The tens of thousands of asylum claimants who have entered Canada illegally over the past year and a half pose a serious political challenge to both Liberals and Conservatives.
In criticizing the government’s inability to keep refugee claimants from coming into Canada between official border crossings, Conservatives risk being labelled racist. But Liberals know that while Canadians generally support high levels of immigration, they are less welcoming of refugees, especially of refugees who arrive on their own and may not be genuine refugees at all.
Each party seeks to minimize risk while exploiting the political opportunities of the situation. Each courts danger as well.
There are those on the right who believe that Canada’s policy of accepting large numbers of immigrants results in newcomers taking scarce jobs from the native-born. Others fear that accepting immigrants and refugees from Muslim countries increases the risks of domestic terrorism. And there are those who fear the Other, the stranger who threatens traditional values and ways of living.
Confronting these perceptions is reality: Immigrants, according to a Statistics Canada report, establish new businesses at a higher rate than native-born; violence against Muslims is a far greater concern than violence by Muslims. Just last week, Muhammed Abu Marzouk was viciously beaten in Mississauga while his family looked on in horror, over what might have been a fender-bender. Two men have been charged, and the attack is being investigated as a hate crime.
Still, it isn’t racist to worry about refugee claimants entering Canada illegally. Conservatives have both the right and the duty to hold the government to account for, in their view, failing to manage the influx or stem the flow. (While the numbers entering Canada each month are starting to go down, the intake this year is on track to exceed last year.)
It is not, however, acceptable to play the race card, in any way, shape or dog whistle. The Tories were attacked for an ad that showed a black man with a suitcase entering Canada through a gap in a chain-link fence. The party quickly pulled the ad.
There’s always the suspicion that in their heart, conservatives are anti-immigrant. And the Conservatives feed that suspicion, with absurdities such as the “barbaric cultural practices hotline,” or leadership candidate Kellie Leitch’s proposed values test for prospective citizens. Appealing to immigrant voters while containing the anti-immigrant wing of the party is a Conservative leader’s biggest headache.
The Liberals, as a brokerage party of the centre, worry less about extreme views within their ranks. But the issue is dangerous for them, as well. For one thing, many French Quebeckers are concerned about protecting their cultural values, and concerned that excessive immigration could undermine those values.
For another, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is waging war with the Liberals over the cost of accommodating all these new arrivals, and whatever the Liberals may think of Mr. Ford, he is popular right now.
For a third, Liberals know that most Canadians support high levels of immigration out of self-interest. Thanks to low birth rates, immigrants are needed to keep the population from going into decline. Immigrants create and fill jobs. Carefully selected for their education, job skills, ability to speak an official language and ability to integrate quickly into Canada’s multicultural fabric, immigrants are a boon.
But Canada accepts refugees for altruistic reasons, to help those most at risk of harm. Altruism inspired Canadians to bring in Vietnamese refugees in 1980; altruism supported the Trudeau government’s decision to airlift Syrian refugees in 2016. It will surely prompt Canadians to welcome the Syrian White Helmet rescue workers, who were themselves rescued by Israeli forces over the weekend. Many of them are coming to Canada, and they will make wonderful citizens.
But altruism is limited in supply. After a certain point, it morphs into impatience and resentment. Altruism prompted European governments to take in millions of Syrian refugees, but public sentiment eventually turned, and now nativist movements and political parties are on the march across the continent.
The Liberals know they must find a way to stem or at least control the flow of asylum seekers entering Canada, across a border that is no longer secure, before the public turns against the asylum seekers and the government. That is why Mr. Trudeau made former Toronto police chief Bill Blair his new Border Security Minister.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer must persuade immigrant voters that his party embraces their more conservative economic and social values, and that extremists on the fringe of the conservative movement do not speak for the mainstream.
There is political opportunity, and peril, for both parties at the border.