How Canada Creates Barriers for Non-White Immigrants

Thousands of earthquake-displaced Haitians have hoped to claim refugee status in Canada. Instead, they have discovered arbitrary and unforgiving barriers.

Canadian barriers to Black immigrantsIllustration: Chelsea Charles

“I want to die.”

In March 2017, a man from Ivory Coast named Mamadou crossed into Quebec from the United States in the middle of the night. Only days earlier, he’d walked up to the border station at Lacolle and attempted to apply for asylum. When border agents turned him away, he decided to sneak across instead. RCMP officers would later find him collapsed in the woods in -15 C cold, having twice waded through freezing water along his journey. As he lay in the forest, Mamadou had thought to himself, “That’s okay. I want to die. Let me just die on my way. I don’t want to go back.”

Mamadou was only one of many asylum seekers crossing into Quebec that year. By July, arrivals of this kind had increased from about 600 a month to nearly 3,000. In August, the number nearly doubled again, to over 5,500 asylum claimants. Many of these travellers were Haitians who had been living in the U.S. but feared they would soon lose their status.

Throughout 2017, 8,286 Haitians applied for asylum in Canada, representing 16 per cent of all applications made that year, the single-largest group. At one point, the government deployed about 100 soldiers to set up camps at the Quebec–New York border and to assist the RCMP and border agents with security screening of the hundreds arriving each day. Marjorie Villefranche of Maison d’Haïti, a community service for Haitian immigrants, told the media, “There is an enormous amount of fake information circulating saying that it is easy to come to Canada…. They are hearing that Canada doesn’t deport people.”

The U.S. had been offering Haitians temporary status since 2010, when Haiti experienced a catastrophic earthquake that killed 250,000 and forced thousands to claim asylum. In its first months in office in 2017, the new Republican administration had signalled its intention not to extend these protections.

The arrival in Canada of these Haitian and other Black asylum seekers on foot, often with children, could have become a Black origin story for the future. Canada might have bragged about how we welcomed so many Black people fleeing the United States and the administration of that country’s 45th president. But by November 2017, the detention processing, and eventual rejection, of so many Haitians showed that Canada didn’t want Black asylum seekers, no matter what threats they might have faced south of the border.

Seven years after the earthquake, Haiti was still dealing with housing shortages and a cholera outbreak. Despite Canada’s historic relationship with Haiti and our significant interventions into the country’s governance, we have tried to keep Haitians at arm’s length in Canada, and to make their stay here temporary.

A history of discrimination

Canada’s immigration system is a complicated set of ever-changing rules that are difficult to understand unless you spend your life studying them. But immigration isn’t about an objective set of rules that have dropped from the sky for our collective benefit. Immigration laws did not apply to white settlers who colonized this land. Only after they claimed their place here did they decide they needed an entry system that strictly favoured their kin. And while the rules continue to shift, the value of white immigrants over all others has not. In fact, when white people have needed to flee to Canada, rules have been changed or simply not applied.

The Canadian government can’t tell us exactly how many Americans came to Canada between 1965 and 1975 to escape being drafted into the U.S. military to serve in the Vietnam War—it just didn’t count. The government’s estimates put the number as high as 40,000. We had immigration laws back then, of course, but the government decided to make an exception for the mostly white people who wanted to resettle in Canada. A migration also happened in the opposite direction, as tens of thousands of Canadian citizens moved to the U.S. to enlist with the U.S. military and join the war. The Canadian Vietnam Veterans Association estimates that about 20,000 Canadians enlisted in the U.S.; some historians put the number closer to 40,000. This unregulated flow of mostly white men between Canada and the U.S. stands in sharp contrast to the strictly regulated flow of racialized people across the same border over the last half-century.

The mass arrival of Black people in Canada has historically been marked by the strictest regulation our government can design, and the welcome often doesn’t last. The general idea is that Black people are lucky to be here and should be grateful for whatever labour and living conditions we are offered. Black people seeking opportunity in Canada have often already been displaced by colonial forces—we can’t escape colonialism just by leaving one plundered territory for another.

In 1955, Canada launched a program it called the West Indian Domestic Scheme to bring Black women from the Caribbean to provide cheap household labour. At this time, the United Kingdom maintained its colonial rule over a significant number of Caribbean islands. Black people whose ancestors had been stolen by the British and forced into slavery in the Caribbean had so little opportunity on the islands that they had to consider labouring in Canada, yet another outpost of the so-called Commonwealth.

The thousands of Black Caribbean women who served as domestic workers in Canada after World War II paved the way for many other Black people to land here. These Black women also made it possible for white women in postwar Canada to improve their skills and education, and in some cases to join the workforce. In the words of Bee Quammie, a journalist whose mother immigrated from Jamaica for work in the 1980s, “The disregarded work of women like Black Caribbean domestics enabled previous and current generations of white Canadian women to progress and be included.”

The late Dr. Agnes Calliste, a professor of sociology and anthropology, observed that Canada’s immigration policy for Caribbean Blacks from 1950 to 1962 was based upon “a demand for cheap labour, a desire to exclude blacks as permanent settlers and a need to appease Caribbean people in order to further Canada’s trade and investments in the British Caribbean.” British and French subjects from the Caribbean and other “non-white” countries “could only enter under special arrangement or if they satisfied the immigration minister that they were suitable immigrants.”

White women who wanted to participate in Canada’s growing economy—in factories, hospitals, offices and schools—drove the demand for Black immigrant domestic workers. These white women needed someone to look after their children as they joined the workforce. Black women admitted as domestic workers confronted racist rules that kept them out of more lucrative professions like nursing. Many of these rules had been in existence before their arrival, as documented by Joan Lesmond, a former president of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario and herself an immigrant from St. Lucia.

Take, for instance, Toronto-born Bernice Redmon, who wanted to become a nurse but was refused entry to nursing schools in Canada so instead headed down to the segregated South. Of Redmon, Lesmond writes: “She went to St. Phillip Hospital Medical College in Virginia and graduated with her nursing diploma in 1945. When she returned to Canada that same year, she became the first Black nurse allowed to practise in public health after getting a job at the Nova Scotia Department of Health.”

Lesmond names other trailblazing Black women—Ruth Bailey, Gwen Barton and Marissa Scott—who also fought to get into segregated Canadian nursing schools with the help of Black churches and unionists.

Calliste wrote how, in 1952, the government admitted a small number of Caribbean graduate nurses as “cases of exceptional merit.” (Her paper on the subject is titled “Women of ‘Exceptional Merit.’”) She suggested that the government did this to appease the concerns of Caribbean people who were essential to Canada’s postwar economic success. One of the conditions for admitting Black nurses into the country was that the hospital administration that offered them work had to be “aware of their racial origin.”

While the government evaluated white immigrant nurses on the basis of general admissibility to Canada, it additionally judged Black immigrant nurses on the basis of their nursing qualifications. Canada wanted Black women to prove they were exceptional in order to work as nurses, even while, in the immediate aftermath of the war, many places in Canada suffered from a shortage of qualified nurses.

These attitudes have shaped a country where today Black people are still near the bottom of what researchers Grace-Edward Galabuzi and Sheila Block have called “Canada’s colour-coded labour market.” Their 2011 study showed that, on average, for every dollar a white man earned, a Black man earned 78 cents and a Black woman earned 56 cents; white women earned an average of 67 cents for every dollar a white man earned. Today, in addition to overqualified Black nurses who can’t get a promotion, we have Black people with graduate degrees who clean hotels and drive taxis. A 2019 study on the health of immigrants, refugees and racialized people said that “Recent immigrants (arriving between 2011 and 2016) with a doctorate are 3.5 times more likely to be unemployed than non-immigrants with the same level of education.”

