Image copyright Alberto Letta
Canada, and the rest of the developed world, have developed little of note in the past two decades in how we care for the most vulnerable. Today this is true for foreigners arriving in our country as well as for families who have broken our laws in the past and returned to live in Canada.
Vietnamese immigrants are treated almost like second-class citizens. They arrive on boats, suffer a life-threatening voyage, and get muddled by language. Canada still considers these arrivals illegal. Because of Canada’s fair-skinned reputation – Canada has been a favourite destination for many individuals from Asia, Africa, and South America for decades – many immigrants do not recognise their rights.
There are people who come from countries where organised crime and mob violence has ripped families apart. Some families have had been torn apart after the police seized everything the migrants had taken with them – their valuables, livestock, even children – without asking them for their permission. The arrests, evictions, and deportations have sparked protests in all Canadian provinces.
For Canadian citizens, difficult situations arise from overcrowded prisons. The unthinking authority of the Prison Management Act does not allow corrections officers to consider human rights and protection of prisoners, as exist in many other countries. People housed in prisons as young as 12 years old have suffered depraved living conditions and an expanse of discrimination. Last year, a 20-year-old was put on suicide watch for telling a guard that his skin was “not like everybody else’s”.
Every day in Canada, it is economically competitive to prosecute non-lawful immigrants to their country of origin – and in many cases, to withhold their remittances for family in the country of their birth. If an immigrant or their family denies that they are a foreigner they can face only one crime – possessing false identity documents.
For decades, Canada has advocated for immigrants to be educated in the languages of their countries. This amounted to schooling without language training. Canada has failed to create health care systems equipped to meet the special needs of immigrants with special needs. Similarly, Canada is a non-transparent society that keeps children who crossed the border irregularly until after they have fallen from legal residents to refugees. Canada complies with the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – but does not give its interpreters the language skills to deal with refugee cases.
As a Canadian, I am devastated that I know and dislike such individuals. As a global citizen, I am outraged. I hold leaders and organizations like the UNHCR, the UNDP, the UN Children’s Fund, and the Human Rights and Reconciliation Commission in Canada legally responsible for their policies and conduct. These folks are here to serve us. We cannot stand for more injustices. We must protect those who have put their lives on the line for us. What happens to the Vietnamese and the African and South American families who have committed an offence against Canada will affect Canada’s future economic prosperity.
Many of the crimes committed by immigrants and their families in the 19th century helped pave the way for the Canada we live in today. In the 19th century, Canada’s immigration law included provisions for criminalizing poor foreigners. Similarly, with the passing of the Merchant Settlement Act in 1873, the government of Canada penalised newcomers with imprisonment for taking Canadian goods from the country. What happened to those who got caught will change what is now Canada’s immigration policy.
Canada needs to change its practices. We are dealing with adults and children who have suffered a painful journey. It is time for us to be ethical, humane, and helpful, to families who have come here fleeing persecution and violence, and to those who are part of our country’s past. We can imagine ourselves in the shoes of the desperate people who still cross our borders illegally and without papers every day.
We can imagine being a refugee in Canada. No longer do we have an impenetrable wall, high fences, and barbed wire to keep them out. It is time for Canada to change its treatment of all immigrants to protect our common humanity.
Alberto Letta is a senior fellow at the International Council on Security and Development.
Originally published in The Nation , June 2016.