OTTAWA — It began with the singing of the old, less inclusive version of “O Canada.”
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier revealed his vision for immigration at a Mississauga, Ont. rally Wednesday evening, calling for a decrease in immigration and refugee rates.
Bernier also made a pitch for the construction of fences along specific areas of the Canada-U.S. border.
“Instead of making it easier to enter Canada and helping these illegal refugees, as the Liberal government has done,” Bernier said, “We will make it more difficult, by fencing off the areas where it takes place such as Roxham Road in Quebec.”
The Beauce MP pledged, should he become prime minister, to declare the entire length of the Canada-U.S. border an official port of entry “and send back to the U.S. anyone trying to enter illegally.”
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It is not illegal for migrants to cross a border between official ports of entry if they’re seeking asylum under Canadian and international law.
Bernier later gave an unclear answer to the National Post about who would foot the tab for the pieces of border fence. “There’s no cost for that… It’s a question of declaring our sovereignty,” he said.
The Quebec crossing near Champlain, N.Y. is the site where 95 per cent of irregular border crossers entered into Canada to seek asylum in 2018. Approximately 40 per cent are children travelling with their parents, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency.
Despite Bernier telling the crowd that he believes “by and large, [Canada’s] immigration policy has been very successful,” he spoke at length about a cap for the number of immigrants the country takes in, decried “extreme multiculturalism” and globalism, and pledged to repeal the Multiculturalism Act.
“We will instead emphasize the integration of immigrants into Canadian society,” he said.
The Canadian Border Services Agency confirmed last month that 866 of the 45,000 “irregular” asylum seekers who have crossed the border since 2017 have been removed from the country after their claims were rejected.
LISTEN: Maxime Bernier likes talking about immigration
“A People’s Party government will substantially lower the total number of immigrants and refugees we accept every year, from 350,000 to between 100,000 and 150,000, depending on economic and other circumstances,” Bernier said.
When Bernier ran for Conservative leader in 2017, he pledged to reduce the total number of immigrants to 250,000 a year.
Last October, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen announced Canada’s immigration cap will increase from 310,000 to 350,000 people by 2021. More immigrants are needed to provide businesses with the “skilled labour they need to spur innovation,” he said at the time.
“Immigrants whose responses or background checks demonstrate that they do not share mainstream Canadian values will be rejected.”
But long processing times for asylum claimants and insufficient funding for interim housing have earned the Liberals scrutiny from opposition MPs, as well as provincial governments.
A smaller intake of immigrants and refugees will allow resources to be redistributed, Bernier explained, which would allow a People’s Party government to increase funding for Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canadian Immigration and Citizenship to conduct “thorough” interviews and background checks.
“Immigrants whose responses or background checks demonstrate that they do not share mainstream Canadian values will be rejected,” he said.
The promise is a departure from the position Bernier took during the Conservative leadership race when he called Kellie Leitch a “karaoke version of Donald Trump” for her proposal to screen newcomers with a “Canadian values test.”
Bernier spent nearly an hour presenting his immigration policy to supporters at a venue popular for South Asian weddings. He attempted to dispel criticism that his party is harbouring racism and xenophobia by listing the names of some of the party’s candidates who represent “all races and religions.”
“I don’t care one bit about people’s race or skin colour. I have said many times that racists and bigots are not welcome in our party. We care about shared values, culture and identity,” he said.
“We have no lessons to receive from anyone about openness and inclusiveness.”
His comments come days after one of the party’s riding associations made a splash with a statement of their own.
Last week, the board of one of the party’s Manitoba riding associations quit en masse. The board announced its resignation with a letter explaining the “biggest problem” they faced were their own supporters.
“Racists, bigots, antisemites [sic], and conspiracy theorists have large presence in the public conversation surrounding the People’s Party of Canada,” read the letter signed by five former members of the party’s Elmwood-Transcona riding association.
“None of these are things we would have expected you to stand beside during the leadership campaign. We are appalled to see it encouraged with a wink and a nod now.”
HuffPost Canada previously reported in the spring that organizers were encouraged to court votes from the Canadian Combat Coalition, a far-right association a senior party executive described as a “radical fringe group.”
Bernier made his mark during the 2017 Conservative leadership race with his libertarian ideas and call to abolish Canada’s supply management system. The self-described “Albertan from Quebec” lost the leadership to Andrew Scheer by a slim margin.
The Quebec MP quit the Conservative caucus last summer with some harsh parting words for his former colleagues, claiming the party had become “intellectually and morally corrupt.”
Within its first year, the party has established 338 riding associations across the country, attracting candidates such as Renata Ford, the widow of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and former Tory cabinet minister Steven Fletcher.
Voters are expected to head to the polls in late October.
With files from Ryan Maloney