Here’s a former leader of Quebec’s Parti Québécois calling for people who walk across the Canada-US border and claim asylum to be packed onto buses and sent to Ottawa.
The panel is an oddly popular feature on Radio-Canada’s all-news channel, featuring people who used to be involved in politics. The guy talking is Jean-François Lisée, a prominent journalist and effortless polemicist who drove the Parti Québécois to a historic low share of the vote in 2018 (since surpassed on the low side by his successor — except that by now, expectations have been adjusted on the downside and his successor, Paul St-Pierre Plamondon, is widely thought to be a bit of a whiz kid).
The issue at hand is Roxham Road, a pedestrian border crossing between small-town Quebec and upstate New York, 45 minutes’ drive from Montreal City Hall. Thousands of people walk into Canada there every month and demand asylum. Caring for them and processing their claims takes money and work. Along comes Lisée with a suggestion.
If Justin Trudeau can’t get changes to the bilateral Safe Third Country Agreement to slow this human traffic — and colleagues report that he can’t — then, Lisée says, Quebec should make the newcomers the rest of Canada’s problem.
Within 24 hours after somebody walks across Roxham Road, Lisée says, “We’ll sort them, we’ll keep all the francophones and those who have immediate family in Quebec. And the others, we’ll put them in a nice air-conditioned bus and we’ll take them to Immigration Canada in Ottawa.”
Paul Wells is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
I should emphasize a few things here, to salvage any hope of a civil discussion.
(1) What Lisée is suggesting won’t happen. In particular, it won’t happen because the party he used to lead has three seats out of 125 in Quebec’s National Assembly.
(2) The very suggestion made the other panelists uncomfortable. They took turns criticizing Lisée.
(3) The panel show’s host, Sébastien Bovet, immediately drew the obvious parallel: This is what governors in the U.S. south do. “Ron DeSantis charters flights and buses to send migrants north,” Bovet said, and indeed it is true. We shall see whether there are legal repercussions for DeSantis’ lurid stunt.
(4) Finally, I don’t think asylum seekers should be sorted by language ability and sent packing if they fail either. What’s going on at Roxham Road is a policy crisis, but it’s also a human drama. Lisée spoke during the same week as the funeral for a Haitian man who died trying to cross back into the US after his claims in Canada got hung up in procedural limbo.
Having said all of that, perhaps we can notice the scale of what’s happening at Roxham Road, and ponder how it fits into a generalized sense of Canadian bewilderment.
If you’re wondering why so many in Quebec are freaking out about a single pedestrian border crossing, it may be because the numbers are a bit breathtaking. This chart shows that 39,171 asylum claimants were intercepted by the RCMP between regular ports of entry in Quebec in 2022, compared to 369 in the entire rest of the country combined. So if asylum claims are a problem — and whatever else they are, they’re at least an administrative challenge — then 99.1% of the challenge is in Quebec.
That figure of 39,171, or 107 people a day, is more than twice as many as in any previous year in the last decade and, I’d guess without having statistics dating back further, the most in any province in any year in Canada’s history. (Much of this statistical background was covered in a column by the Toronto Sun’s Brian Lilley earlier this week.)
I’ve said this before in my regular gig as a Thursday-night panelist on the Radio-Canada evening newscast Le Téléjournal: if 99% of asylum claimants were walking across the border within an hour’s drive of Toronto or Vancouver, this issue would be getting vastly more attention from Justin Trudeau’s government. Fortunately for his peace of mind, Montreal isn’t a real place for most of the people in his Prime Minister’s Office.
They might want to adjust their thinking.
The last time Jean-François Lisée got a bright idea about Roxham Road, it was in 2018, when he actually was the PQ leader. He wanted a wall or fence (or hedge!) built to
keep people from coming in encourage people to use regular border crossings. (UPDATE: The original version of that sentence unfairly mischaracterized Lisée’s 2018 position, as the linked story, and a comment from him in the comment board below, point out.) Again, one notes the inspiration for such schemes. Again, one disagrees. But Lisée’s party wasn’t the only one that suffered a historic defeat in the 2018 provincial election. Quebec’s incumbent governing Liberals — ahem — also went down to their worst defeat since Confederation, a feat they, too, surpassed in 2022.
For the second-ever edition of this newsletter last April, I drove to Montreal to talk to the man who had been the finance minister in that defeated Liberal government, Carlos Leitão. This is what he told me about that 2018 defeat.
“I remember going door to door in some ridings in the Montreal area. Ridings we lost. ‘Vous les libéraux,’” — here Leitao was imitating what he would hear from voters at the door. “‘Vous laissez entrer tout le monde.’” You Liberals are letting everyone in. “‘Regarde-moi ça, le chemin Roxham…’” Now Leitao’s composite voter was complaining about Roxham Road, a footpath south of Montreal that thousands of asylum seekers used to flee the United States into Canada by foot after Donald Trump’s election.
Immigration enforcement isn’t provincial jurisdiction, Leitao would protest. Ask the feds. That answer usually wouldn’t get him far. “‘Libéraux, vous êtes tous les mêmes…’” You Liberals are all alike.
Twice as many asylum claimants walked across Roxham Road in 2022 as in 2018. Perhaps thinking about this will help make Montreal feel more real to Liberals.
