Conservative leadership candidates one-up each other on immigration, as membership deadline looms

It comes as the deadline looms for party memberships in advance of a May vote on who will lead the party.

by Tamara Khandaker
Mar 28 2017, 3:25pm

As the Tuesday night deadline looms to purchase Conservative party membership, leadership candidates are scrambling to upstage each other on immigration and border security. One has said he’d consider deploying the military to the border to deal with the influx of asylum seekers to the U.S., while another has said he’d use the Charter’s notwithstanding clause to override their charter protections.

Asylum seekers have been flooding into Canada from the U.S. in greater numbers since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump and his crackdown on undocumented immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries. In light of this, refugee advocates have been calling for the suspension of Canada’s Safe Third Country Act with the US, which requires asylum seekers to make claims in their first country of arrival.

But the agreement applies only to crossings at official points of entry, and not to people who cross the border between points of entry — once someone is on Canadian soil, regardless of how they got here, they’re entitled to have their claim heard.

With the leadership vote just two months away, here’s what those vying to lead the Conservative party of Canada have said on the topic of immigration and refugees.

Kevin O’Leary

O’Leary said earlier this month that refugees who cross into Canada illegally from the U.S. are exploiting a “loophole,” taking the place of legitimate refugees who are trying to get to Canada through legally. He has called for an end to the exception to the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows asylum seekers to have their cases heard if they make it onto Canadian soil, calling it “unfair to the thousands in refugee camps legally trying to escape persecution.” O’Leary has also said he’d use the Constitution’s notwithstanding clause, to override Canada’s obligations to asylum seekers, established by a 1985 Supreme Court decision, known as the Singh ruling.

Refugee advocates and academics were alarmed by the proposal. University of Waterloo constitutional law professor Emmett MacFarlane pointed out that this would effectively strip asylum seekers who can’t be returned to the US of their rights, and they’d be deported to their country of origin. “Think about that for a minute and let me know if you’re a human being or not,” he tweeted.

Maxime Bernier

On Monday, Bernier said he’d allocate more resources to the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency to address illegal crossings at the U.S.-Canada border, and if that fails, that he’d look into other temporary measures, like sending the military to the border. Bernier echoed O’Leary, saying he’d also consider using the notwithstanding clause. “We need to use all the tools that we have to be sure that our border would be respected, and in the meantime, to fix the loophole in that agreement that we have with the U.S.,” Bernier told the CBC.

Bernier’s plan isn’t exactly that cut-and-dry, however. Under the National Defence Act, Ottawa may only dispatch the military in exceptional circumstances with the consent of the province. Unless, of course, Bernier plans on introducing the War Measures Act, which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father used to deploy the military nation-wide following the October Crisis.

Kellie Leitch

Kellie Leitch, whose controversial immigration policies have been the bedrock of her campaign, has said as prime minister, she’d require all immigrants to be questioned about whether or not men and women are equal, whether it’s ever acceptable to use violence against people who disagree with their views, and whether they recognize that they will have to work hard and “can’t expect to have things [they] want given to [them]. Leitch would require immigrants to be tested for “anti-Canadian values” and go through an in-person interview with an immigration official. A recent poll for Radio-Canada showed that almost three out of four Canadians — 74 percent — do agree that believe immigrants should be tested for anti-Canadian values.

The basis for much of her immigration policy is Points of Entry, a book by Canadian sociologist Victor Satzewich. Problem is, he’s called Leitch’s plan a “terrible idea,” says he was never consulted on her plan, and generally rejects her interpretation of the issue.

“Generally, immigrants in Canada do integrate, and Canada actually does a pretty good job of integrating immigrants,” he told BuzzFeed. “It seems to me what she’s proposing is kind of a solution in search of a problem.”

Michael Chong

Chong’s campaign has taken a decidedly different tone on immigration. In the aftermath of a mass shooting in Quebec where a gunman killed six people praying at a mosque and Trump’s first executive order on immigration, he praised Canada on having one “of the most robust screening systems in the world” and strongly condemned Leitch’s proposal for a values test, arguing that it plays to fears and prejudices.

“Demagogues and wannabe demagogues, playing to fears and prejudices, have created the space for hate to grow,” Chong wrote in a statement. “The politicians espousing these policies may do it in a genteel fashion that sounds acceptable, but check out the comments on their social media platforms and you will find cesspools of hate.” He hasn’t outlined his own policy, however.

Lisa Raitt

Same with Lisa Raitt, who has criticized and Kevin O’Leary — even launching a website called — and Kellie Leitch for emulating elements of Donald Trump’s divisive campaign. In January, Raitt said on Leitch, specifically, that she’d embraced the half of Trump that “wins votes by pinning our problems on immigrants,” warning that Leitch was set to destroy a “defining pillar” of the Conservative Party’s success, saying that a decade of work had resulted in it becoming the party of immigrants. She went on to blast O’Leary and Leitch for “embracing a style of negative and irresponsible populism.”

But Raitt has been critical of the current government’s approach to asylum seekers, saying the government “send out tweets to the world saying Canada’s open, get here anyway you can and we’re going to bring you in,” in reference to a tweet sent out by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after Trump issued his first executive order on immigration, Canadians would welcome “those fleeing persecution, terror & war… regardless of your faith.”