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Quebec bans symbols but all of Canada bans migrants

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Thousands are outraged at the Parti Quebecois charter of values -- a charter that proposes to prohibit the wearing of religious symbols by public employees. As these symbols are disproportionately worn by racialized immigrants in particular Muslims and Sikhs, critics insist that Marois is playing the "race card." Many insist that the Charter of Values will create a "second class of citizens." Amongst this outrage, there are critics emerging from strange quarters. Stephen Harper insists that the charter will fail and if it doesn't, the federal government will launch a legal challenge. Jason Kenney has ridden into the struggle -- calling the charter a "Monty Pythonesque" absurdity. Even the much maligned Margaret Wente is up in arms -- calling Premier Pauline Marois's move the "stirring of populist resentment." NDP's Thomas Mulclair dismissed it as "base politics," while Trudeau went as far as to compare it to segregation (a comparison he later softened). Under all this pressure, it seems that Marois may be backtracking.

But while the wearing of religious symbols is defended, poor and working-class immigrants themselves are being excluded from the entire country. Many are shut out entirely, and an immense number relegated to second-class status as temporary migrants.

Many political pundits have spoken of how the number of Temporary Foreign Workers in the Canadian labour market far exceeds the number of immigrants acquiring permanent residence every year. That is, many migrants have no choice but to enter Canada through the Temporary Foreign Worker Program. But this shows an incomplete picture. The entire family reunification stream has been dismantled, meaning that more and more immigrant families remain separated. Today, parents and grandparents of immigrants with full status can only come in to the country temporarily -- they can visit, adding to the social and cultural community, taking care of the grandkids, but cannot stay or get health care. As of January 2014, the age of sponsorship for children will be lowered while siblings of immigrants continue to be ineligible. In addition, spouses in a relationship for less than two years prior to marriage (which will impact arranged marriages from South and East Asia, etc.) will only receive temporary status for the first two years. Restrictions on refugee applicants mean that the number of claimants applying has dropped 70 per cent from this time last year. Those that do apply are simply temporary migrants, as most are denied permanent status.

The number of temporary residents in the country rose from around 451,000 in 2003 to nearly 775,000 in 2012. Yet most of these people will be unable to gain full status -- the number of immigrants gaining permanent status during this period has stayed constant at around 250,000. This means that at some point or the other, temporary migrants who came here as workers, students, spouses, parents, grandparents or refugees have to make the difficult decision to stay without status or leave the country.

Though many condemn Quebec for its Charter of Values, provinces across Canada have similarly created two-tiered legal systems to deny rights to temporary migrants. Quebec is banning some migrants from wearing religious symbols and working for the government, but for the large part, no temporary or non-status migrant can get a decent job anywhere in this country. Here in Ontario, many temporary and non-status migrants are being paid under minimum wage. Some like agricultural workers, most of whom are racialized migrants, are "exempted" from minimum wage, holiday pay or overtime altogether. Others like domestic workers, factory workers, etc. who are theoretically included within minimum wage laws cannot actually reclaim monetary losses, as they only have six months to apply to get back stolen wages, and there is a cap on the amount they can get. Migrant workers are often charged exorbitant sums of money for the "privilege" in "user fees" to work in Canada -- these "recruitment fees" are largely legalized and where they are not, those restrictions aren't enforced.

When temporary or non-status migrants get injured on the job, provincial laws ban them from accessing decent health care. Few, if any, get injured workers compensation. Those that do are "deemed" fit for a job in Ontario after they have been deported to countries where no such jobs exist and the compensation is then cut off. Many temporary and non-status migrant workers are forced to live in employers homes as a result of restrictive work permits or because of the nature of their jobs, yet that housing is excluded from housing and tenancy act regulations so that rights cannot be accessed. When migrants complain, bosses fire them, or report them to immigration enforcement, forcing many to leave the country, with no mechanism for appeal. The list goes on and on, education, pensions, all basic services are denied to migrants by law.

Lest all this be pegged on to the Conservatives and Pauline Marois, a little history on legalized exclusion of migrants is in order. For the first hundred years after confederation Canadian immigration policy banned people of colour from immigrating to the country altogether. It officially became "colour-blind" and open to racialized immigrants in 1967. While many see this as a historic win against racism in Canada, new laws were quickly formed to continue the exploitation and exclusion of racialized immigrants. In 1973, Canada instituted a new immigration system where migrants could come and work in the country for a few short years, with limited rights, and then be forced to leave. The program was named the Non-Immigrant Employment Authorization Program (NIEAP) and essentially maintained the previous immigration policy -- it excluded racialized immigrants, particularly poor ones, from permanent status in Canada. It also created a new workforce that kept temporary workers in sex-segregated, low-paying, difficult jobs. Afraid of too many people of colour arriving in the country, Canada threw open its doors to "family reunification" in the hopes that white immigrants would sponsor their families.

NIEAP worked, bringing in Caribbean and later Filipino women as in live-in domestic work, and Caribbean and Latin American in to agricultural work. However, the inverse happened in the family reunification streams as newly arriving permanent immigrants of colour sponsored far more family members then white settlers did. Undeterred, the federal government is now shutting down the family reunification system and the humanitarian pathways.

This latest wave of expansion of the Temporary Foreign Work Program and the shift to temporariness in the entire immigration system is part of a long history of trying to keep poor migrants of colour out of full status and rights. No government, federal or provincial, has wavered from this work of keeping poor and racialized bodies away from full rights in this country. Reading in this light, Pauline Marois's attempt to shut religious symbols from public service is just the tip of the iceberg, not an aberration but a continuation. Naming it as such, across the country, is imperative if we are to actually defeat racisms.

Important note: Today I only focused on migrant exclusion, but consider the banning of Indigenous languages from churches and government buildings, the persecution of Sun Dance ceremony and others and it becomes abundantly clear that the first target of these racist exclusions have always been, and continue to be, Indigenous communities.

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