Former Toronto police chief Bill Blair has been given the task of managing the migrant crisis at the border as part of his new cabinet appointment – a move that will require him to work directly with Ontario Premier and long-time adversary Doug Ford.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau chose Mr. Blair, an experienced senior public servant, to lead the new ministry of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction as a part of a federal cabinet shuffle Wednesday. Mr. Blair will oversee the surge in asylum seekers at the Canada-U.S. border, gun violence and the cannabis file. Mr. Trudeau said he trusts Mr. Blair to counter the “politics of fear” that he says the Conservatives have been using, especially when it comes to asylum seekers.
“I am reminded of the very first conversation I had with Bill Blair years ago when I was asking him to think about running for the Liberal Party,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.
“One of the things he said stuck with me and certainly echoes in my mind today as we give him these new responsibilities − he said the No. 1 enemy of public security is fear.”
Mr. Blair’s new role puts him on a potential collision course with Mr. Ford, with whom he has a fraught history. Mr. Blair infuriated Mr. Ford in 2013 when the then-Toronto police chief said he was disappointed by a video of Mr. Ford’s brother and then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. Doug Ford, a city councillor at the time, unleashed on Mr. Blair and called on him to step down as police chief.
Nearly five years later, now in new political jobs, the pair will face off once again. As a part of his irregular migration portfolio, Mr. Blair will have to navigate a tense relationship between the Trudeau and Ford governments over the resettlement of asylum seekers who cross the border illegally. Earlier this month, Mr. Ford withdrew the province’s support for the resettlement, saying that the federal government created the problem and should pick up the tab to fix it.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, Mr. Blair said he looks forward to working with all three levels of government, which “have a responsibility for the safety of their communities and to uphold the rule of law.”
In a statement, Mr. Ford’s office maintained the the federal Liberals are to blame for the influx in border-crossers.
“Premier Ford is hopeful that Minister Blair will be interested in standing up for respect of the law, and encourages his Liberal colleagues to take responsibility for the mess they’ve created,” spokeswoman Laryssa Waler-Hetmanczuk said.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Mr. Blair will head up the government’s work on the migrant issue, while working closely with Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale, who is responsible for the border agency, and Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, who will still oversee the refugee determination process.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the appointment of a new cabinet minister to the migrant file is yet another sign that the Liberal government is “normalizing” the situation at the border. More than 31,000 asylum seekers have entered Canada between authorized points of entry since January, 2017. She invited Mr. Blair to testify to the House of Commons immigration committee this summer when it holds a series of emergency meetings on asylum seekers.
Refugee advocates expressed concern about the government’s decision to put the migrant issue under the ministerial umbrella of border security and organized-crime reduction.
“Now they are going to have an enforcement approach, to be stronger at the border," said Francisco Rico-Martinez, co-director of the FCJ Refugee Centre in Toronto.
“Don’t forget that people in the middle are human beings, refugee claimants … . Don’t blame them.”