Hysteria and Discrimination: Canada's Harsh Response to Refugees and Migrants Who Arrive by Sea

By Neve, Alex; Russell, Tiisetso | University of New Brunswick Law Journal, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview
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Hysteria and Discrimination: Canada's Harsh Response to Refugees and Migrants Who Arrive by Sea

Neve, Alex, Russell, Tiisetso, University of New Brunswick Law Journal


The recent arrival of two ships carrying Tamil refugee claimants has caused much debate and discussion in the media, and spurred the Canadian government to table proposed new legislation, Bill C-49, Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act on October 21, 2010. This opinion piece looks briefly at the history of boat arrivals of migrants and refugees in Canada over the last 100 years, with a focus on recent examples. The authors decry the disparate treatment and hysteria accompanying these arrivals and underscore the key international human rights standards that must guide any legislative or policy response to smuggling.


What is it about the combination of boats and migrants that triggers such hysteria in Canadian policy and media circles and unleashes a sense of panic among the Canadian public? There are of course many issues in the immigration realm that spark considerable debate and discussion in Canada, and quite legitimately so: setting the right annual levels of immigrants, streamlining the refugee system, dealing with individuals who pose security threats, selecting the best independent immigrants, speeding up family reunification, and many more. Few issues, however, provoke the same intensity of reaction as when a boatload of migrants shows up off one of Canada's coasts.

It is a bit of a puzzle. For hundreds of years people have arrived in Canada by boat. In fact, other than First Nations and Inuit peoples, whose roots in Canada go back millennia, for most of the millions of immigrants and refugees who have settled in Canada over the past several hundreds of years, coming by boat was the only option.

Over the past twenty-five years in particular, migrants, including refugees, who have come to Canada by open sea, have been viewed and treated with suspicion and even hostility. However, it is not only a recent phenomenon. There are a handful of earlier distressing examples of boatloads of desperate immigrants and refugees being cavalierly turned away from Canadian shores.

This opinion piece will review some of the boat arrivals that have caused such a stir within the Canadian body politic. We lay out the serious human rights concerns associated with the laws and policies that arise with this fixation on boats. In particular, we highlight that the government's most recent legislative salvo, Bill C-49, introduced in Parliament in October 2010, reflects a particularly punitive response and violates many of Canada's key international human rights obligations.


Images of migrants and refugees arriving by sea have dominated the headlines in Canada over the past 18 months, with the arrival of a total of close to 575 Sri Lankan Tamil men, women and children in British Columbia on the Ocean Lady in October 2009 and the Sun Sea in August 2010.

Amidst public debate that has occasionally been vitriolic, they were allowed to land and advance refugee claims. It is worth noting, however, that almost a century ago, another boat with migrants from South Asia received a hostile welcome, and were in fact turned away. On 23 May 1914 the Komagata Maru arrived in Vancouver with 376 Passengers, mostly Sikhs from India (which was at that time, of course, still under British rule). (1). They were not allowed to land in Canada and on 23 July 1914 the ship was forced to return to India. This was not just reflective of hysteria about boats of non-European origin, however. Rather this was but one of several incidents in the early 20th century involving blatantly racist Canadian immigration laws, policies and practices designed to keep out immigrants of Asian origin. (2)

Twenty-five years later, a particularly shameful example of hostility and racism in response to the arrival of a boatload of refugees played out on Canada's east coast. In May 1939 the passenger ship, the St.

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Hysteria and Discrimination: Canada's Harsh Response to Refugees and Migrants Who Arrive by Sea


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