Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says that if elected prime minister, he will put an end to “illegal” border crossings in Canada.
Scheer included that as one of several general commitments outlined in a speech delivered in Toronto May 28 outlining his vision for immigration in Canada—part of a series of broad policy announcements ahead of the fall federal election.
Speaking to a crowd of supporters at a conference centre, Scheer said he would close a loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the United States that has allowed asylum-seekers who slip into the country by avoiding border checkpoints to make refugee claims that would be automatically rejected at official crossings.
“We will work to put an end to the illegal border crossings at unofficial points of entry like Roxham Road by closing the loophole in the Safe Third Country Agreement that allows some people to skip the line and avoid the queue,” he said.
Roxham Road runs through the border of Quebec and New York State, and is one of the busiest sites of illegal border crossings in Canada. A Postmedia report noted that the RCMP spent over $6.6 million over the past couple years to process asylum-seekers in the area of Lacolle, Quebec, where Roxham Road is located. The report also noted that the RCMP took 19,419 asylum-seekers into custody who entered Canada between official ports of entry—95 percent of whom were apprehended along the border between Quebec and the United States.
The Safe Third Country Agreement allows Canada to turn away those seeking refugee protection if they arrive at an official border crossing from a country considered to be safe, which includes the United States. However, asylum-seekers can make a refugee claim after they are already in the country, as Canada requires all refugee claims made within the country to be assessed, which is why tens of thousands of asylum-seekers have unofficially crossed into Canada before making their claim. It can take years for a claim to be processed.
Canada has received over 41,000 refugee claims made by irregular border-crossers since February 2017, with two-thirds of those claims still pending, according to the most recent numbers from the Immigration and Refugee Board.
In his speech, Scheer described the situation as unfair toward those seeking refugee status at legitimate checkpoints.
“There is absolutely nothing fair about forcing the oppressed and the persecuted—like the Syrians my mother helped—to wait longer for Canada’s help, while others cross the border illegally from places like upstate New York,” he said.
As for the numbers of newcomers admitted each year in Canada, Scheer acknowledged it is a controversial topic, but he called the debate about immigration levels a “red herring” because both sides have put political ideology ahead of economic and social realities in Canada. He argued that rashly reducing immigration levels without considering the economic impact or increasing immigration levels without adequate integration services are both irresponsible.
Scheer said that if he were prime minister, he would set Canada’s annual immigration levels “consistent with what is in Canada’s best interest.”
“That number may change every year, and I’m not going to get into an ideological debate or, worse, an auction about immigration numbers,” he said. “The numbers will reflect what Canada needs and, just as importantly, who needs Canada.”
Scheer also said that general immigration policies would include improved language training in English or French for newcomers, refocusing the government-sponsored refugee program on victims of atrocities, and better recognition of existing work credentials and skills in immigrants.
“We all lose out when doctors and engineers are not able to practice their profession. I want them to come to Canada to do what they were trained to do,” he said.
He also said he would reunite survivors of genocide who have already settled in Canada, as well as open up private sponsorship of refugees.
Scheer said he would bring back the Office of Religious Freedoms, a unit of Global Affairs Canada created to help protect religious minorities. The office was dedicated to the freedom of religion or belief as a Canadian foreign policy priority and raise awareness of “a subject less familiar to traditional topics of diplomacy,” according to a 2016 evaluation of the office. It was opened in 2013 by the previous Conservative government, but closed by the Liberal government in 2016.
Scheer said he would provide more details on these policy announcements during the election campaign in the fall.
With files from the Canadian Press.