O, Canada: This land is my land

Immigration Minister Judy Sgro has warned all Immigration Canada employees that they must adhere to the new title and lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s 1940 hit ‘This Land is Your Land’, now known as ‘This Land is My Land’:

This land is my land, this land is my land
From BC’s shoreline to the Newfie Island,
From Nunavut’s he-ad, to Ontario’s bot-tom,
[God blessed Canuck-land for me, not you.]

Further to this cosmetic change (for this ‘Land is my Land’ has always been Canada’s hidden anthem), Sgro wants Canadian churches to stop providing sanctuary to individuals under the threat of deportation. At the upcoming Show-Down with the Churches, Sgro plans on laying down the law and making certain that Churches “stop saving people, already.” After all, that’s not what Canada’s about. Whities immigrated and Whities occupied and now Whities are closing the door, ‘cus they can. Nya-nya.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Sgro made it clear that the protection of Canadians is her number one concern. Based on the perceived threat posed by Them dangerous refugees, Sgro’s intentions are to provide ‘security’ for Us Canadian citizens. She will do this by force and perhaps by violence (as was seen most recently when ten police officers stormed Eglise Unie St. Pierre in Quebec City and “took away” Mohamed Cherfi) deporting non-Canadians back to their former lives when they were once upon a time steeped in oppression, humiliation, torture, discrimination and threatened with death. O, Canada!

Remember the World War II Japanese special? The spas also known as Internment Camps? We stuck Them Japanese guys in them camps because Them Japs scared us. Security before compassion! Security before humanitarianism! Security for racism! O, Canada!

What Sgro refers to here is the articulation of one of the most pressing myths about refugees: that they pose a security threat to the host nation to where they are trying to gain citizenship. Since 9/11, this sense of Us and Them has been heightened and the non-Anglo citizens within North America have suffered alongside those darker refugees fleeing the most brutal forms of oppression and poverty (never mind that we’re stealing their natural resources and actually furthering their poverty, for our own greedy purposes).

Sgro’s insinuation is that there are criminals hiding in churches; the big bad wolf has come as a refugee and is waiting for his little Red Canadian Riding Hood. These men and women giving Sgro nightmares are people who have spoken up loud and clear, they have done radio interviews, they have appeared on television, worked with unions and mobilised organisations in their efforts to garner attention and have their cases heard by the Canadian public. If they were in fact criminals, would they be going out of their way to get your attention?

Furthering her band-aid solution, Sgro asked that Canada lock its back door: the Church. Apparently, those Canadian patio lanterns simply don’t possess the strength to light that dark and damp passageway to safety. She would like to open the lines of communication between herself and Churches who provide sanctuary to the refugees facing deportation. A most interesting and welcome turn-of-events for individuals such as Rev. Chris Ferguson who, for months, has not been granted a meeting with the Minister. Currently, there are still no meetings scheduled between our Minister of Immigration and any Church.

Before completing her interview, Sgro contradicted her “nobody is above the law” sentiment by explaining that "If [the Church has] a case that’s of concern to them, it would be far better for them to approach me as the minister, and I’d be more than glad to look at the case.” Contradictory because if she wants to treat the church as all others are treated before the law, then she can not grant the church a special audience. Our Minister can either grant all of us special audience or none of us (because, after all: no one is above the law).

I am not of the persuasion that our Churches be stripped of their ability to pick up the pieces broken by our current Canadian immigration policy fiasco. So as to avoid being accused of favouritism, Sgro has several options: (1) Do nothing; (2) Grant everyone a personal hands-on review; or, (3) Overhaul the current immigration policy and review process.

Regardless of the choice she makes, she will do one thing for certain, and that is focus the blame on both the refugees and the churches, but most definitely not on her immigration policy. She will ignore the history of legalized racism in Canadian policy, pointing the finger everywhere but back at her own Ministry. Ignoring the fact that refugee claimants represent only 0.1% of visitors and immigrants to Canada, Sgro really wants you to believe that we have a crisis on our hands, a crisis caused by the troublesome church and the naughty refugees, one that has nothing to do with her Ministry.

Currently, cases are being reviewed by one single adjudicator, and there exists no merit-based appeal process. What exists is the opportunity for one to contest a decision in the Federal Court; unfortunately, this particular portion of the process does not review the basis of the decision, but rather looks at whether or not the adjudicator followed the relevant rules. This fails because much of the problem, indeed the most troubling problem arises when the adjudicator follows all the rules but their judgement is tainted with prejudice and political spin.

If you want the back door closed, then ensure that the front door is transparent, honest, just and not politically motivated.

Currently, Canada’s front door is closed, jammed, stoned, bolted and possessing a Harry Potter-like spell making it invincible. True to what Sgro mentions, some refugees are being forced to walk through Canada’s back door, but contrary to what Sgro alludes to, it isn’t because these individuals pose some criminal security threat to Canadians and so must duck the system and find alternate means of entry. The reason these individuals are forced to seek refuge in churches is because our current system has failed them, and the church is brave enough to, as expressed by Rev. Chris Ferguson, “put itself in the awkward place of offering sanctuary to someone who requests it-¦because [the church understands] that Canada is breaking the law, that Canada is not living up to its international obligations.”

