OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's weekend tweet suggesting Canada is open to refugees is meaningless unless the Liberals do much more to accept those now barred from seeking asylum in the United States, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said on Monday.
“To say we are open, we are an inclusive society, we welcome Muslims and refugees here, you have a home here, that needs to be backed up,” May told reporters.
Canada should ramp up the number of refugees it is prepared to accept, and federal Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen should immediately suspend the Safe Third Country agreement, she said. The bilateral accord, which took effect in 2004, allows Canada to turn way most refugee claimants if they arrived via the United States.
“What matters is actions,” May said. “Open up our doors. Let in more refugees. Get rid of the safe party agreement that makes it harder for people to get here from the United States. The U.S. is no longer a safe country for Muslims.”
May’s calls echoed comments from the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association and Amnesty International.
Alex Neve, Amnesty’s Canadian secretary general, said it would be “unconscionable, immoral and unlawful for Canada to pretend that the United States remains a ‘safe’ partner for the purposes of refugee protection.”
Every time Canada sends somebody back to the United States, it signals that Ottawa believes the U.S. government will offer that refugee protection, Janet Dench, executive director the Canadian Council for Refugees, told The Huffington Post Canada. “With what’s going on in the U.S., it seems to us that it would be reckless for Canada to continue to have confidence that that is going to be the case,” she said.
“We shouldn’t wait until there are people who have been wronged and have been sent back” to the country they fled, she added.
Late Friday, U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order indefinitely barring Syrian refugees, deeming them “detrimental to the interests of the United States.” Trump also suspended the planned entry of 50,000 refugees, imposed a 120-day freeze on other refugees and barred citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries — even those with valid visas — from travelling to the United States for 90 days while his administration develops tougher screening procedures for foreign nationals.
The executive order sowed confusion and chaos at airports around the globe. U.S. dual citizens were unsure whether they would be allowed back home. Foreign students reported being trapped abroad unable to return to school in the States. Canadians with a dual citizenship to Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, or Yemen were left to wonder whether they would be allowed to cross the border.
Tens of thousands of Americans took to the streets to protest against a measure that was judged by Democrats and many Republicans as un-American, unconstitutional and counterproductive to the U.S. fight against terrorism.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama along with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May and France’s President François Hollande all expressed their disapproval of Trump’s actions.
Hollande said Trump was encouraging “populism and even extremism.”
Merkel’s spokesperson said the chancellor believes the battle against terrorism “does not justify a general suspicion against people of a certain origin or a certain religion.”
Trudeau’s response was to tweet: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”
The tweet made international headlines and was retweeted more than 420,000 times and liked more than 750,000 times.
But at a press conference Sunday, Trudeau’s immigration minister had little to say in terms of what new action Canada would take to welcome refugees. Hussen said Canada has no plans to increase the number of refugees beyond the current target of 25,000.
MPs divided on refugee action
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan called that insufficient and urged the Liberals to remove the cap on private sponsorships so that more refugees could be allowed into Canada in 2017.
“Those numbers that we have in place were prior to the Trump administration,” she told HuffPost. “In light of this new situation, with the ban and with the implication for those who are fleeing persecution, Canada needs to step up.”
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel urged the government to move more quickly to bring Yazidi refugees to Canada.
“I find that tweet slightly rich given that there has been no movement on that,” she told reporters.
Rempel said she too is concerned that the Liberals have limited the ability of Canadians to privately sponsor refugees to Canada. She also said she wants more transparency on the costs associated with resettling government-sponsored refugees.
Not all MPs think the Liberals should do more. Conservative leadership candidate Andrew Scheer tweeted over the weekend that “Justin Trudeau should not make radical changes to our refugee and immigration system in reaction to policy changes in other countries.
“Canada has been punching above our weight on the number of refugees we have been taking,” said Scheer, a Saskatchewan MP.
Hussen’s office ignored questions Monday on whether the government is considering increasing the number of refugees or withdrawing from the Safe Third Country agreement in light of the Trump ban.
On Tuesday, however, the minister said the government has immigration targets that it intends “to stick to” and no plans to pull out of the Safe Third Country agreement.
