On March 19, Canada’s finance minister, Bill Morneau, released the government’s final budget before the next election in October. They titled it “Investing in the Middle Class,” but there are no big spending items on measures that will meaningfully help Canadians who are strapped with debt and stagnant wages. There was one area of spending that stood out as bucking the Liberals’ Sunny Ways for the Middle Class rhetoric: billions promised to boost policing and tighten Canada’s border with the United States.
Morneau promised an additional $100 million each year (about $75 million in U.S. dollars) to be dispatched to “enhanced law enforcement” initiatives at the border. They will also spend nearly $1.2 billion over five years and $55 million in new ongoing yearly border security costs, including funding the “removal of failed asylum claimants in a timely manner.” The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, the force that most often intercepts claimants, will receive an additional $508 million over five years for general operations. And they’re committing $1.39 billion over two years to renew Canada’s “Middle East strategy,” which includes continuing airstrikes in Iraq and Syria.
These massive investments in war and border security are puzzling, especially since the Liberals have worked hard to discredit the demands of the far right as stoking xenophobia. Many far-right groups have targeted asylum claimants directly, by rejecting the U.N. Global Pact on migration, endangering refugees temporarily living in hotels and by demonstrating at various border crossings.
With this budget, rather than designating funds to help refugees settle in Canada, the Liberals have promised some of the largest sums of money to make it more difficult to seek asylum. Canada considers the United States to be a “safe third country,” making it virtually impossible to claim asylum from the United States. There has been a spike in claims since the election of President Trump, and many Canadians are calling for the Safe Third Country Agreement to be eliminated, so asylum claims can be heard.
In 2018, 18,518 people made asylum claims after entering Canada irregularly. The total number of claimants was 55,000. This is higher than in recent years, but it’s hardly astronomical. In 2001, the last time claimants spiked, nearly 45,000 people made asylum claims. In 2013, there was a historic low of 10,380, likely thanks to the Conservative government’s effort to prohibit and discourage people from seeking asylum here.
Rather than cancel the Safe Third Country Agreement, the Liberals have been quietly working to close the loophole that allows claimants to illegally cross the border and then make a claim. To oversee this change, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed Bill Blair, a member of Parliamnet and former police chief who is infamous for overseeing one of the largest instances of human rights abuse in recent Canadian history: the mass arrests in Toronto during the Group of 20 summit in 2010.
Since the SNC-Lavalin scandal broke, Liberals have tried to change the subject by warning Canadians about the how close many Conservative politicians are to the far right. Liberal commentators and their supporters on social media have said, again and again, that turning our backs on the Liberals will hand Andrew Scheer and his Conservatives a victory. The rise of a Yellow Vest-type of movement, endorsed by Conservative politicians from across Canada, gave the Liberals the perfect moment to try to divert the attention from SNC-Lavalin by pointing to how close some Conservatives are to white nationalists and organized racists.
But the Liberals’ investments in security, war and policing show that they are just as influenced by that divisive rhetoric, too — even if their talking points seem to condemn it.
Trudeau was among the first to denounce the attack in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ministers Harjit Sajjan and Jean-Yves Duclos visited mosques to express their solidarity with Muslims in Canada. Trudeau visited a mosque in Orleans, near Ottawa, and listened to members’ concerns about their safety and building an inclusive Canada.
But by immediately following these expressions of solidarity with a budget that bows to right-wing fear-mongering about the border and asylum seekers, the Liberals are engaging in high-stakes hypocrisy. They are sending a message of support while spending billions domestically on policies that will further demonize and restrict access to Canada by refugees — and will extend military activities abroad that have contributed to regional instability and mass migration. At the very least, if Canada’s military is engaged overseas, our asylum system should be ready to accept people displaced by war.
For peddlers of hate, there is a straight line between border security and racist hatred. For example, a mosque in the small northern Alberta town of Cold Lake was vandalized twice in 2014 and 2015, with “Go home” spray-painted on its facade. Apparently, Muslims in Canada cannot consider Canada home, even if they were born and raised here.
On the same day the budget was released, the Justice Committee met to resume its hearings into SNC-Lavalin. The Liberals used their majority to end debate on the matter and move to study the rise of hateful acts in Canada. The political gamble is that this crass pivot will be buried by the news of the budget, and the importance of the new topic. But instead of just paying lip service to condemning the far right, Trudeau must make his actions match his words.