No One is Illegal Conference
A wide range of activists and organizations discuss and share experiences of their collective struggles
A theme of social responsibility to address attacks of the Canadian government on immigrants, refugees and other members of the polity
TORONTO (1 December 2003) -- A one-day conference on November 29 organized by the No One Is Illegal coalition in Toronto brought together a wide range of activists and organizations to discuss and share experiences of their collective struggles to oppose the Canadian government's racist attacks and impunity against immigrants and refugees.
The overriding theme of the conference was that the increasing attacks of the Canadian government and its institutions against citizens, residents and immigrants, especially within the context of the "war on terrorism," must be met with the defiance and opposition of the broadest sections of the Canadian people. The demand must be that the human rights of all members of the Canadian polity -- citizens, refugees and immigrants alike -- be respected and guaranteed.
This was expressed by a number of speakers including Rabie Masri from Montreal's Coalition Against the Deportation of Palestinian Refugees. He militantly stated that if the Canadian state -- through the federal government, police and courts -- attacks and abuses the rights of people with impunity, that that state has no legitimacy and must be defied by the people. He stated that the stateless Palestinians, Algerians and others in Montreal have militantly demanded their rights be respected even under threat of deportation. It is by raising the banner of their rights that these various communities have won the broad support of the Canadian people, Masri said.
Another theme of the conference was the necessity for the Canadian people to demand a humane, just and equitable immigrant and refugee policy that expresses the aspirations of the Canadian people and is consistent with international human rights laws and conventions.
Avvy Go of the Status Coalition, which advocates for the tens of thousands of people in Canada with no "legal" status,, pointed out that Canada's immigration and refugee policy has always been exclusionary. She cited the experience of the Chinese immigrants who came to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. They who not only faced economic exploitation but were restricted from coming to Canada after the CPR was built in 1885, Go said. A Head Tax imposed on every Chinese immigrant increased from $50 per person in 1885 to $500 a person in 1903, resulting in the Canadian state collecting a total of $23 million from Chinese immigrants -- the exact cost of building the CPR. Thus, not only did the Chinese build the railway, they also paid for it, she said. Today, this hated Head Tax goes by another name, the Landing and Processing Fee which amounts to about $1,500 which restricts poor people from coming to Canada, she said.
She also noted that while Citizenship and Immigration Canada wants to bring the "best and brightest" from all over the world to Canada, these newcomers are having an increasingly difficult time finding work to sustain their new lives in this country. "Canada has the highest qualified pizza deliverers in the world," she said. On the other hand, increasingly, "temporary workers" are being brought in to fill the needs of industry. These individuals are virtually bonded slaves and are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and attacks on their basic rights. She also gave the example of Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Denis Coderre agreeing to provide temporary "work permits" to tens of thousands of "illegal" workers working in the building trades in Toronto. After their two-year contract is over, they may be allowed to apply of landed status. This is how Canada continues to exploit the most vulnerable people in the world, she stated. She concluded that it was not enough to keep opposing the racist immigration and refugee policy of successive Canadian governments. What is needed, she pointed out, was to move beyond just "surviving" to demanding a complete change to immigration and refugee policy in Canada so that it is just and in harmony with international humanitarian laws, not arbitrary and punitive.
Amina Sherazee, a lawyer and an immigrant and refugee rights advocate, drew attention to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. She said this act is a powerful tool in the hands of the Canadian state to act with impunity against anyone it chooses to target politically through the use of "security certificates" and "secret trials" which provide victims with limited remedy and totally dehumanizes them. Sherazee also pointed out that in the wake of the "war on terrorism" refugees also have had a more difficult time seeking sanctuary in Canada. Deportations are increasing and people are being denied even the right to a pre-removal risk assessment, which Citizenship and Immigration Canada is supposed to do in order to determine whether deporting a person to a particular country could put that person in danger. Not only are many people denied the pre-removal risk assessment, less than 3 per cent of applications for the pre-removal risk assessment result in a person being allowed to stay, she said.
Sherazee pointed out that the worse crimes have been committed under the Liberal government of Jean Chretien. It does not bode well, she pointed out, that Paul Martin is contemplating a "Homeland Security" department in Canada. This will only result in increased persecution of people and denial of due process, "secret trials" and disregard for human rights. In the face of this, she said that "the solution has to be political." Only by people mobilizing themselves to demand an end to these unjust laws, the arbitrariness and impunity of the "security certificates" and "secret trials" can justice prevail, she concluded.
Sophie Harkat, the wife of Mohamad Harkat (an Algerian refugee who was arrested by undercover police outside his Ottawa home on December 10, 2002 under a "security certificate" for alleged links to "Islamic terrorist groups" and has been held without charge for a year) spoke about the "horrible and unfair treatment" her husband has received in the hands of the government and prison officials. He has been beaten by other prisoners, denied access to his family and subjected to ongoing humiliation. She called on everyone to support her husband and all others who have been victims of the "security certificates."
There were also speakers from the Somali, Roma and Iranian communities. Individuals who are facing deportation spoke of their experiences as refugees and how the Canadian government has criminalized them in order to divide them from the rest of society. For example, Ibrahim Absiye of Midaynta, the Association of Somali Service Agencies, explained how Somali refugees who came to Canada seeking asylum between 1988 and 1992 had to wait five years before being given status. DNA testing was done to determine which child belonged to which family, which caused great hardship and turmoil within the community, and even today, the one of the poorest groups of people living in Toronto are Somalis who face discrimination in employment, housing and education.
The final panel of speakers included members of religious organizations who spoke about the "sanctuary movement." Currently there are six churches in Ottawa, Montreal, Halifax and North Hatley whose congregations have collectively defied Canadian law by providing sanctuary within the churches for those about to be deported. Denis Coderre has stated that he would "not deal with the churches which break laws." But in this case, the members of the church have exercised their right to conscience and chosen to disobey unjust laws. There are other churches considering this option as a last resort to protect and uphold the dignity of human beings.
Finally, the other theme at the conference was that of taking social responsibility to address the attacks of the Canadian government on immigrants, refugees and other members of the polity. Those who were present were determined to step up their efforts to unite in action to defy the racist attacks and impunity of the Canadian government. In that spirit it was announced that No One Is Illegal Toronto and the Campaign to Stop Secret Trails in Canada would be holding a rally on Saturday, December 13 beginning at 12 noon at Ryerson University and then to go to the Metro West Detention Centre to protest against the detentions and deportations of people.
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