For World Refugee Day, Jean-Michel Genest, a Master’s student in Public and International Affairs at the Faculty of Social Sciences, share his investigation of the Canadian government’s response to refugees arriving by boat since the year 1986. With the supervision of Professor Patti Lenard , he is taking a closer look at the policies established after the first arrivals, and their escalation following subsequent arrivals.
In 1986, 155 refugees from Sri Lanka arrived in Newfoundland and Labrador. The following year, 173 Indian Sikhs landed in Nova Scotia. After these arrivals, the government, then under the supervision of Brian Mulroney, established a law that allowed the temporary detention of individuals without proper documentation, in order to identify them. “Because 20 years ago, we put a system in place in which certain refugees could be detained, it became acceptable to detain all refugees. Every policy change we made created a snowball effect on the way in which the country welcomes new arrivals”, Jean-Michel explains. During the summer of 1999, a large number of Chinese asylum seekers arrived in British Columbia aboard four boats. In 2009 and 2010, the province witnessed two arrivals again. Over time, the federal government has reacted by introducing new measures, including allowing for the temporary detention of all adult asylum-seekers arriving by boat. “Because 20 years ago, we put a system in place in which certain refugees could be detained, it became acceptable to detain all refugees. Every policy change we made created a snowball effect on the way in which the country welcomes new arrivals”, Jean-Michel explains.
Two weights and two measures
The view of the government, and of the general public, is that the reception of refugees arriving by airplane fulfills our humanitarian obligation to help people living in critical situations. In contrast, refugees arriving by boat are considered ‘illegal aliens’ and a threat to Canadians. Furthermore, research has proven that there is a noticeable difference in the treatment of refugees arriving by airplane versus those arriving by boat.
Prior to his master's degree, Jean-Michel completed a bachelor's degree in political science and a certificate in Arabic language and culture. His academic background also led him to explore social work conduct military and strategic studies. Between his undergraduate and graduate studies, Jean-Michel worked for a while, as a student at the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in Montreal. As part of his job, he had the opportunity to observe the challenges related to the integration of new arrivals in Canada. It was that mindset that drove him to write his thesis in international and public affairs: “I hope that my research will allow Canadian society to look at itself in the mirror and ask itself the right questions, to realize whether we’re fair and equitable in our application of the laws”, says Jean-Michel. “The oppression of a refugee is always the same regardless of the means of transportation used. It is the refugee's resources that differ, and that should not affect the decision made by Canada. ".
The University of Ottawa has created an initiative to collect donations in order to sponsor refugees.