Commentary | Freedom for the wrongly jailed

Indefinite detention of migrants in Canada must stop

On September 20, 2014, protesters staged a rally in front of Laval Immigration Detention Centre, only thirty kilometres from McGill’s campus, in solidarity with the struggle of non-status migrants detained indefinitely in prisons across Canada. Our country has long treated non-status migrants abusively, but the action on September 20 was symbolic since it marked almost exactly a year since the largest migrant detainee strike in Canadian history.

In Lindsay, a town in southeastern Ontario, hundreds of migrants who were being detained indefinitely were moved from a minimum security facility in Toronto to the Central East Correctional Centre (CECC), a maximum security private prison. Having only been in Lindsay a few weeks, on September 17, 2013, 191 migrants went refused to enter the cells, protesting initially against the reduced access to health and social services. In response the CECC administration put the strikers on lockdown, confining them to their cells for up to 18 hours a day. Several migrants went on hunger strike, and the scope of the strike widened to demand an end to the policy of indefinite detention.

If not having a Canadian passport is sufficient reason to deny someone their legal and moral rights, then a Canadian passport isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

The protesting detainees in Lindsay made four simple demands: freedom for the wrongly jailed, that is – freedom for migrants who had been imprisoned for more than ninety days; an end to the policy of arbitrary and indefinite detention; an end to detention in maximum security prisons; and an overhaul of the adjudication process for migrants, to permit them to access the full range of legal options available to Canadian citizens. All demands should be met, but the last is not debatable. If not having a Canadian passport is sufficient reason to deny someone their legal and moral rights, then a Canadian passport isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Migrants unlucky enough to be detained have committed no crime, in the conventional sense of the word. They are not murderers, they are not rapists, and they are not thieves. They are people who came to Canada for a better life. For this so-called ‘crime,’ over one hundred migrants are still on strike. Others are currently incarcerated in similar detention centres in Toronto, Vancouver, and right here in Laval, the site of the solidarity protest in September. Unfortunately the policy has not changed, and the protesters’ demands have not been met. So long as migrants are kept in these conditions, Canada cannot make any serious claim to being a civilized nation.

No society that claims to be civilized or to respect common decency would treat other human beings this way without cause. Entering a country without government approval is a crime against nothing and no one.

No society that claims to be civilized or to respect common decency would treat other human beings this way without cause. Entering country without government approval is a crime against nothing and no one. Placing migrants in remote, maximum security prisons also wrenches them away from any contact with their family, friends, and communities. Only a soulless and incurably callous person would deem entering a country without documents worthy of indefinite incarceration in a maximum security prison. For the most part too, migrant detainees are people of colour from poor backgrounds. These are people whom the state feels it can abuse with impunity: because justice in Canada for the poor, the ill-educated, or for people of colour, isn’t really justice at all. At least not in any sense that we would recognize. Racism and classism remain woven into the fabric of our legal system and our society.

It’s worth pointing out that Canada’s detention system, in which migrants can be imprisoned indefinitely, is almost unique in the Western world. Both the European Union and the U.S. specifically forbid arbitrary detention for longer than ninety days. Though the opinion of the United Nations (UN) has counted for little in Canada since Harper came into office, on July 16 this year, Canada was informed by the UN that “[d]etention shall be the last resort and permissible only for the shortest period of time and that alternatives to detention should be sought wherever possible.”

 Canada should be country where no is illegal, and all human beings are entitled to basic human dignity.

So long as these detention centres remain open, we have little right to sniff at the legal limbo of Guantanamo Bay. We have similar limbos right here at home, where innocent people are being held with even less cause and legal recourse. None of the migrants being held in detention are guilty of violent crimes.

In the year since the hunger strike at Lindsay – a full year of protests, activism, media coverage, and condemnation by outside legal bodies – the Canadian government has completely failed to release any of the detainees, meet any of the protesters’ demands, or make any move on reforming the system that keeps them suspended in a stateless void of jumpsuits and bars. We should not allow injustice on this scale to happen under our name. Canada should be country where no one is illegal, and all human beings are entitled to basic human dignity. Let’s put a stop to immigration detention now.


Nicholas Pullen is a Masters student in History. To contact him, please email commentary@mcgilldaily.com.


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