conservative home turf. One delightfully obnoxious op-ed in the Toronto Star recently suggested an extortionary political formula—‘the government needs to get harder on immigration, or else people will become more regressive and elect a government that gets harder on immigration’ - that has the whole thing backwards. The more people see their government and media personalities address asylum seekers as criminals, the more they will come to think of these people as criminals. The more you are fed, the bigger your appetite gets.


You can thank the Liberals for bringing us down this road. It is arguably one of the structural shortcomings of our new Trudeauvian philosophy. The federal government and its fellow-travelers in media have been behaving as if all our cultural struggles are actually over and settled for all time (“because it’s 2015”) and tarred everyone who interrogated its empty platitudes with the same bad faith brush. As it turns out, people don’t submit to vacuous moralizing just because their boss keeps telling them “you are are better than this.” Trying to benevolently smother thought out of politics may actually have laid the groundwork for less scrupulous attempts by partisans to end-run democracy by gaming our lizard brains.

Trudeau’s “welcome to Canada” tweet did not ease the process of claiming asylum in this country, nor did it trigger the new movement of refugees across our borders. It was little more than a cynical stunt in its own right, one of the high-water marks of Canada’s new “sunny ways.” It is now another one of the traps that Trudeau seems to have inadvertently laid for himself and, from the looks of things, those fleeing to Canada for a better life.

One hesitates to draw the conclusion that three years of high-handed but half-assed efforts to drag the public along with whatever TEDx bullshit the Liberals are floating may have generated the feelings of resentment necessary for far right politics to flourish. Or perhaps it stems more out of the contrast between actually existing Liberalism and Trudeau’s advance publicity.

Or, maybe, it was premature to assume total progressive domination in the great Canadian culture war. Maybe the prime minister’s victory parade is an ambush.

Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.

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