Hussen pointed to news the U.S. had admitted a few hundred refugees that were screened and heading to the States. “That demonstrates that this is an evolving situation,” he said.
In the House of Commons Monday, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair demanded that Trudeau speak more forcefully and denounce Trump’s actions.
“Does the prime minister agree that this targeting of people based on their religion or place of birth is an affront to our shared values as Canadians and supporters of human rights across the world?” Mulcair asked.
Trudeau responded that he will always stand up to defend Canadian values of openness and diversity.
“We have seen how much openness to the world and diversity not only makes us more prosperous, but more safe as a country and as communities,” he said.
Trudeau’s words and the debate about Trump’s ban came on the heels of a shooting at a Quebec City mosque on Sunday that left six dead. The lone suspect is a French-Canadian with an apparent admiration for Trump and other right-wing nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s Front National.
Details about the suspect’s ethnicity seemed not to have reached the White House Monday afternoon as spokesman Sean Spicer used the Quebec City attack to defend Trump’s so-called Muslim ban against international and domestic backlash.
"It's a terrible reminder of why we must remain vigilant. And why the president is taking steps to be proactive, not reactive," Spicer told reporters.
The Quebec City shooting was targeted at Muslims, not perpetrated by them.
Toronto Liberal MP Nate Erskine-Smith tweeted in response: “It was demoralizing to see the US administration use the attack to support its racist and discriminatory travel ban.”
Emergency debate Tuesday
MPs will have a chance to have their say on Trump’s refugee and travel ban Tuesday evening after House of Commons Speaker Geoff Regan accepted the NDP’s request for an emergency debate.
On Monday, however, in Ottawa and in Quebec City, politicians of all stripes were united in their desire to stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community.
“To the more than one million Canadians who profess the Muslim faith, I want to say directly: We are with you. 36 million Canadian hearts are breaking with yours,” Trudeau said in the Commons.
While the prime minister and the vast majority of his Liberal MPs were silent on the motives behind of the mosque attack, others said heated language south of the border had contributed to the tragic event.
“I do believe that what is going on, the anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim feeling has arrived in Canada,” Calgary MP and Conservative leadership candidate Deepak Obhrai said.
"I think Prime Minister Trudeau has a very delicate line to walk.”
— Green Party Leader Elizabeth May
Obhrai said he wants to believe Trump isn’t creating a security situation inside Canada, but the Quebec incident gives him pause.
“I think all of us have to be a little bit more careful in what we say and how we say it, and we don’t give fuel to community-based politics, don’t give fuel to that,” he said.
Fellow leadership contestant Michael Chong took to Twitter to say the mosque attack was no accident.
“It is the direct result of the demagogues and wannabe demagogues playing to fears and prejudices. Politicians talking division, not unity, help normalize hate. Not acceptable, enough is enough, stop,” he tweeted. “And yes, I am angry. This is Canada. This was an attack on real Canadian values enshrined in the Charter: religious freedom.”
The Conservative leadership race has been marked by allegations of anti-immigrant rhetoric, namely from contestant Kellie Leitch and her campaign to vet immigrants for what she calls “Canadian values.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus, a potential candidate for his party’s leadership, called on Canadians to be there for each other. “This means speaking up, standing up and defending our Muslim neighbours from the misinformation campaigns of the haters.”
May told reporters she knows that she, as an opposition leader, can denounce Trump and his discriminatory practices more loudly and clearly than the prime minister.
“We are in early days of trying to figure out how to deal with a reckless and dangerous president south of the border,” she said. While she can say that, May thinks Trudeau should keep his mouth shut and focus instead on establishing a good working relationship with Trump. Not only because of Canada’s trade-dependent relationship with the United States, but also because Trudeau may be the only leader who can persuade Trump to act on climate change, she said.
“[Trudeau’s] chances of influencing [Trump] will go directly down when he uses strong language,” May said. “Trump obviously has a thin skin. The man is obsessed with things that are irrelevant, like whether his inauguration crowd was big. I mean, these are disturbing utterances, and they disturb even the Republicans in the U.S. Congress. So I think – I think Prime Minister Trudeau has a very delicate line to walk.”
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