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We Spoke to Canada’s Immigration Minister About Refugees, Niqabs, and Terrorists

Chris Alexander tells VICE that Canada's immigration system is better than ever. Surprise!

Video via DAILY VICE

Minister of Immigration is easily one of the least rewarding jobs for a Canadian politician.

On the list of problem files for the minister, there is a seemingly never-ending backlog of outstanding immigration and refugee claims that means would-be Canadians are waiting years upon years for their chance at a Canuck passport. Then there's the never-ending demand for space for refugees from war-torn countries. And now, Canada is seeing some of it youths trying to flee to Syria to join the so-called Islamic State.

So VICE sat down with the current occupant of the job, Chris Alexander, to check in to see how his experience in the office has been going.

We met with the minister at Ottawa's best hangover-cuisine greasy spoon, Mello's Diner, to down some strong coffee, talk shop, and run through a few of the challenges facing the person manning the door to Canada.

Alexander, shuffled into the gig during the summer of 2013, can claim some partial victories on those fronts.

At the end of last year, Ottawa announced that it was on track to eliminate the backlog for immigration claims, meaning most soon-to-be Canadians will wait months, not years. Overhauls of the refugee system have meant more at-risk groups, especially those in the LGBTQ community, have a better shot at becoming citizens. And police have gotten much better at nabbing wanna-be terrorists before they can board a plane to Syria.

But not everything is rosy.

The Harper government has faced harsh criticism for toughening up Canada's refugee system. One of the most controversial examples was a decision to limit access to refugee protection for those coming from supposedly "safe countries" (like Mexico.)

Alexander said the government needed to crack down on fraudulent refugee claims, blaming the previous Liberal governments for letting in thousands of asylum seekers from well-off democracies who don't really need protection, in order to let in those who really need help. He said those claims were previously "overwhelming our system."

As of 2013, Canada was taking in about 25 percent fewer refugees than it was a decade ago.

Seemingly lending credence to the idea that Canada's immigration and refugee system has lost some checks and balances, VICE reported in April that Canada was deporting people back to Libya right into 2015, even after ISIS was filmed holding mass executions there, and while rebels were launching major offensives throughout the country. Canada has also recently resumed deporting residents back to Haiti and Zimbabwe.

Alexander says the process through which the government adds and removes countries from a secretive list of places where it shouldn't be shipping people off to is "arms length" from him.

"I think we have a very fair system. You're right, it's a fast-moving world out there, some countries that look stable can deteriorate quickly and that's when our evaluation has to change quickly," he said.

When it comes to stopping Canadians from running off to join ISIS, the government has faced criticism from both sides—both those who are saying Ottawa isn't doing enough, and those who say it's going too far.

Alexander says that between initiatives to allow more information-sharing between intelligence agencies and new powers that lets the minister to strip dual citizens of their Canadian citizenship, the Harper government is trying to prevent Canada from becoming known as a net exporter of terrorists. Critics say both efforts are unconstitutional. Alexander rejects that.

"We're only going to be able to revoke citizenship when it's a case of dual national. We're not gonna make people stateless," he said. "Very few Canadians are convicted for terrorism, espionage, treason. These measures are never going to apply to, we hope, anything other than a very small number."

But one of the minister's biggest controversies came while defending a 2011 policy that forbids face-coverings during citizenship ceremonies—a.k.a. the niqab ban— that was being challenged by a Pakistani woman hoping to get her Canadian citizenship. She won, but the government felt so strongly about their policy that they applied to put the federal court's decision on hold while they appeal. The government will be introducing legislation in the coming days enshrining that policy into law, as a way to bypass the courts.

During the debate on the matter, Alexander mistakenly referred to the face-covering garment as a " hijab," and proceeded to insist that wearing the garb is "not the way we do things here." The whole snafu, and the Canadian government's apparent need to tell women what-and-what-not to wear, was billed as being a mix of Islamophobic and sexist. Alexander disagrees.

He says the whole thing is about strengthening Canadian citizenship.

"People take pride in that. They don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists," he said. "They don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules."

We asked the minister whether this is really a matter of public policy, or just dog-whistle politics.

VICE: You're facing controversy over the government's decision a couple years ago to force women who wear the niqab to either remove it when taking the oath of citizenship, or simply refuse them citizenship all together. That's been criticized as, as Islamophobic and discriminatory. How can you defend a policy that, that basically tells women what and what not to wear at a citizenship ceremony?
Chris Alexander: Well, on the contrary, we have never done anything to tell people what to wear, or tell people how to live. I mean, I'm the immigration minister. We are proud of our diversity. Our diversity works; it is our strength. We want people to embrace Canadian values, live under the law. It was uncontroversial up until a court decision last year, that people should be seen and heard taking the oath of citizenship. Why? Because that oath isn't just a formality, it isn't just a frill. It is a formal requirement under the law of becoming a Canadian citizen. If you don't take the oath, you don't become a citizen. And some people who don't take it, or have problems with parts of it, haven't become citizens.

So, the woman who's challenging this policy, she wears the niqab. She says that she was happy to take the oath holding a microphone so everyone could hear her. Said she was happy to do it with her veil off, so long as it was in a private ceremony with just women present. She said she was happy to accommodate the government, but the rules are now such that she can't do that. Why won't the government move an inch for the sake of giving this woman citizenship?
Because, when you become a citizen, you don't get to dictate the rules. The rules apply equally to everyone. They involve knowledge of Canada and a test, they involve knowledge of our official languages—French or English or both. They involve a residency requirement and they involve taking the oath, and you have to be seen and heard taking the oath. You don't get to come to Canada and decide the rules don't apply to you.

Well, she was happy to do all those things, and the rules used to be that people could take it in private if they decided to.
Until this court decision last year—which we think was very mistaken and that's why we're appealing it—there was no controversy about this, and and the overwhelming majority of people were happy to be seen and heard taking the oath. The overwhelming majority of Canadians want that rule to continue to apply. We've done a lot in the past year to strengthen the value of Canadian citizenship. People take pride in that. They don't want their co-citizens to be terrorists. They don't want people to become citizens who haven't respected the rules.

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

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