As I write, I am supposed to be hard at work on the last chapters of my doctoral thesis… The final throes are not an attractive sight to behold. And the situation is made worse by the recent rhetoric on refugees, illegal aliens and war criminals in Canada. As someone studying the history of 20th refugee policy, much of the recent debate has left me frustrated with the loose and casual way in which people, often politicians, refer to war criminals, refugees and illegal immigrants as if they were one and the same. Instead of concentrating on my final chapters, I keep having recurring conversations with Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in my head. Again, not a pretty sight. What I keep saying to them/myself is that the issues are far more complex than they make them out to be and that with their casual use of seriously loaded terms like war criminals and illegal immigrants in the same sentence, they are creating a climate of injustice with the potential for serious harm both here in Canada and abroad.
The whole situation also has me wondering if history matters anymore. How can historians make their work relevant to policymakers? I submitted an op-ed to a national newspaper recently on the subject of painting all migrants with the same brush but it was refused. My submissions are often refused, but it was a reminder that if it weren’t for sites like Active History, those of us engaged with bringing the subject of history to contemporary policy debates would have few options for getting our message out. So thank you Active History. And with your indulgence, I am going to share with you some of my thoughts about the current immigration debate and why I think there are important historical precedents that all parties in the debate should be paying attention to.
This summer, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, traveled across the country seeking input into the categories and levels of immigrants Canada should accept on an annual basis. At the same time, the Conservative government announced its plans to crackdown on alleged war criminals in the country and fraudulent citizenship-holders, and continues to make regular reference to the danger of illegal immigrants arriving by sea and alleged war criminals in Canada. All this suggests that the federal government thinks that the country is facing a major immigration crisis. Not only are we not sure who the “right” immigrants are for the future, and if we can get them, but the country also appears to be flooded with people arriving through deceptive means and staying illegally. Recruitment and selection, enforcement and deportation, are separate issues, but federal politicians are blurring the lines between them and presenting the Canadian public with a distorted picture of what immigration policies and enforcement consist of in Canada. Recent federal approaches raise serious questions about the relationship between setting the tone on immigration issues and actually developing immigration policies.
This is not the first time that a Canadian government has struggled with how to facilitate the entry of certain kinds of immigrants while maintaining the legitimacy of its immigration program. In the early 1960s, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ellen Fairclough, attempted to introduce legislation to strengthen the government’s authority to restrict entry in order to ensure that the country was getting the desired number and type of immigrants. The proposed reforms stalled, however, when other federal ministers expressed concern that such legislation might be used to exclude particular groups such as Chinese and South Asian immigrants, who had long been discriminated against. At a time when Prime Minister Diefenbaker was successfully introducing a Bill of Rights in Canada and apartheid was being condemned in South Africa, immigration legislation that smacked of racism was intolerable to many in Cabinet. In fact, the eventual outcome of the immigration reform process was dramatically different from the intended objective. The 1962 immigration regulations ended race-based quotas and introduced a universal points system that expanded the size and scope of Canada’s immigration program, literally changing the face of Canada.
Significantly, at the same time that the government was carefully liberalizing the immigration program, it was also signaling its intentions to maintain control over the system and eradicate fraud and abuse. In 1959, the RCMP exposed an organized criminal ring in Hong Kong that profited from the sale of identity documents to hopeful migrants. A few months later, the RCMP raided the homes and businesses of Chinese in Canada in search of further proof. In her book, The Triumph of Citizenship: The Japanese and Chinese in Canada, historian Patricia Roy shows how Chinese Canadians felt unjustly discriminated against. Newspapers carried bold headlines such as “Cross-Country Crackdown: RCMP Raids Closing Net on Chinese Slave Racket.” Many Chinese were made to feel generally culpable. The Conservative MP from Vancouver, Douglas Jung, charged that because of the way the raids were conducted, the entire Chinese community had been “cast under a cloak of suspicion.” Yet as the investigation proceeded, the Canadian government came to see the migrants as victims, given the historic discrimination practiced against them. Instead of punishing those who had come to the country by fraudulent means, therefore, the government introduced a Status Adjustment Program for people to confess and then apply to be naturalized, receiving all the rights of other naturalized Canadians. Only those found to have orchestrated the fraud were prosecuted. 12,000 Chinese immigrants participated in this program, ending decades of living in legal limbo.
In many ways, the politics we are seeing today are reminiscent of the Status Adjustment Program and earlier legislative reforms. Just as in the early 1960s, the most important audience for the current crackdown is not potential immigrants, but rather, residents and citizens of Canada who are meant to be reassured by the government’s show of force against alleged fraud and abuse as it prepares to make major changes with regard to immigration intakes. In the 1960s, as the government opened its door to larger numbers of migrants from all corners of the world, it felt compelled to send clear signals about the security of the country and the government’s willingness to prosecute those engaged in illegal activities. The same is true of today’s situation. Yet unlike in the 1960s, when the government moved from prosecuting those who had come to Canada illegally to embracing them as victims of profiteering criminals, the current government is making indiscriminate outsiders of allegedly fraudulent citizenship holders, refugee claimants and alleged war criminals alike. It is important that the integrity of the system be maintained but it is equally important that people have a chance to have their cases heard. The current government has adopted some of its forbearers’ practices but it stands to learn even more about the repercussions of blindly demonizing certain immigrant groups in the hopes of gaining larger program controls.