July 8, 2013
Challenges to Refugee Reform Should Be Taken Seriously…Canada Has Made Serious Mistakes Before!
A new group, called the Jewish Refugee Action Network, was recently launched in Toronto and are challenging the federal government’s treatment of refugee claimants by lobbying for the repeal of laws that discourage asylum seekers from certain countries or alleged designated safe countries. Refugee reform has resulted in a steep decline of refugee claimants despite rising numbers globally and vociferous criticism by many human rights organizations.
But as in all things it is instructive to take a look back and take lessons from the past. In 1908 Wilfrid Laurier’s Federal Government made an important amendment to the Immigration Act of 1906. The amendment was in response to then Deputy Minister of Labour Mackenzie King’s findings that an undesirable Oriental influx was attributable to high immigration from Hawaii. He recommended that Ottawa should severely limit the admission of Japanese newcomers as well as new settlers from India. As such in 1908 the “continuous journey regulation” came into effect and remained until 1947–thirty nine years.
Pursuant to this regulation all intended immigrants to Canada were required to travel to Canada by continuous passage from their country of origin or citizenship on a through ticket purchased in the said country. Since no shipping company offered direct services from India to Canada or from Hawaii to Canada both Indian and Japanese immigration were eliminated.
The regulation did not go unchallenged. The most notable challenge to the continuous journey regulation is known as the Komagata Maru incident on May 23rd, 1914 when 376 East Indians (including 22 landed immigrants of Canada) arrived in Vancouver in the Komagata Maru steamer. In the end, after weeks of depriving the passengers of food and water and a test case before an Immigration Board of Enquiry all except the returning residents were redirected to India found in violation of the continuous journey regulation. Although exceptions over the thirty nine years were permitted the legislation is a significant blight on Canada’s immigration history. There have also been horrible examples of turning away persons in need of our protection including Jewish migrants fleeing Nazi Germany
In 2013 we are now faced with the potential of returning individuals to death or torture on the basis of a technical, expedient and emotionless application of this new legislation that focuses on process and country rather than the individual. Although officers may be operating lawfully the loss of human lives may still result. If immigration and refugee history has taught us one lesson, the law should never lose sight that it manages humans. Our history is riddled with painful examples where efficiency or at times nefarious racially motivated legislation trounced human rights and led to death and torture of innocent people looking to Canada for help. I can only hope that it will not take Canada thirty-nine years to reconsider.