Election 2019: Immigration likely to be pivotal issue

Parties differ on border migrants, refugees, immigrants and recruiting skilled workers

antje ellermann
University of British Columbia political science associate professor Antje Ellermann’s main research area is migration | Chung Chow

Social media users pilloried People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier after third-party advertiser True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. bought billboards, emblazoned with Bernier’s face and party affiliation, saying “Say NO to Mass Immigration.”

When they successfully lobbied Vancouver-based Pattison Outdoor Advertising to remove the billboards, Bernier berated the critics as belonging to a “totalitarian leftist mob,” yet he basked in the publicity that the billboard generated.

While recent opinion polls put Bernier’s party in the 4% range, and he is excluded from upcoming debates because of that scarce support, the billboard furor and the passion it sparked is a sign that immigration matters are likely to be front and centre during the upcoming federal election campaign.

The result of that election could influence how the Canadian government deals with contentious issues such as:

•how to deal with migrants who cross into Canada outside of official border crossings;

•how many United Nations-processed refugees Canada should resettle;

•how many immigrants Canada should accept;

•how Canada can best attract highly skilled workers needed to fill vacant jobs; and

•whether Canada should revoke citizenship when the holder is a dual citizen and has been a part of a terrorist group.

Migrants at the border

Compared with the situation along the southern U.S. border, only a small number of people try to cross north into Canada outside of official border crossings.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection hailed progress in July, when it counted 82,049 people who crossed the border outside official border crossings. It was the first time in five months that the count was below 100,000 people.

In contrast, during the first six months of 2019, only 6,858 people crossed the Canadian border outside official border crossings to make refugee claims, according to the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

The point for many migrants who enter Canada outside of official border crossings is that this entry enables them to apply for asylum. The Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) stipulates that migrants who apply at official border crossings in Canada can be returned to the U.S. because the U.S. is considered a safe country for them to apply for asylum. Crossing a border at an unofficial border crossing and not applying for asylum is illegal.

“The Conservatives and the Liberals are not that far apart on the issue of migrants at the border,” said University of British Columbia political science associate professor Antje Ellermann, whose research focus is migration.

The main difference, she said, is that the Conservatives might prioritize the issue more than the Liberals and use different words in their rhetoric.

Conservative Party of Canada Leader Andrew Scheer has said that his party will “put an end to illegal border crossings at un-official points of entry like Roxham Road [in Quebec],” but he has not explained how.

Scheer could try to renegotiate the STCA, but there is no reason to think that the Donald Trump administration would agree to any concession that would allow Canada to return migrants who cross into Canada at unofficial border crossings to his country, Ellermann said.

Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray, who spoke to Business in Vancouver on behalf of the Liberal Party of Canada, said the proper way to refer to the migrants who enter Canada at unofficial border crossings is as “irregular” crossers, not “illegal” ones.

That’s because United Nations treaties say migrants have a right to cross borders at irregular places if their intent is to seek asylum, said Murray, who is in cabinet as the president of the Treasury Board.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) is the only party to advocate suspending the STCA.

NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan explained to BIV that each signatory of the STCA is able to unilaterally suspend the agreement – something that would enable migrants to claim asylum at official border crossings.

Suspending the agreement would make entry safer for asylum seekers while simultaneously reducing pressure on border communities now forced to deal with irregular crossers, she said.

UN-resettled refugees

A separate issue is resettling refugees from international refugee camps who have been processed by the UN.

Last year, Canada resettled 28,100 of the 92,400 refugees that the UN processed. That’s more than any other country in the world – an honour that Canada assumed after the U.S. drastically reduced the number of UN-settled refugees that it agreed to resettle, Ellermann said.

News headlines in the past week have hinted that the Trump administration may stop taking UN-resettled refugees entirely.

Murray would not say whether Canada should accept more refugees – “I’m not going to predict what’s in our platform” – and no one from the Conservative Party returned BIV’s request for an interview to clarify the party position.

Two main classes of refugee are privately sponsored ones and government-sponsored ones.

Kwan said members from all parties on Parliament’s immigration committee have agreed that the government should lift its quota on privately sponsored refugees.

She also supports accepting more government-sponsored refugees and creating a separate pathway for those who are “internally displaced,” such as members of the LGBTQ+ community, so they can more easily apply for refugee status in Canada.

“This existed,” she said. “The [Stephen] Harper administration, toward the end, got rid of it and the Liberals never brought it back.”

The Green Party of Canada, which may be able to play kingmaker if there is a minority government, has called for a discussion to define “environmental refugee,” and accept what it calls “an appropriate share” of these people.

Skilled immigrants

The Liberals aim for a limit of 350,000 immigrants annually by 2021, up from about 300,000 in 2018. The NDP is calling for Canada to accept more than 370,000 immigrants annually, which is about 1% of the country’s population. 

The Conservatives have not specified a limit for how many immigrants Canada should accept, but Scheer has said he wants to “set immigration levels consistent with what is in Canada’s best interests.”

Bernier has said that his definition of "mass immigration" is a number higher than 250,000 immigrants. He has separately said that the ideal number of immigrants is between 100,000 and 150,000 people annually.

How to attract skilled immigrants is a conundrum that has tested successive governments.

Ellermann said that the Liberals tweaked the Express Entry point-based system for accepting immigrants that the Harper government installed.

The Tories’ point system gave extra credit to those who had job offers, while the Liberals have given more points for academic credentials and what Ellermann called “human capital.”

Kwan wants to study the Express Entry system in order to improve it, and to put more resources into it because, she said, the backlog of applicants is too large.


Murray recited Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s famous line that “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian,” to emphasize that his government will never revoke a Canadian citizen’s citizenship – even in cases when the person is a dual citizen and has joined a terrorist organization.

The Tories, in contrast, passed a non-binding party policy last year that called for the government to enact legislation to end birthright citizenship.

The issue generated recent headlines because the U.K. revoked citizenship from dual citizen Jack Letts, who is the U.K.-born son of two Canadian citizens but who never lived in Canada. Letts is accused of being a member of the terrorist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and is eligible to enter Canada.•