In the last few weeks, we have witnessed a new iteration of the debate on immigration in Quebec, which is taking an increasingly dark turn. With a growing number of asylum seekers in Canada, a significant portion of whom are passing through Quebec via the notorious Roxham Road, a xenophobic, anti-immigrant discourse is also gaining momentum. The labour movement must oppose this anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Roxham Road, the border crossing between Quebec and the United States through which a large proportion of asylum seekers enter Canada, came back in the news in January after a Radio-Canada report announced that there are networks of American smugglers who sell their services to migrants to cross the border into Canada via Roxham Road.
It was then revealed that the City of New York and the U.S. National Guard, in an effort to get rid of the asylum seekers, were paying for their bus tickets to Canada. In addition, U.S. Customs agents were reported to have escorted migrants back to the U.S.-Canada border.
Faced with these revelations, Richard Martineau, Jean-Francois Lisée and the rest of the nationalist bunch went wild. Lisée, echoing the policies of the worst American politicians in the Republican Party, proposed: “We keep all the francophones and those with immediate family in Quebec and the others we put on a nice bus (…) and take them to Ottawa.” This view of asylum seekers as nothing better than cattle is typical of Lisée, who had also previously proposed building a border fence, “paid for by the Mexicans.”
Mario Dumont, in the pages of the Journal de Montréal, attacked asylum seekers passing through Roxham, accusing them of not all being “real refugees” and of being “people who pretend to be refugees [and who] just want to come and improve their lot in a rich country”.
The Bloc Québécois also attacked migrants. It published an image that presented the journey of asylum seekers passing through Roxham as an “all-inclusive”, in reference to the bus tickets paid to migrants by the American authorities. In doing so, the Bloc revealed its contempt for those people who go through incredible hardships in the hope of escaping misery, oppression and war.
The Parti Québécois also joined the chorus, calling for the closure of Roxham Road and proposing that the Sûreté du Québec “block” the road to migrants, as if it were just a matter of plugging a hole to stop the flow of migrants. Paul Saint-Pierre Plamondon, the leader of the PQ, even went so far as to say that immigration had to be curbed in order to prevent “the surge of extremism”, to guarantee “social peace”. Fomenting racial hatred to avoid racial hatred, now that’s original!
On Feb. 20, Quebec Premier François Legault sent a letter to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He asked that the federal government renegotiate the Safe Third Country Agreement with Washington. Under this agreement, asylum seekers entering Canada through a “safe” third country, such as the United States, will be turned back to that country on the grounds that they should have claimed asylum there. This results in many refugees choosing instead to enter Canada through an irregular port of entry, such as Roxham Road, before making their asylum claim in Canada. François Legault is also calling for “all asylum seekers who enter irregularly to be redirected to other provinces”.
Like other opponents of immigration, who do not yet dare to use overtly racist language, Legault wraps his claims in humanitarian arguments. He argues that “Quebec’s capacity to receive immigrants is far exceeded.” He says that asylum seekers are “struggling to find adequate housing and are more likely to find themselves homeless.” Jean-François Lisée does the same, when he justifies sending migrants to Ontario by saying that “Our community services, our hotels, our housing, our hospitals are overloaded. We can’t take this load”.
There is some truth in what they say: it is true that there has been a significant increase in the number of asylum seekers in Canada, and in Quebec in particular, in recent years, and that welcoming services are overwhelmed.
In 2022, 92,175 asylum seekers entered the country. This is a record high, representing a 44 per cent increase over the previous peak in 2019. Of these claimants, approximately 40,000 came through Roxham Road.
These asylum seekers often find themselves in Montreal, penniless, unemployed and homeless, looking for support. Community organizations report being overwhelmed by the demand. At a press conference last January, the TCRI (Round table of organizations serving refugees and immigrants) called for help. The Legault government responded with an emergency fund of $3.5 million for community organizations.
It is incredibly hypocritical for the CAQ and PQ to oppose the arrival of refugees on the grounds that Quebec is overburdened. These parties have actively contributed to the deterioration of public services and community organizations, and the housing crisis through austerity, underfunding and inaction, as well as their attacks on public sector workers. Right-wing commentators like Dumont, Lisée and company, who cheerlead for these parties and these kinds of policies, have no lessons to teach either.
Only when it comes to immigration do right-wing politicians and commentators point to the overloading of public services and the community. This is no accident. For them, immigrants and refugees are the perfect scapegoats for the problems they themselves have created through their policies of destruction of public services.
To underscore this hypocrisy, just days after sending this letter to Justin Trudeau saying he could no longer take in refugees, François Legault met with Ukrainian refugees and said, “We will continue to take them in,” saying that Quebec could provide them with “all kinds of help.” Quebec has taken in 11,000 Ukrainian refugees since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. The same nationalists who rail against the influx of refugees from Haiti, Mexico, Colombia and Turkey open their arms wide when it comes to Ukrainians. The racist hypocrisy is staggering: are there or are there not enough resources? Why is it that we have the resources to take in Ukrainians, but not Haitians? To ask the question is to answer it.
