Statement on Canada's Immigration and Refugee Policies

November 1, 1992


We are a country of immigrants. Except for the aboriginal peoples, every person in this country is a descendant of a person who, for whatever reason, made the momentous and painful decision to change homelands, to pull up deep family and cultural roots, and to launch themselves and their children into an unknown future.

They hoped for the best and braced themselves for the worst. Usually they met a bit of both.

In the past working people and their organizations have never determined immigration and refugee policies. Governments, usually acting for the dominant employers, have established these policies to suit the needs of the labour market. When Canada needed cheap labour, it was brought in. When skilled labour was needed, it was also recruited, and with it came the "brain drain" from the underdeveloped world.

Such employer-driven immigration and refugee policies pitted one group of workers against another group of newly-arrived immigrant workers. The immigrants often bore the brunt of racism and discrimination.

One of the myths is the suggestion that when unemployment is high, Canada cannot take in immigrants. However, there is no evidence that immigration creates unemployment or makes it worse. In fact, studies show that immigrants create jobs over and above the ones they fill.

Unemployment is an economic problem, a problem of government and corporate policies. In an era of new-conservatism, this means policies like free trade, privatization, deregulation and high interest rates. Workers did not create these policies, workers - especially immigrants and refugees - must not be blamed for the high unemployment created by these policies.

Canada's birth rate continues to decline. We need to increase our population base as we struggle for a national economic strategy that includes a policy of full-employment and adequately-funded universal social programs.

Canada now has a unique opportunity to respond to an urgent global crisis - the crisis of over 17 million refugees desperately seeking refuge in an increasingly hostile world. Millions of these refugees are fleeing political oppression, but millions are also fleeing economic exploitation.

We must pressure our Canadian governments, present and future, to expand the outdated definition of refugee that may have been used in the 40s but which is hopelessly inadequate in the 90s. We need a broadened definition that recognizes and responds to the economic as well as the political basis of refugee-creation.

Our union also recognizes that women are the majority of refugees the world over. Yet, again, the traditional definition of refugee fails to see gender oppression as a ground for refugee status. This must be changed immediately to protect millions of women who are facing impossible odds.

There have been moments in Canadian history when the rights and needs of refugees have been given their proper priority. Those humanitarian moments have, sadly, been reversed in recent years with increasing meanspiritedness. Refugee claimants in Canada have had to endure bureaucratic backlogs condemned by church, labour and community organizations.

As the backlog clears, we are witnessing a rapid decline in the percentage of refugee claimants accepted in Canada. Almost every second claimant is turned away. Using the excuse of cleansing the country of "illegals," deportation rates are climbing at a frightening pace. This practice is clearly underlined in a new-conservative agenda.

The racism of Canada's historic past seems to be creeping back into public policy. Refugees from Eastern Europe, in particular from former Yugoslavia, are allowed entry as they deserve to be. Yet refugees from Somalia, and Africa generally, are denied entry.

The federal government is also favouring an obvious class preference in their present policies and in their proposals for Immigration Act changes. Wealthy entrepreneurial immigrants pass through widely opened gates; in contrast, working class immigrants face the prospect of being told wher and for how long they must live in a specific region of the country, along with other measures that have no place in Canadian law. The discriminatory treatment of immigrant domestic workers is an example.

The labour movement has been built by immigrant workers - including those who came as refugees. The CAW must continue to speak out on this important area of social policy. Who more than organized labour has the right and obligation to shape the size and the composition of the national labour force?

This is a big country. Compared to many in the world we are relatively well off. As a land of immigrants we have achieved much. Today's and tomorrow's immigrants will continue to contribute to our society as well. We must open our doors and our hearts as wilde as possible to people wishing to bring their energy, courage and determination to our shores.

Above all, we must give sanctuary to those most in need - the refugees fleeing oppression and exploitation.