Black immigrant labour is more welcome in dangerous settings, like airports, garbage disposal and construction. We have a Temporary Foreign Worker Program through which Black and Latin American workers from the Caribbean toil in extremely unsafe conditions on Canadian farms. These workers put in 12- to 14-hour workdays, operate heavy machinery, work from heights, handle pesticides and often live in substandard housing. Immigrant farm workers enjoy few of the benefits Canadian workers do and are routinely sent back to their countries of origin if they are injured on the job. We’ve done so much to facilitate white people’s access to this country, but Black people’s desire to enter and to stay is constantly under high scrutiny and regulation.

No asylum

While Haitians were the largest single group of nationals crossing into Canada in 2017, many continental Africans were also risking everything to cross the border. Nigerians, for example, filed more claims than any group other than Haitians. On Christmas Eve 2016, two Ghanaians, Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, crossed on foot into Manitoba from North Dakota. The two men wandered through frozen farmlands and became disoriented in the cold. A truck driver who saw Iyal and Mohammed on the highway stopped to help them and called 911. Mohammed, a 24-year-old soccer star who left Ghana fearing for his life as a bisexual, lost all of the fingers and thumbs on both of his hands. Iyal, 35, who worked as a barber in Ghana, lost all of his fingers and one of his toes. Canada eventually granted both men refugee status.

Many Canadians expressed sympathy for the men and offered to help, but Greg Janzen, a local reeve near the Manitoba border crossing, gave a different account. “They’re criminals,” he said. “If they’re willing to jump the border at night and basically break the law, you don’t know what they’re capable of until they’re fully processed. Are they good people?”

Under a U.S.-Canada pact called the Safe Third Country Agreement, people cannot apply for asylum in Canada if they’re coming from the U.S., which is presumed to be safe. But this rule only applies if the person seeking asylum goes to an official border crossing. If they sneak in from a different point of entry, Canada is required by law to consider their claim. Even as the U.S. government was enforcing a ban on Muslims from African countries, even as its president was referring to African nations as “shithole countries,” Canada continued to send Black asylum seekers back to the U.S., insisting that it remained a safe place for them. There’s no shortage of examples of how America is unsafe for Black people. But if the alternative is Black people coming here, it seems the U.S. is safe enough.

In November 2017, the federal government confirmed that of the 6,304 citizens of Haiti who had sought asylum in Canada between February and October 2017, only 298 had had their claims finalized, and of those, only 29 had been accepted. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen, himself a refugee from Somalia, explained that asylum claims were only for people whom the government deemed in genuine need of protection. “It’s not for everyone,” he said.

As our media focused on the U.S. threat to deny protection of Haitians within its borders, little was written about the already large population of Haitian immigrants in Canada, many of whom had sought refuge in response to decades of violent interventions in Haiti, including the ongoing armed presence of Canadian and other United Nations troops.

In 2004, under the pretense of regional stabilization, Canada had played a central part in the overthrow of the democratically elected Haitian government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide. As Pascale Diverlus, a co-founder of Black Lives Matter–Toronto and the child of Haitian immigrants, explains, “The federal Liberal government organized an assembly of Canadian, American and French leaders to discuss the state of Haiti—with no actual Haitian officials present. There, they decided to stage a coup d’état.” After ousting Aristide, thousands of troops were deployed in Haiti. The coup, as Diverlus observes, “would lead to thousands of deaths of Haitian civilians as collateral damage in the name of Canadian peacekeeping.”

Although a number of countries participated in the removal of Aristide, Haitian officials pointed to Canada as one of the key players in the ongoing occupation. Haitian senator Moïse Jean-Charles said in 2013, “The real forces behind Haiti’s military occupation—the powers that are putting everybody else up to it—are the U.S., France and Canada, which colluded in the February 29, 2004, coup d’état against President Aristide. It was then that they began trampling Haitian sovereignty.”

