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Closing the Canada-U.S. Asylum Border Agreement Loophole? Not So Fast

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Three families that claimed to be from Burundi walk down Roxham Road to cross into Quebec at the US-Canada border in Champlain, New York, August 3, 2017. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi - RC131523D300

According to media reports, Bill Blair, Canada’s minister of border security, is attempting to close a loophole in the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA).

The agreement allows Canada to send asylum-seekers back to the United States without hearing their refugee claims (and allows the U.S. the same option for those going in the other direction). The loophole is that the STCA only applies to asylum-seekers who present themselves at official land ports-of-entry.

Since President Donald Trump was elected, around 40,000 asylum seekers have used this loophole by crossing into Canada from the U.S. at places other than official ports-of-entry. They are not trying to sneak into Canada undetected. Rather, they cross the border irregularly to avoid being turned away under the STCA and then approach Canadian authorities to make refugee claims.

The number of irregular border-crossers has declined recently, with fewer than 1,000 in January 2019. What’s more, while the overall number of refugee claims made in Canada has been higher than usual in the past two years, it is not far off historical norms.

Nonetheless, the additional 40,000 refugee claims have produced pressures on the refugee determination system and on provincial social programs. There has also been political pushback, with calls from the Conservative party for the government to stem the flow.

However, closing the STCA loophole is a complicated proposition.

Blair reportedly wants irregular border-crossers to be taken to official ports-of-entry and processed as if they had presented themselves there directly. In other words, the STCA would apply both at official ports-of-entry and elsewhere.

To make this work, the U.S. would need to agree, which is the first complication.

More asylum-seekers come to Canada

The purpose of the STCA from a Canadian perspective was to force the U.S. to take responsibility for asylum-seekers who travel to Canada via the United States. Canada had long wanted the STCA because the flow of asylum-seekers is asymmetrical. Far more asylum-seekers come to Canada from the U.S. than the reverse.

For the same reason, the United States has long refused to agree to the STCA. That only changed after 9-11, when Canada offered the U.S. greater border security integration in exchange for the STCA.

Canada now wants to expand the STCA, so the question is: What will Canada have to give the U.S. to get them to agree?

One might expect quite a lot, given that Trump has shown little interest in taking steps that would result in thousands of asylum-seekers who would otherwise go to Canada remaining in the U.S.


The need for a quid pro quo raises a second complication. The STCA is being challenged in Canadian courts by human rights organizations who say that the U.S. is not safe for refugeesand that the STCA violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Given the anti-refugee policies of the Trump administration, there is a good chance that courts will strike down the STCA. By negotiating expansions to the STCA without waiting to see whether the regime is upheld, there is a real risk that anything Canada gives to the U.S. in exchange will be for naught.

A third complication: Even if Canada gets the U.S. to agree to expand the STCA, and even if the regime is upheld by the courts, the impact of any expansion is likely to be both counterproductive and dangerous.

A dangerous incentive

If asylum-seekers who are intercepted at irregular border crossings are returned to the U.S., this will create a strong incentive for such asylum-seekers to cross the border without being intercepted.

Currently, irregular border crossings are manageable and organized. Most occur in a single, well-monitored location in Québec. That crossing is not dangerous. Border officials and RCMP are present. Irregular border-crossers immediately enter into immigration and refugee processing, which includes health, criminality and security screening.

Other countries that have tried to stem flows of asylum-seekers by closing off safe and manageable routes have had a common experience. The flows do not stop but are instead diverted into more remote and hence more dangerous routes. Organized crime gets involved, bringing increased security risks and violence. The inevitable result is lost lives and decreased border security.

In the end, the political pressure on the government to be seen doing something on this file may outweigh these policy considerations. But politics lead to a fourth complication.

During the last federal election campaign, Justin Trudeau distinguished himself from former prime minister Stephen Harper partly through a more compassionate response to the Syrian refugee crisis and the death of Alan Kurdi — himself a tragic victim of cat-and-mouse games between smugglers and governments seeking to keep refugees at bay.

Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, Prime Minister Trudeau further sought the moral high ground when, in response to the president’s anti-refugee policies, he famously tweeted Canadians will welcome those fleeing persecution.

There is no way to close the STCA loophole without the Liberal party turning its back on those progressive values, on the eve of a federal election campaign.

In this context, attempting to expand the STCA may not only be bad policy, it may also be bad politics.

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How an NHL street party caused a social media storm about racism

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File 20190416 147514 108hnwf.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A local Winnipeg Jets tradition – the Whiteout Street Party – has been the source of controversy. Is it political correctness run amok or is the name insensitive to racialized people? THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

LAs the city of Winnipeg was preparing to host a large celebration to mark the beginning of the National Hockey League playoffs for its team, the Jets, a storm broke out over social media over a headline about the hockey street party.

A story that described the preparations for the outdoor public celebration during the playoff game in the Winnipeg Free Press included this headline: “Jets parties will turn downtown white again.” The original story ran with a photo of four men wearing all-white, hooded costumes. Both the headline and photo were later changed.

Soon after, Black Space Winnipeg, an anti-racism advocacy group, tweeted a response to the article and posted a comment on its Facebook page. The group implied the words “white again,” along with the photo, would make racialized people feel unwelcome in the city. The group also suggested in a Facebook post the name of the playoff party (“Whiteout”) be changed.

“Have a look at these photos from past Jets pandemonium/fan appreciation. The four men wearing all white Jets outfits with pointed hoodies … remind you of anything?”

On Twitter the group wrote:

“This headline can carry a very different meaning depending on who’s reading it …”

Many people reading the tweet from Black Space Winnipeg did not take the time to think about the original headline of the article before they hurled back angry, misinformed or racist replies.

Some examples: “Go back to playing basketball and leave hockey alone” and “its (sic) ok to be white,” a slogan made popular by white supremacist groups.

I believe the angry tweets and Facebook comments can be classified into two main complaints: many people felt the term “whiteout” was never intended to be racist and that making that claim is political correctness run amok.

Winnipeg Jets’ fans get warmed up at the Whiteout Street Party prior to the second NHL playoff game against the St. Louis Blues on April 12. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

Words and traditions change because our world is not static. We shouldn’t be afraid to institute change as we become aware of errors made in the past. Decisions made 30 or even 100 years ago have been challenged and changed. Sports have also changed. McGill University recently dropped the name of its sports teams, the Redmen, because as McGill University’s principal said, it is “widely acknowledged as an offensive term for Indigenous peoples, as evidenced by major English dictionaries…we cannot ignore this contemporary understanding.”

She said the name “is not one the university would choose today, and it is not one that McGill should carry forward.”

Winnipeg pride

Last year, the Jets won their first playoff series since the team returned to Winnipeg in 2011, making it all the way to the conference finals. This was a big event for the city. The parties attracted thousands of people to downtown Winnipeg. The crowds were loud and boisterous, but according to media reports, the atmosphere was friendly and a good example of the city’s community spirit in action.

For many Winnipegers, it was a positive image that helped to negate the often stereotypical images many Canadians have about their city as boring, cold as Mars (or hot and full of mosquitoes in summer), or one of Canada’s most violent communities.

“The whiteout” is a nickname for Jets street parties originated three decades ago. According to the CBC, the parties started as a response to the Calgary Flames’ “Sea of Red” during the 1987 playoffs. That was at a time when the Jets home colours were white, not blue as they now are, but the tradition has stuck. Although the Jets left Winnipeg in 1996, the “whiteout” resumed after the team’s return to the city in 2011.