The Trudeau government, under pressure from Quebec, seems to have finally agreed to transport the migrants passing through Roxham Road out of Quebec as of February 11. Nearly 400 of them have been sent to Ontario. The Atlantic provinces have also begun to receive refugees who arrived via Roxham. While the Legault government is pleased with this decision, in doing so, Trudeau has turned what was a “Quebec problem” into a problem for all of Canada.
Conservative party of Canada leader Pierre Poilievre opportunistically joined François Legault in calling for the closure of Roxham Road. The Saskatchewan government sent an email to Radio-Canada, stating its intention not to take in more refugees, claiming it was already too busy with “thousands of displaced Ukrainians”! The mayor of Niagara Falls, where some of the asylum seekers sent to Ontario from Quebec are housed, complained that the refugees would hurt the city’s tourism industry because they “don’t spend” like tourists. We can only expect tensions between the provinces on this issue will continue to rise as the migrant crisis worsens.
Indeed, the migrant crisis is a global issue, and it was only a matter of time before it reached our shores. By 2022, more than 100 million people have been internally displaced or have sought refuge in another country, up from around 40 million per year in the 2000s. The multifaceted crisis of capitalism—economic crisis, climate crisis, imperialist wars, etc.—is causing massive displacement of people worldwide, fleeing misery, violence and environmental destruction. As the capitalist system continues to sink into crisis, the number of migrants will increase.
Attempts like Legault’s to pass the buck to the rest of Canada will result in increased tensions between the provinces as well as with the federal government. But the “problem” will not be solved by blocking the borders either. This is what the European experience shows.
On the other side of the Atlantic, waves of people fleeing war in the Middle East have been washing up on the walls of “Fortress Europe” for more than a decade, where they are met by gunmen who send them back to drown in the Mediterranean. All of Europe’s experience shows that any measure to close the borders, as proposed by St-Pierre Plamondon, Legault and Poilievre, only makes the migrants’ paths more dangerous and strengthens the networks of smugglers. Just a few days ago, a man died trying to enter Quebec from Vermont. Closing Roxham will not end migration, it will just lead to more dead refugees.
The migrant crisis will not be solved by simplistic solutions like closing Roxham Road, which would be like plugging one hole in a sieve. But politicians like Legault and co. have no other solution to the influx of migrants. Indeed, there are ample resources to accommodate all these refugees and more. However, these resources are in the greedy hands of the capitalists, the same ones that Legault and co. serve. Between the interests of the capitalists and those of the migrants, bourgeois nationalists like Legault will always choose the capitalists.
As for liberal politicians like Justin Trudeau, they adopt a fake pro-migrant tone to give themselves an air of mercy and humanitarianism, even though they are largely responsible for the imperialist wars and instability that drive so many people to flee their countries. Think of the 2004 coup in Haiti against Jean-Bertrand Aristide, orchestrated by the U.S. with the participation of the Liberal government of Paul Martin, or the Trudeau government’s sale of arms to Saudi Arabia for use in its criminal war against Yemen, or the government’s current support for the military coup regime in Peru that is murdering protesters. These are the same politicians who support Canadian corporations that siphon off the wealth of poor countries, leaving local populations in destitution, with no choice but to follow the flow of money into imperialist countries to seek a better life.
The working class must reject xenophobia!
The working class has no interest in joining the chorus of xenophobic politicians calling for the closure of Roxham Road. The only effect of this kind of anti-immigration rhetoric is to increase mistrust and racism against migrants, and thus make it easier to discriminate against them. The precariousness thus created allows employers to exploit these workers, as demonstrated by the recent revelation that the employer BRP pays its Mexican employees four times less than their Quebec colleagues at its Valcourt plant. This kind of case shows how bosses use racism to exploit migrant workers as cheap labor. The Quebec labor movement must oppose such discriminatory treatment, which puts downward pressure on the wages of all workers.
The labor movement must also fight for the abolition of the Safe Third Country Agreement. The U.S. is not a “safe” country for refugees, who are treated as criminals and imprisoned in terrible conditions, often before being sent back to their countries of origin. The Safe Third Country Agreement is nothing more than a compromise between imperialist thugs to manage the consequences (displaced populations) of their policies of war and plunder.
Rather than treating refugees as a problem to be managed, workers must fight for a society where there are enough resources for all, regardless of country of origin. These resources exist, but they are in the hands of the big capitalists. To satisfy the needs of the people, rather than the corporate thirst for profit, we must expropriate these billionaire parasites and build a socialist economy, democratically planned by the workers themselves. Such a workers’ democracy would have no interest in invading and exploiting other countries, forcing their inhabitants to flee war and misery. The migrant crisis is a pure product of the crisis of capitalism. Its solution requires the abolition of this rotten system.