John Manley is the former deputy prime minister and a current senior adviser with Bennett Jones LLP.
Twenty-one years after I negotiated the Safe Third Country Agreement in 2002 as part of the post-9/11 Smart Border Declaration, I applaud the changes made to that agreement this past week by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and President Joe Biden.
The 2002 agreement enabled Canada to return to the United States individuals claiming refugee status who entered Canada from that country at designated, regular border crossings.
The new agreement simply extends that policy to individuals attempting to enter Canada through so-called “informal” border crossings like Roxham Road.
Canada sought the agreement in 2002 for reasons that seem all too familiar today. Refugee claimants found their way in huge numbers to legal border crossing areas such as Windsor, Ont., Fort Erie, Ont., and Niagara Falls, Ont.
In those days, the available support systems were overwhelmed by the large number of claimants. The refugee determination process became backlogged, often taking two years or more to reach a decision on the validity of a claim of refugee status. The number of refugee claimants were inflated by efforts of profiteers in the U.S. who collected and delivered these people to the Canadian border, often by bus from Buffalo or other central points.
In more recent years, the situation at Roxham Road developed because of a loophole in the agreement: It became a magnet simply because it, and other areas at which illegal crossings could be attempted, were not specifically included in the original agreement.
Canada’s position was, and remains, that refugee claimants, having somehow made their way to the U.S., should make their claim there. Those who choose to attempt to enter at “informal” crossings are in effect displacing or queue-jumping other claimants.
For context, it is important to remember that, in the aftermath of 9/11, many Americans falsely tried to portray Canada as a safe haven for terrorists intent on attacking the U.S. At the time, both then-senator Hillary Clinton and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who agreed on very little else, were reported to have falsely claimed that the 9/11 terrorists had entered the U.S. from Canada. Our openness as a society was being turned against us, putting at risk our commercial interests. As Ms. Clinton once said to me: “Security trumps trade.”
Since then, the world’s refugee problem has only worsened: The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that, in 2022, there were 103 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. The enormous scale of this human tragedy is difficult to comprehend: If all these people were situated in one country, it would be the 14th most populous in the world. Most of those 103 million are in much greater danger of harm than those who have already found their way into the U.S., some of whom seek to enter Canada.
There is no question that Canada should continue to help house this burden of displaced humanity. But Canada also has a duty to its own citizens to enforce its laws and manage its territorial borders as part of its system of rule of law, both national and international, for the safety and well-being of its citizens.
Canada, in recent years, has taken in more refugees in absolute numbers than some Western countries our size or bigger. Refugees all around the world wait, often for years, in camps from which there is no escape. Canada has historically been a lifeline for many of these individuals. We can more than meet our global responsibility without taking in persons fleeing the United States.
Canadians have proven themselves to be open to immigration, demonstrating a willingness to pitch in to assist refugees, be they from African countries, Ukraine, Syria, Vietnam, or any other of the many venues of war, famine and persecution.
But Canadian goodwill is not bottomless and could be put at risk if some newcomers are perceived to be queue-jumpers, attempting to gain unfair advantage.
Past prime ministers and, no doubt, our current Prime Minister, feel and understand the burden of Canadian responsibility to the world’s victims of hunger, conflict and persecution, while also recognizing that Canadians’ generosity and sense of fair play must not be stretched beyond their limits.