Diverlus and others argue that Canada’s interventions in Haiti have created an obligation to help resettle Haitians here. After the 2004 coup, Canada did put a moratorium on deportations to Haiti—recognizing “a generalized risk to the population as the consequence of natural disasters, civil unrest or armed conflict.” A pause on deportations may seem like a benefit to Haitians trying to remain in Canada, but people who testified before a government committee said the decision instead created instability and uncertainty for families.

According to the committee’s report, “Having work permits of short duration (six months or one year) that must be renewed at a cost of $255 was identified as ‘a hassle’ that at best was an inconvenient loss of time and money and, at worst, cost people their jobs. Because it takes Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada three to four months to process a work-permit renewal request… people are often caught in a cycle of applying for and renewing work permits.”

On top of the constant fear of deportation, families also struggled to access education and health care because of an endless need to renew benefits and permits. The government could have alleviated so many of these hardships by simply making the Haitian immigrants permanent residents instead of long-term visitors under perpetual threat of deportation.

Canada reinstated deportations to Haiti in December 2014, when Haiti was in the middle of a cholera outbreak caused by UN peacekeepers. In August 2016, the federal government stopped allowing Haitians who had arrived since 2004 the opportunity to apply for permanent residence and to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds. So when the U.S. confirmed in late 2017 that Haitians would indeed lose their protected status there by 2019, it would have been fair to say the Americans were simply following Canada’s lead. (Lawyers continue to fight the administration in court, and the deadline for Haitians to stay in America has been extended until January 2021.)

In November 2017, Canada sent Black government officials to the U.S. to discourage Black migrants from Haiti and African nations from walking across the Canadian border to seek asylum. One of the envoys, Haitian-born Member of Parliament Emmanuel Dubourg, described the effort by saying, “The main reason is to tell them we have a robust immigration law and that they should use the right channels to come to Canada instead of crossing in between the borders.”

This isn’t a new strategy. Early in the 20th century, the Canadian government also sent officials to the U.S. to discourage Black migrants from coming to Canada. In 2017, it was Black officials like Hussen and Dubourg who put a friendly Black face on an old message: Canada thinks it would be better for vulnerable Black people not to come, or at least not to come and expect to stay.

It has been more than a century since Canada denied entry to hundreds of Indians of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu faiths, and also some Japanese immigrants, who landed in Vancouver in 1914 on a ship called the Komagata Maru. Canadian officials cited the continuous journey regulation, a 1908 rule that said immigrants to Canada had to travel here without stopping anywhere. The rule was specifically designed to deter Indian immigrants, as there were no ships that sailed directly from India to Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in May 2016 for the 1914 detention and eventual expulsion of Komagata Maru passengers, saying in part, “Regrettably, the passage of time means that none are alive to hear our apology today. Still, we offer it, fully and sincerely, for our indifference to your plight, for our failure to recognize all that you had to offer, for the laws that discriminated against you so senselessly, and for not apologizing sooner. For all these things, we are truly sorry.”

Trudeau didn’t mention more recent history, including the government’s lengthy detention of over 500 Tamil asylum seekers fleeing war and persecution in Sri Lanka, who landed in Vancouver on two ships between October 2009 and August 2010 and were detained for months.

Canada continues to discuss potential reforms to the Safe Third Country Agreement and is doing so as Black people are those most likely to cross over from the U.S. The Globe and Mail reported in 2018 on the progress of negotiations: “As the Liberals iron out their approach to STCA talks with the U.S., they are touting their efforts to prevent more asylum seekers from crossing into Canada. For instance, Mr. Hussen said many of those crossing into Quebec earlier this year were Nigerians carrying valid U.S. visitor visas. Canadian officials raised the issue with their U.S. counterparts, and the number of U.S. visas issued to Nigerians dropped.”

Canada knows its efforts to restrict Black immigration to the U.S., and by extension to Canada, are good for bargaining. We may not have invented this global game of restricting Black people’s movements, but we know how to play.

Next, take a look inside Toronto’s homelessness crisis.

Excerpted from The Skin We’re In by Desmond Cole. Copyright © 2020 Desmond Cole. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada