Skip to main content

A poll released this week by the Environics Institute for Survey Research found that nearly half of Canadians said immigration makes the country a better place. A third said it makes no difference. Fewer than one in six said immigration makes Canada worse off.

And when asked what is the most important problem facing Canada, the most popular answer was the economy, followed by the environment. Only 3 per cent of respondents said the No. 1 issue was “immigration/refugees.”

In other words, the vast majority of Canadians are not singularly and negatively obsessed with immigration, to the exclusion of all other issues. Excellent news.

However, most of us are able to worry, to varying degrees, about multiple things simultaneously. Fewer than one out of 20 Canadians named immigration as the most important issue facing Canada – but that very small number is no different than the tiny fraction of respondents who said the most important issue is “education” or “taxes.”

A government that concluded it need not worry about education or taxes, since Canadians aren’t, would be in for a rude surprise.

How often do you think about your home’s plumbing? The answer for most of us, usually, is “never.” You give the hidden pipes not a second thought – except when they’re not working. Immigration in Canada is a bit like that. The system hums along, unseen and unnoticed, uneventfully admitting a steady stream of new Canadians. When all’s going well, it’s not in the least bit newsworthy. But when people have cause to believe the immigration plumbing has sprung a leak, it’s a different story.

Earlier this month, the Trudeau government began taking steps to patch a small but very noticeable leak. Since early 2017, about 42,000 people have crossed into Canada from the United States at unofficial crossings, most at a dead-end street called Roxham Road on the New York-Quebec border, in order to make a refugee claim.

The vast majority of Canada’s current immigrants, whether economic immigrants, family reunifications or even refugees, have never been anywhere near Roxham Road. Instead, they applied to come to this country from overseas, were screened overseas, waited in line overseas and only arrived to begin their new life in Canada after going through the process and – how Canadian – spending time in a polite and orderly queue.

The asylum seekers at Roxham Road are not illegal immigrants. They’re trying to gain admission to Canada by entirely legal means. They are not trying to evade the Canada Border Services Agency, but are instead eager to meet CBSA agents so they can make an asylum claim, which puts them inside the legal process to determine whether someone is a genuine refugee.

The problem is that the system can’t handle the numbers, and wasn’t designed to. It was built on the expectation that most of those offered refugee status in Canada will be chosen abroad – they won’t just show up. That’s why Canada makes it very difficult for likely asylum seekers to get a tourist visa, thereby lowering the number of refugee claims made on Canadian soil.

Canada also has a Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States, designed to prevent crossing the border to make an asylum claim. However, it has a loophole: It only applies to official border crossings. At a place like Roxham Road, it doesn’t apply.

The Trudeau government, after much delay, is finally taking major steps to address this. That includes trying to get Washington to agree to close the border deal loophole, and introducing rules to prevent someone from making an asylum claim in Canada if they have already made one in several other countries, notably the United States. It also means sinking more money into hiring more officials to adjudicate refugee claims.

That last step may be the most important. Canada’s refugee-determination system must aim to be fair, fast and final. It’s failing on all three. That’s unfair to genuine refugee claimants – who may have to wait for years for their case to be decided – while acting as an encouragement to others, since a pending refugee claim brings with it a long period of legal status in Canada, including the right to work and health care.

Canada’s immigration system mostly works. Ottawa has every interest in maintaining that state of affairs.

Editor’s note: (May 1, 2019) An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that fewer than 19 out of 20 named immigration as the most important issue facing Canada. In fact, it is fewer than one out of 20. This version has been corrected.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe