When an unnecessary fear of immigration begets an over-exaggerated fear of terrorism

This piece appeared  in The Ottawa Citizen (online) on November 12, 2018.

I never knew my maternal grandfather.  He emigrated to Canada in the early part of the 20th century from western Ukraine (or eastern Poland, the details on that are fuzzy) and settled in Montreal where he worked at the CPR’s Angus workshops, along with a great many other immigrants  I imagine.  He married and had four children, including my mother, and toughed it out during the Great Depression. He died in the mid-1940s.

I seldom think of him but his memory came back to me last week when I read of a new documentary “That Never Happened” by Saskatoon native Ryan Boyko which premiered at Ottawa’s Bytowne Cinema among other venues.  The film deals with the internment of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants in camps in remote areas of Canada from 1914-1920.  These men were seen as citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with which we were at war during WWI, and hence as enemies of the State.  My grandfather is believed to have been one of those internees at the Spirit Lake detention site in northern Quebec (I have a copy of my grandfather’s passport which says he was tied to the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

The round-up of thousands of Ukrainian immigrants, and the monitoring of tens of thousands more, was the product of fear: fear of the other.  In fairness, I suppose, Canada was at war and those were different times, but fear is still largely irrational and often unjustified. Nor has it gone away as there are still those who paint immigrants as threats today.  We do not have to cast our eyes to the shameful depiction by US President Trump of the thousands of desperate migrants making their way through Central America to the southern states as “terrorists and criminals” to find an example: La Meute (the ‘Wolfpack’), a racist Francophone anti-immigrant group,  is doing the same thing in Quebec regarding the irregular migrants seeking to leave an increasingly unstable US for Canada.  It is also telling that last week Prime Minister Trudeau finally issued an official apology for another egregious act against those seeking to come to Canada as a haven: the denied entry of the MS St Louis in 1939 carrying European Jews (the ship was forced to return to Europe and many of the passengers died in Nazi concentration camps).

Whatever you think of these people on the move – and there are valid concerns over how the government is dealing with, and should deal with, these migrants – what is quite clear is that they present a very low to non-existent national security threat.  Yes, it is always possible that there are unsavoury characters in the mix who may engage in criminal activities in Canada, but shrill fearmongering about a wave of terrorists seeking to sow mayhem in our cities is unsubstantiated.  US intelligence agencies, for instance, have stated publicly that Trump’s conviction that ISIS is using the cover of refugee flows to infiltrate the US is false.  In other words, the President’s own intelligence services have taken the rare step to openly tell Americans that there is no ‘there’ there, despite Trump’s demagoguery.

I am not naive nor ignorant of the real terrorist threat, having spent 15 years with CSIS as a strategic terrorism analyst and moved on to write four books on the topic.  It is always possible that malefactors use the immigration system to enter Canada and we have had examples  in the recent past.  At the same time, however, there is simply no evidence that this represents a significant risk for our country.  Our intelligence and other government organisations are on top of the matter and they will advise the proper authorities when they come across solid information about a real risk so that action can be taken.

The rest of us – yes that includes members of La Meute and other anti-immigrant and Islamophobic groups – need to trust in those agencies and stop irrationally hitting the panic button on immigration.  Canada needs more people for its economic and social development and immigration is one way to get those people. Immigration is a strength, not a weakness.

Besides, no one should have to endure what my grandfather did.  No one.

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