Canada Jails Refugees

Posted by admin on Sep 18th, 2010

Written by Devon Ridge, MayDay Magazine

This May, The MV Sun Sea departed from Sri Lanka carrying 492 men, women, and children, giving up their sovereign identities for a dangerous and uncertain journey. After being denied permission to dock in Thailand and Australia, the Tamil refugees approached British Columbia, hoping to find asylum. Instead of being welcomed, the boat was met by the force of armed RCMP and naval officers and unfounded accusations of terrorism. Instead of finding refuge after a three month long journey risking death, the refugees are currently experiencing the dehumanizing treatment of incarceration. Mainstream media and government officials have taken up what seems like a moral debate about what to do with the boatload of refugees. This discussion fuels fear and confusion, distracting people from asking the most important questions. Questions like, is there really any justification for prison as a humane response to encountering people fleeing for their lives?

This is not the first time that a ship carrying refugees into Canadian waters has been met with racist hostility and accusations of terror. Last October, the arrival of a ship carrying 76 Tamil refugees was debated with the same unfounded panic and media sensationalism. Canada’s Border Service ultimately admitted there was never any evidence the men had any sort of connection with groups deemed to be terrorists.

And yet, time after time, the arrival of a boat filled with refugees ignites hysteria. Such a reaction is, in part, a product of systemic racial violence inherent in the western world. It stems from the same logic of colonialism and white supremacy that initiated the genocide of Indigenous peoples.

The MV Sun Sea’s arrival also threatens the bubble of the western world, forcing us to consider the injustices the majority of the world population face. Most of us have at least some blurry understanding of the human rights violations in Sri Lanka. The UN is currently investigating war crimes committed by the Sri Lankan government including 5,749 cases of “disappeared” people. It is difficult to imagine the bravery it would take to make such a dangerous boat trip towards no secure future. Maybe it is easier to comprehend such a desperate decision by remembering that, in Sri Lanka, public dissent is managed by death squads.

In Canada, many activists and community organizers are calling attention to the intensification of state repression against immigrants and other marginalized groups. Mainstream media is guilty of uncritically taking up the voice of government officials, repeating phrases like “homegrown terrorists”, “jihad generation”, “illegals” , and “queue jumpers”.

This dangerous rhetoric justifies a push towards demonizing certain immigrant populations. For example, recently four men were arrested under charges of terrorism as part of a two year on-going investigation called “Project Samosa”. As you may guess from the name, racism permeates every aspect of these state operations.

Public safety minister Vic Toews called upon immigrants to monitor and report suspicious or extremist behaviour in their communities, citing the rising threat of “homegrown terrorism”. This message specifically singles out people from South Asian, Somalia, Afghanistan, and other places with large Muslim populations. By ignorantly grouping all Muslim populations together, it is easier to sweepingly demonize a “them” in the necessary us/them binary of racism.

But Toews certainly did not call upon the privileged “us” side to watch the very real increase in the presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Canada.

Within spaces created by xenophobic government messaging, anti-immigration advocates are gaining strength. White supremacy groups have taken to the streets, demanding Tamil passengers be denied refuge, protesting and carrying signs saying “Stand up, send the boat back”.

These groups are guilty of perpetuating false rumors, claiming that the ship contained drugs and explosives. They enthusiastically resonate with government statements of terrorism and criminals. Paul Fromm, a known neo-Nazi, appealed to the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism “to do his job and protect our borders” ridiculously insisting that, “[Fromm] must act as Captain Canada and protect our sovereignty.”

Panic surrounding the G20 summit exemplifies a similar push to shift the entire political spectrum towards the right. This creates space for far-right extremists to gain momentum in promoting racist ideas and even move into positions of power. For example, Gary McHale, an anti-native organizer, is currently running for a city council seat in Caledonia with a growing support-base.

To resist these dangerous shifts towards the extreme far-right, we can begin by identifying messages of fear as weapons against critical thinking and pose our own questions. Join us in discussion at

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