The great challenge of Canadian journalism in the age of Trump is resisting the temptation to cram all bilateral news into a flattering narrative that contrasts crazed, bigoted America with righteous, inclusive Canada.
Canadian papers have been brimming lately with sensationalistic stories of U.S. Muslim refugees “pouring” into Canada to escape President Trump and his “Muslim ban,” risking life and limb to cross unmanned portions of the border in weather icy enough to literally freeze off fingers. Things reached a social media peak when a maudlin photo of a jolly Mountie escorting a young family over the snowy 49th parallel went viral.
Yet in the service of a tidy morality tale, much about these border crossings is being reported inaccurately, or at the very least, enormous amounts of complicating context are going conspicuously ignored.
While there has been some diversity, or at least ambiguity, in the nationality of a few of Canada’s recent high-profile border-crossers, a closer look at who’s coming suggests the phenomena has less to do with refugees per se — even Muslim ones — than Somalis in particular, with an influx that’s been steadily increasing independent of political developments in the United States. Any spike in border crossings that followed President Trump’s inauguration was probably going to happen anyway.
Consider the tiny town of Emerson, Manitoba, the widely cited “epicenter” of Canada’s migrant tidal wave. For such a seemingly random place, it’s received a bizarrely gigantic influx of American refugees in recent weeks — bizarre, that is, until one observes Emerson shares a border with Minnesota, home of the United States’ largest Somali population.
According to a detailed 2016 story on Emerson border crossings published in Real Agriculture, a news site for Canadian farmers, “a whopping 294 Somali asylum-seekers were intercepted on Canadian soil and brought to the Emerson border crossing in the 12 month period that ended March 31, 2016.” An accompanying line graph depicts migration rates bearing no obvious correlation to U.S. politics. One spike occurs in August 2015, around the time Jeb Bush was still the odds-on favorite to win the Republican nomination; another comes in April 2016, when Donald Trump was edging closer to the GOP nod but was still considered a long shot for the White House. A CBC chart depicts a pyramid whose slope started in 2013.
For decades, Somalis have been flooding out of their country, a place so plagued by violence the Canadian government’s official tourism advice is simply “avoid all travel.” When seeking exile, many in the diaspora have favored Canada over the United States for reasons that range from family ties — Toronto is home to a Somali community even larger than Minnesota’s — to the fact that Canada’s immigration bureaucracy is seen as more forgiving (although both countries are generally hesitant to deport anyone back to the war-torn nation).
Yet a Somali wanting to enter Canada can’t simply jump on a direct flight from Mogadishu. For many, the journey involves a long slog through multiple other countries before arriving in the United States and hopping the Canadian border in what has been described as a modern “underground railroad” of human smuggling.
Some in Canada have taken to blaming this state of affairs on the Safe Third Country Agreement negotiated by Canada and the United States in the early 2000s in an attempt to prevent “asylum shopping” — the practice of refugees traipsing around the First World for the best possible deal. Since 2004, anyone who attempts to leave the United States at an official Canadian border crossing for the purpose of making a refugee claim is told to work within the U.S. system.
This obviously offers small comfort to refugees lacking faith in that system. Yet while Canadians may sympathize in the context of a capricious president, appeals to Canadian superiority can also offer convenient cover for migrants unwanted by the United States for perfectly justified reasons — including terrorist ties and serious criminal records.
The Somali American community has a troubled record of gang violence. A 2011 investigation by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) concluded that the jihadi group al-Shabaab “has an active recruitment and radicalization network inside the U.S. targeting Muslim-Americans in Somali communities.” The threat may be overstated, but it will have some resonance in Canada, which has seen several Somali immigrants implicated in terror-related charges. In 2014, Canada’s National Post reported on the case of Ahmed Abdi Ismail, who crossed the Emerson border illegally in March of that year. After being apprehended by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, an FBI cross-check found him to be under security investigation in the United States, and he was placed in maximum security detention.
The notion that Canada is simply “a better country” than the United States — as former prime minister Stephen Harper put it — has been a persistent trope of Canadian nationalism, and one that’s easy for journalists to evoke with stories of fawning migrants who can’t flee America fast enough. Far less intuitive, but far more useful, is to cast a skeptical Canadian eye toward those claiming nothing but affection.