Visible Threat to Immigrants' Freedom

According to Hassan Yussuff of the Canadian Labour Congress, immigrants and refugees, as well as visible minorities — not just Arabs and Muslims — could bear the brunt of the West’s crackdown on terrorism. Civil-rights activists seem to agree.

Since September 11 — when four commercial planes were hijacked and transformed into bombs — terrorism has topped the political agenda. The attacks in the United States destroyed the World Trade Center, severely damaged the Pentagon and killed thousands of people. Immediately following the destruction, the Canadian government began developing a series of initiatives to defend itself against such threats. These include:

  • Bill C-11, a measure allowing government to speed up immigration and deportation trials for immigrants and refugees;
  • the Maple Leaf Card — including a photo, residential address, name and status — which immigrants will have to carry with them at all times;
  • Bill C-36, which would increase the power of police and security forces to conduct preventive arrest and investigative hearings and;
  • the province of Ontario plans to establish a special elite police unit to assist federal officers in tracking down immigrants who are in the province without proper authorization.

Activists say these security measures will have a direct impact on vulnerable communities in three specific ways.

Racial Profiling

After September 11, civil-rights activists believe racial profiling became a reality for many visible minorities or anyone with an Arab-sounding name.

Jehab Allweiwi, from the Canadian Arab Federation, believes that such profiling was a result of the media’s portrayal of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime. When in power, its theocratic rulers protected al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, the prime suspects for September’s devastation, as well as other attacks against the U.S.

On October 7, the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan in retaliation.

According to Allweiwi, media coverage has given Westerners the impression that anyone from Islamic countries could be a potential threat.

“Profiling will have a major impact on the number of people detained upon arriving here; who will be allowed to enter and leave; and the kind of background checks they will have to submit to before being granted entry to Canada,” he says.

While Allwiewi can understand the need for security, he questions how far a government should go. “The reaction of the Canadian government through such swift legislation is frantic and irrational, instead of cautious and genuine in its concern for safety.”

Status Squads

Just three weeks after the September 11 attacks, the government of Ontario — under Premier Mike Harris — announced its intention to create a police unit that will work with federal officers to track down illegal immigrants in the province. According to Erica Lawson of the African Canadian Legal Clinic, the police have already begun the hiring and training process.

With Harris’s announcement, Lawson heard a lot she didn’t like. “The fact that the Premier would use such language as that illegal immigrants are just taking up space says to me he is playing to the notion that some Canadians see their country as being overrun by immigrants. This falls in line with what Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion and Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman have said to describe immigrants and visible minorities.

“Canada is a country struggling to become multicultural, but it still wants to hang on to its whiteness,” she adds.

Lawson also believes the fear that the government is promoting through security measures only helps to “validate racial profiling under the guise of national security. Media, education, government and police forces have all mobilized to help legitimize racism after September 11,” she says.

Attack on Civil Liberties

The federal government’s response to terrorism included the immigration Bill C-11 and the anti-terrorism Bill C-36.

Together, the bills are meant to speed up background checks and deportation orders for new immigrants and refugees. The Senate has already approved the immigration bill. The Liberal government has pushed Bill C-36 through the House. It will go to the Senate for approval in the new year. Officials will soon be able to act faster when they suspect someone may be a threat to national security, based on Ottawa’s vague outline of what such a threat would be. The argument is that this will mean that Canada is better prepared to deal with a terrorist threat.

Hassan Yusseff believes there is nothing wrong with providing Canadians with more security — just not at the expense of making thousands insecure. These security measures, he says, only help to clarify targets. “It makes neighbours suspicious of neighbours, friends suspicious of friends. It criminalizes innocent people and makes others live in constant fear.”

Yusseff says that Bill C-36 also constitutes a direct attack on people’s civil liberties, but this attack will affect vulnerable people specifically. “Never — since Japanese Canadians in World War Two and the FLQ crisis in Quebec — have we seen such rushed legislation and forced powers against civil liberties. This is a direct attack against the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he says.

“While all Canadians should be concerned by all these security measures, immigrants and refugees should be especially concerned,” says Yusseff. “We need to stand up for ourselves and challenge the Canadian government and everyone we elected that you’re either with us or with Bill C-36.”

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