On Sunday, August 6, roughly 400 people gathered at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium to stand in solidarity with the asylum seekers who are currently being housed there. Carrying banners proclaiming “no one is illegal” and “open the borders,” the diverse and multigenerational crowd heard speeches from both asylum seekers and local activists.
Serge Bouchereau, spokesperson of the Non-Status Action Committee, extended a warm welcome to those living at the stadium, the majority of whom are asylum seekers from Haiti.
“I would like to say to the Haitian migrants: welcome to Quebec! Welcome to Canada!” Bouchereau said, speaking in French. “I would also like to tell them that they are not alone – we are here with them to support them, to help them establish themselves in this huge, wealthy country that can welcome many, many people who […] cannot stay in their own country.”
“They are not alone – we are here with them to support them, to help them establish themselves in this huge, wealthy country that can welcome many, many people who […] cannot stay in their own country.”
Restrictive policies and harsh conditions
Under the Trump administration, certain regulations have been changed to allow asylum seekers – particularly those from Haiti – to be deported from the U.S. more easily. Consequently, more and more people have sought refuge in Canada, which is perceived by many to be safer and more welcoming than its southern neighbour.
Roughly three quarters of this group of refugees have ended up in Quebec, filling Montreal’s shelters to capacity. In response, city officials recently opened the Olympic Stadium in order to accommodate more people. With about 130 asylum seekers currently living in the building, mayor Denis Coderre has announced that it should eventually be able to house up to 600.
Most of these asylum seekers arrive in Montreal after crossing the U.S. border on foot, since this allows them to bypass the controversial Safe Third Country agreement, which would ordinarily require them to apply for refugee status in the U.S.. As a result, they often end up making the journey despite dangerous environmental conditions. In May 2017, Mavis Otuteye, a Ghanan asylum seeker, died of hypothermia within a kilometer of the Manitoba border while attempting to reunite with her family in Canada. Many others in similar circumstances have suffered debilitating injuries due to frostbite. Moreover, far-right anti-immigrant groups sometimes station themselves at prominent border crossings in order to harass and intimidate those attempting to enter the country.
“We would like to have a secure future for our children,” said another speaker at Sunday’s rally, identifying herself only as Fatima. She herself had risked the journey into Canada, and was visibly emotional as she addressed the crowd.
“We would like to be free to live just like any other human beings,” Fatima continued, speaking French. “I know that Canada can provide me this. I count on your solicitude to help me fight against deportation.”
“We would like to have a secure future for our children. […] We would like to be free to live just like any other human beings.”
Despite Canada’s reputation as a safe haven, it is nonetheless possible for someone to be deported from Canada should their application for official refugee status be rejected. Moreover, the influx of asylum seekers in recent months has awakened substantial controversy, with many Canadians expressing alarm and hostility at the prospect of their country taking in these refugees.
Greg, a McGill student who attended the rally on Sunday, told The Daily that “especially here in Quebec, fascist groups have been utilizing the influx of migrants and refugees as a rhetorical tool to reinforce themselves, and establish their racism and white supremacy [in] mainstream discourse.”
Indeed, Sunday’s solidarity rally was initially organized as a counter-protest, as far-right anti-immigrant groups had planned on staging their own demonstration at the stadium. This demonstration was ultimately cancelled, however, reportedly because of the sheer size of the solidarity rally.
“I think the event went extremely well,” Greg told The Daily. “The fact so many people came to express solidarity, while fascists miserably failed in their organizing efforts, [indicates] that the Montreal far-left has what it takes […] to successfully resist the growing reactionary movement, and that’s awesome!”
“Especially here in Quebec, fascist groups have been utilizing the influx of migrants and refugees as a rhetorical tool to reinforce themselves, and establish their racism and white supremacy [in] mainstream discourse.”
Meara Kerwin, another McGill student, was also present at the Olympic Stadium on Sunday. A new member of the pro-refugee organization Solidarity Across Borders, she explained to The Daily that she’d helped create a safe area for parents and children (or “kids bloc”) at the rally.
“It felt amazing to be able to hold a relaxed, safe demonstration without fighting for space […] with fascists and racists,” said Kerwin. “I wish we had been in a space which was more visible to the refugees or the general public, but the turnout for the event was fantastic, and it was a wonderful opportunity to hear the thoughts and stories of former refugees and community organizers.”
More to be done
While many of the speakers thanked those in attendance for their solidarity, activist and journalist Jean St-Vil also reminded the crowd of western nations’ share of responsibility in today’s global refugee crisis. Many of the regions from which asylum seekers are currently fleeing, including Haiti, are experiencing instability and economic hardship largely as a result of centuries of imperialism and foreign intervention.
“We are part of the problem,” St-Vil told the crowd. “And so the long-term solution is not just to welcome the refugees, it’s for you to become citizens of your own country, and make sure that your foreign policy does not go and disturb people in their own countries, so that they can live at home.”
“We are part of the problem, […] and so the long-term solution is not just to welcome the refugees, it’s for you to become citizens of your own country, and make sure that your foreign policy does not go and disturb people in their own countries, so that they can live at home.”