What has Justin Trudeau done? Nothing much different from what I’d have done. This is not a case where I say, ho-ho, the fool has failed to do the obvious thing. I can’t find an obvious thing. As this post’s subhead plainly admits, today I’m writing about frustration. And, to repeat another word I used higher up, bewilderment. (Lilley’s column points out that the cross-border traffic skyrocketed after a stupidly self-congratulatory tweet from the prime minister in 2017. But we must all abandon hope for a brighter past. The question is what any government can do next.)
What Trudeau has done is to flatter Quebecers — you’ve all been “extraordinarily generous” about this thing you didn’t ask for that you wish would stop — while pleading with the Biden administration to amend the Safe Third Country agreement to remove a huge incentive to cross at irregular points of entry like Roxham Road. Well, not even like Roxham Road. At Roxham Road. But the Biden administration is not a lot more excited than the Trump administration was at the chance to make it easier for Haitian migrants to stay in the United States. So it’s hard work with a low chance of breakthroughs.
As this post’s main headline hinted, I’m about to put all of this into a broader electoral context. 2023 will probably not be an election year, but I bet it’ll feel like the longest pre-electoral year you ever saw. And Pierre Poilievre has been sniffing around the Roxham Road story, as he has — as any opposition leader would — around any sign of Canadian dysfunction. So it’s worth saying that in concrete terms the Conservatives haven’t covered themselves in greater glory on this file than the Liberals have. Instead, one Conservative MP, Richard Martel, bragged about refusing to offer basic constituency-level help to a family because they had had the misfortune to enter Canada in a way Martel disliked. In response to Martel’s callous indolence, the Conservative party brass tossed a bedsheet over him and told him to avoid further queries from journalists. Which makes me all the more delighted to remind you what he did in the first place. Kudos also to the MP from a neighbouring riding, the Bloc’s Mario Simard, for stepping in and helping the family Martel refused to help.
We arrive, at last, at the bigger picture. Poilievre has taken to saying “Everything feels broken.” Trudeau replies by saying a lot of things, including that his opponent is “preying on the kinds of anger and anxieties about some Canada that used to be — where men were men and white men ruled.” Which is such an astonishing thing to say that even in the paper where his remarks were published, he’s gotten a thumbs down.
I think the yawning gap in Poilievre’s political offer, so far, is any sense that his Conservatives would be better at fixing problems than the Liberals. When he says Canadians prefer a government that can run a passport office to one that wants to run our lives, it’s a fantastic line, but it poses a question Poilievre hasn’t begun to answer.
But holy cow, do things not feel broken? In Toronto, the police are laying on multiple overtime shifts because people are afraid of using public transit. David Dodge, the former Bank of Canada governor who provided the most useful cover for Trudeau’s stated policy of modest deficits in 2015, is blowing the whistle on Trudeau’s hinky fiscal projections in 2022.
The government’s subsidies to news organizations have proven to be precisely large enough to ransack journalism’s credibility while being nowhere near large enough to stave off massive layoffs, which makes this 2016 column one of my more prescient.
The private health care that Trudeau ran against 18 months ago is happening and he’s complimenting it, and even his most docile caucus members are noticing and not happy. Everyone who leaves this government winds up saying the same sorts of things about it. The Trudeau government’s method of producing the despised ArriveCan app was “illogical” and “inefficent,” says… the head of the Trudeau government.
At this point, some Liberal on Twitter usually starts pointing at some international quality-of-life ranking to tell us all we have no right to gripe. The land is strong, as a guy named Trudeau once said.
Each of the problems the country faces is wicked. Most of them require greater attention to detail, not better sloganeering, to fix. But eventually, voting for a government that smirks and dismisses its critics starts to feel like a path with limited payoff. Today’s post has less of a clear point than my pieces usually do, I well know. It’s kind of a mood piece.
When he was asked about Roxham Road, the prime minister said he must “continue to work with our American partners to improve the situation.” The situation is more than twice as bad as it’s ever been. Maybe his work isn’t improving it. He’s free to notice or not, but he’s not the only one watching.
In other news…
I sent this piece out three days ago with a paywall, because I like to remind people that writing this stuff is my job. But honestly, I wish it had been read by more people, so I’ve taken the paywall off. The number of people who choose to take out paid subscriptions is tremendously gratifying. More are always welcome! Deciding where to put the paywall is more a matter of gut than science. But with a first ministers’ meeting on health-care coming up, I think this piece is useful background. So here it is for those who couldn’t read it the first time.
Mr. Wells isn’t the only one who has noticed that Pierre Poilievre is playing his cards pretty close and not shedding much information on what he might do to get Canada back to a semblance of functionality.
That’s a fair criticism but perhaps there are some dynamics in play that complicate things?
Right now Poilievre’s job is to critique, it isn’t to problem solve for the Liberals. I would suggest that if the Liberals can’t make things better then they should wear it, not him.
No one seems to have any idea if the Liberals will find a reason to call an early snap election or be content with the common law arrangement with the NDP. I’m sure the Liberals would like to smoke out the CPC campaign strategy and then dither for two years. This is a good reason to delay specifics.
Lastly, the Liberals are unabashed policy plagiarists, remaking the best ideas of other parties into a Big Red Book of election promises. The governing party seems to be out of touch and out of ideas, so helping them out is noble but foolish.
It always comes down to insults by the 50th comment. Enjoy the rest of your weekend, folks. Comments closed.