Winnipeg is one of many NHL cities where fans uniformly dress in their team colours during the playoffs. Here, white-clad Winnipeg Jets’ fans react towards St. Louis Blues centre Robert Thomas during NHL playoff action in Winnipeg on April 10. THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods

On the surface, the term “whiteout” seems fairly benign and aptly describes the scene. Photos of the event confirm that it is indeed a sea of white. It looks like a blizzard, a phenomenon that naturally occurs in Manitoba winters.

It’s the second explanation — political correctness run amok — that is the most worrisome.

Concerns dismissed

Many fans dismissed the concerns of Black Space Winnipeg and others, rather than considering why the headline might have been offensive.

I read some of the over 450 replies on Facebook and over 400 replies on Twitter. Many of the responses gave nonsensical responses that showed how little the reader understood the issue and how little they valued the conversation on racism in their city centre.

To demonstrate how ridiculous they thought the issue was, a few posters submitted ideas like having a white refrigerator makes them a racist.

But the headline, along with the photo of men in white hoods, can be interpreted as “only whites are welcome” message. The intention of the message may be innocent, but the way it is understood by the people will depend on their social location.

In a city where racism often rears its ugly head, it is understandable that the seemingly innocuous headline can be understood to be threatening — especially by people who experience discrimination.

Black Space Winnipeg and other social activist organizations are asking Canadians to have conversations about race and to think about how we use language and how the way we label things and visualize them can unintentionally include and exclude groups of people.

Our current social climate in Canada, and in Winnipeg, has given space to more explicit expressions of racism, and therefore we — and our media outlets — need to think about the ways we use language and how that language may perpetuate bias.

Lori Wilkinson, Professor of Sociology, University of Manitoba

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Canada Warming at Twice the Global Rate, from Latest Climate Change Report

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WATCH: Canada is warming at the twice the rate of the rest of the world, a new report has revealed. Experts believe that if emissions are not reduced on a global scale, fresh drinking water will become scarcer, parts of the Arctic will remain ice-free for prolonged periods and extreme temperatures will become dramatically more common.

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How changes to the Ontario Autism Program will hurt kids like my son

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Doug Ford’s government recently announced its intentions to overhaul the Ontario Autism Program, something the province’s minister of children, community and social services has described as a “broken…Liberal mess” that the Conservatives inherited.

My son, Sebastian, has been part of this program. For our family, it has been anything but broken.

Sebastian entered the program just before he turned five. He had waited nearly three years to enter, but it was well worth the wait.

At that point, he was completely non-verbal and unable to communicate even basic thoughts, still in diapers and willing to eat only three specific foods. He was anemic and malnourished and often frustrated, and we were at our wit’s end.

Like many families, we had been paying for a sub-optimal amount of therapy out of pocket and went deeper into debt until our number on the waiting list for the program came up.

After receiving intensive therapy for three years, Sebastian now communicates a range of needs with his iPad communication system, he’s toilet-trained and he’s eating a diverse and nutritious diet of over 100 foods. He is happy and healthy.

Each month, our interdisciplinary therapy team, which has included a psychologist, occupational therapist, speech and language pathologist, music, behaviour and feeding specialists, works to identify new needs and areas of development. He’s currently focusing on expanding his communication vocabulary, and learning street safety, how to play with peers, and to brush his teeth.

Skills noticeably improving

The cost of this therapy is over $60,000 a year, but each year, as Sebastian’s independence and skills improve, he attends school for longer days and requires less therapy at home.

The author’s son, Sebastian, with his sister last year. Author provided

This intense investment into early development for children with autism may seem like a lot, but ultimately, will save many more taxpayer dollars in health care, social services and long-term supports over the course of their lives.

Receiving therapy at the clinically recommended amount, as had been standard in the Ontario Autism Program, benefits not only children, but also the reported health and well-being of their parents.

In a recent study of nearly 700 Ontario families who have children with autism, conducted over the past year with my colleague Margaret Schneider, we learned that Ontario autism families often modify their work hours to manage the demands and expenses of autism.

Women are more likely to work less than desired (or quit their jobs entirely) and men are more likely to work extra hours to pay for services.

Below are some findings from our study:

McLaughlin/Schneider

On average, parents reported that they spend 24 hours per week advocating and facilitating services for their children.

Families indicated their stress levels are unsustainable. Many parents said they were on medication to cope. Once their children were in the program, families were more likely to be able to return to their normal jobs and significantly reduce their stress levels. They were able to get their “lives back” as their children began to thrive.

Confusing equality with equity

The announced program changes by Doug Ford’s government could hurt far more than help such families.

The initiative will grant children with autism under the age of six up to $20,000 a year to purchase supports if their parents are low income, and less or none if their income is higher. Children six and over will receive a much lower amount, up to $5,000 a year, until their 18th birthday.

This amount would purchase about one month of the intensive therapy many children need. If a child receives a later diagnosis, they will never benefit from the higher level of service. And parents who work extra jobs to pay for additional therapy will actually be penalized for doing so by qualifying for less government support.

The program changes were aimed at reducing the waiting list so that younger kids could get into the program faster. That’s a laudable goal, but to achieve it, the government has pursued a harmful strategy that confuses the notion of equality — where everyone gets the same amount regardless of situation — with equity, where everyone gets the amount they actually need.

Giving families a lump sum of cash based on age and income ignores the most pressing criteria that should determine funding — the child’s actual needs.

Symptoms vary

Autism is a spectrum, ranging from symptoms so mild that children achieve similar outcomes as their peers with minimal supports, to so severe that they require one-on-one support, around the clock.

To collapse all of these needs into one lump sum amounts to giving children with mild challenges potentially unnecessary supports, while giving children with intense needs much less than they require.

It’s like assigning a standard amount of physiotherapy to every person with back injuries, whether they actually require back surgery or whether they could just benefit from stretching exercises. It makes no sense and it undermines the needs of children who most deeply require intensive services.

Further, assuming that children who are over five suddenly require much less support is the same flawed logic which led to the previous Liberal government’s policy reversal and the birth of the Ontario Autism Program in the first place.

In 2016, when the Liberal government announced that autism therapy would only be available to children under the age of five, firestorms of protests erupted.

A 2016 protest at the Ontario legislature. Author provided

At that time, the opposition PC and NDP parties were united in their harsh criticism of the age cut-off policy. The campaign #AutismDoesntEndAt5 received overwhelming support across Ontario. The program was revised and overhauled, integrating a broad range of input.

One year later, the PC government appears to be reintroducing the same basic idea with a more complicated funding structure, prompting the new social media campaign #AutismDoesntEndAtFord.

Parents mobilizing again

Not once, but twice, former provincial governments have tried to impose age restrictions on autism therapy, and both times, under enormous pressure from parents turned protesters, led by advocacy groups like the Ontario Autism Coalition (OAC), they relented and reversed their decisions.

Parents are now even better mobilized and appear committed to fighting this decision tooth and nail. One government official already quit over his disagreement with the policy.

Advocates are urging the government to slow down, consult more widely and allow autism parents the chance to focus on their children rather than return to the Ontario legislature to become full-time protesters.

The stress of constantly having to fight for adequate services and the uncertainty of sudden changes are major issues that parents raised in our research. With little transition period, parents and educators are scrambling to consider how to absorb thousands of high-needs students, about to be dropped from their current therapy schedules, into full-day schooling.

We all agree that shortening wait lists and receiving early supports is crucial. Yet this can be accomplished by other means, such as increased funding, finding efficiencies and providing more effective supports in schools to decrease pressure on the Ontario Autism Program’s budget.

I feel deeply for the thousands of families of children who will never have a chance to receive the level of support that allowed Sebastian to make such life-changing gains. My only hope lies in the power of parent engagement, and, as history has shown, that hope may not be misplaced.

Janet McLaughlin, Associate Professor of Health Studies, Research Associate, International Migration Research Centre, Wilfrid Laurier University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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