On October 26, 2015, Canadians elected a new Prime Minister and gave him a solid majority, rewarding him for a campaign that avoided negativity and promised change. During his victory speech, Justin Trudeau stated “a Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.”  He was referring to the highly controversial legislation passed in May 2015 by the outgoing Conservative government of Stephen Harper that is likely to be one of the first laws he rescinds. Critics charge that Bill C – 24, the Strengthening Canada Act, violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by creating a two-tiered citizenship status in Canada. 

Since 2008, Canada has seen a wide array of changes to its immigration policy, with many of these changes making it more difficult to immigrate to Canada.  (The parliamentary system in Canada allows for policy changes to be made more easily by a Minister of Immigration with a majority government. This is compared to the cumbersome U.S. process, where Congress must formulate and pass immigration policy.)  Many of these changes have included a tone of “meanness” – a word that one does not typically use to describe Canadian actions. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the recent Canadian treatment of refugees. By adopting a "safe country" list, the Harper government made it more difficult for asylum seekers from countries on this list to have full procedural protections, based on the fact that they were coming from a country that had a better human rights record. However, this approach contradicts the spirit of the 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee not on the basis of which country this person comes from, but on whether the personal safety of that individual is at risk. Consequences have included Jewish-Roma applicants from Hungary being denied asylum in Canada, despite evidence of personal endangerment.  There have also been cuts in basic health care services to some asylum seekers, cuts that were eventually struck down by the Federal court and denounced as  “cruel and unusual” treatment. Since 2013, asylum applications in Canada have dropped by 50 percent.

During the recent election campaign, Justin Trudeau promised that he would bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada before the end of the year. (Compared to the United States, where Congress is contemplating accepting 10,000 refugees even though its population is ten times that of Canada.)  This promise will be impossible to keep, given that only two more months remain in 2015. The sheer logistics of identifying the individuals and coordinating their transfer with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), let alone preparing for their arrival in the dead of winter, will create major obstacles.  What matters now, however, is not whether the exact promised number arrives in 2015, but that all is done to keep this commitment and to start the process as quickly as possible. The new government has the opportunity to prove that change is truly coming to Canada. 

PHOTO CREDIT: "Canada has a new Prime Minister: Justin Trudeau" by Canadian Pacific is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC 2.0