One example of those forced to seek protection of the church are some Palestinian refugees. Hailing from both Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, these individuals face official discrimination within Lebanese law, and humiliation, mistreatment and danger at the hands of Israel’s illegal occupation.

The situation of the Palestinians is unique due to the following three critical reasons: First, the Palestinians are a Stateless People, and so to deport them would not fall to the normal circumstance of returning Citizens to their home State, but rather to return Stateless Peoples to host Nations and/or to Occupied Territory. In reality, neither the host States nor the occupying power afford these Palestinians any form of humanitarian driven security or protection, least of all the civil rights and liberties they seek out in Canada.

Second, they are the only refugees in the world to exist solely under the mandate of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and therefore outside the realm of the UNHCR’s protection in their host countries. That UNRWA works solely for the Palestinians has not, as some would argue, proven to be a bonus for the Palestinians -” affording them a more targeted, relevant and specialised environment. What this targeting and slotting of one People has done is work to soothe guilt the world over, ultimately denying the attention so desperately lacking for the Palestinian refugees. Regardless of the intentions in the creation of UNRWA, Palestinian aspirations, needs and rights have been sidelined and marginalized, without hope for attainment of protection.

Third, there exists a clear Canadian acknowledgement- as is outlined by the travel advisory issued by our government – that there exists real danger in the areas to which the Palestinian refugees would be deported. To have one arm of our government acknowledge and warn against the ever-present dangers in these areas, and have another arm of our government forcefully deport refugees back to these same areas is troublesome, to say the least.

If lucky, a Palestinian refugee claimant will ‘land’ a politically astute and sensitive member of the Immigration and Refugee Board. Usually, these particular IRB members take into consideration the above three crucial dynamics, and accept, as fact, reports produced by internationally recognised human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

All too often though, the IRB member residing over a case displays a clear lack of understanding, and a lack of sensitivity with respect to the Palestinian plight. These particular members base their decisions not on the case before them, but rather on their own political agenda and in an effort to further their own political gains.

The example here is that of the Palestinians, but the dozens of individuals currently being helped by churches across this country are Bosnian, Indian, and Egyptian to name a few. That some IRB members recognise the validity of certain claims, whereas others deny them completely results in a disparity of decisions and inconsistency in decision-making, where one claim will be accepted while an identical claim will be turned down, in some cases leading to the separation of brothers and sisters. Unfortunately, it has become somewhat of a joke that by seeing the IRB member’s name, one will know whether to expect a deportation order or whether they can start looking forward to a free life in Canada. As it stands, the ‘wildcard’ is the IRB member, and that is the greatest indication that something within our system is terribly askew. In law, there should be no ‘wildcards’ and where they exist, we have to work to ensure that they are diminished to the greatest degree possible.

All too often, the deportation of any refugee means revoking their rights to homes, livelihoods, security, consistency, promise, hope and future, in return for complete and total destitution. If deported, many individual refugees will face persecution and a real threat to their lives; Canada is not returning case numbers to refugee camps, but men and women and children who may not survive the conditions to which they are returned.

Canadian mythology

I believed the following, until someone set me straight: As Canadians, peacekeepers, truly honest brokers, we have always prided ourselves on our ‘open door’ policy, and on our fierce loyalty and determination in helping those who can not help themselves.’

The problem with that particularly Canadian perception is it simply isn’t true, and this is the same discourse that the likes of Sgro use to justify and further what can only be described as a history of unjust policies toward the most vulnerable individuals such as refugees. Historically, Canada has never had an ‘open door’ policy, but rather a tightly closed door to those in need. Worse still, when that door was open, we made damn sure that those who came in were treated differently than those who were already here (unless you were of a different skin colour, at which point you all got screwed).

One of the most glaring examples of this is our treatment of the Black communities in Canada; legally, Canada enforced segregation in schools and communities, and limited the property rights of the Black community. As late as 1939, our ‘open door humanitarian’ policy was reflected in our highest court’s decision that racial discrimination was legally enforceable.

Do you still believe in Canada’s humanitarian history?

And what of the history of Chinese Canadians, the labour force we subjected to legislation that restricted their civil and political rights?

Do you still believe in Canada’s humanitarian history?

And the South Asian individuals who immigrated to Canada and that were not allowed to vote until 1948, were not allowed to enter professional occupations, had restricted property rights and were discriminated against when it came to housing.

Do you still believe in Canada’s humanitarian history?

And the Japanese Canadians on whom we imposed actual fixed quotas on their immigration. We humiliated them by segregating them in schools and in public areas. The Internment camps from which we did not release our ‘Canadian’ citizens until two years after the war had ended, and to whom we offered no real compensation until 1988.

At that time, Canada claimed ‘security’ and this is the same line of argument being used by Sgro on this day in the year 2004.

Do you still believe in Canada’s humanitarian history?

As ‘Canadians’, we have to face our own reality, our own misconceptions and our own mythology, working with those who seek our help, if we are to ever reach our self-professed ‘open door’ policy and realise the dream that we think is Canada. We have to realise that this country was built on the backs and deaths of the aboriginal communities and cheap immigrant labour, and we must understand that our claim to this land is no more relevant or superior to those who are in desperate need of safety this day. Anything short of this is simply unacceptable and further defaces the character of the land to which my own parents, and most likely yours, immigrated.