Party leaders jabbed back and forth over Quebec immigration and irregular migration during Thursday’s French-language leaders’ debate.
The topic of irregular migration — especially at the unofficial border crossing at Roxham Road, Que. — has become a hot button political issue ever since the spring of 2017 when an influx of asylum seekers began entering Canada at unofficial border crossings.
The debate came just a day after Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer vowed to close the “loophole” in the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) between Canada and U.S. — a deal that allows asylum claims to go forward even when made at unofficial ports of entry.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May attacked Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau on the issue, saying he did something that he promised Canadians he would never do: that is, hide legislative reforms inside a government budget bill that May said stripped refugees of their basic human rights.
“It was something that cancelled the human rights of people who were looking for a safe life here in Canada,” she said.
May was referring to a decision by the Liberals to impose new restrictions that block would-be refugees from making asylum claims in Canada if they have already made a claim in another country, such as the U.S.
When the new rule was announced in April, the Trudeau government faced harsh criticism from immigration lawyers and refugee advocates, many of whom claimed the move violated refugees’ constitutional rights to full and fair hearings of their claims.
Trudeau defended his government’s record on immigration, including its handling of the influx of irregular migrants.
He said May’s claim that expanded inadmissibility rules at the border violated refugees’ human rights was “absolutely false.” His government has also defended the new rule by saying no one will be removed from Canada without first receiving a pre-removal risk assessment to determine if they are in danger.
“Canadians believe that we need to have a fair, and strong immigration system that applies to everyone and we are working to make sure that we protect human rights,” Trudeau said.
“There’s no free pass to get through the border,” he said. “Whether people arrive in a regular or irregular way at the border, they have to go through a security check and they have to go through every step of our security system.”
Irregular migration is one of the issues NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-François Blanchet agree upon.
Singh pressed Trudeau on his handling of the irregular border crossings and the STCA, claiming that Trudeau “doesn’t have the courage” to stand up to U.S. President Donald Trump and to do what’s right for refugees.
Both the NDP and Bloc say the STCA should be suspended.
The issue of immigration to Quebec was also raised during the debate.
People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier reiterated his calls for lower immigration levels and for more economic immigrants to come to Canada.
Bernier also said that Trudeau had failed to deal with the irregular migration issue, which he claims reduces the government’s ability to take in other immigrants.
“if we want more economic immigrants, we need to help the real refugees, the true refugees,” Bernier said, referring to the irregular migrants who cross at Roxham Road.
Scheer also reiterated earlier promises on immigration, saying he is willing to work with Quebec to increase immigration levels, especially for economic immigrants.
On refugees, Scheer said he would focus on those “fleeing natural disasters and civil war, not those that come from New York state.”