A new migrant detention centre is currently being built in Laval and is set to be in operation by 2021. This centre will become the third detention centre in Canada; the two other fully operational detention centres are situated in Toronto and Vancouver, respectively. Last week, Solidarité sans frontières/Solidarity Across Borders (SSF) held a workshop with ASTTeQ (Action Santé Travesti(e)s et Transsexuel(le)s du Québec) that discussed Canada’s history of detention, current policies affecting and criminalizing migrants, and key concerns about the detention centre in Laval. It also shed light on many deep-seated issues hidden away under the Canadian government’s rhetoric about this development in August 2016.
It should be emphasized first and foremost that the people detained within its walls are not criminals. The centre will detain migrants and refugees who have either just arrived in Canada, who are awaiting a decision regarding their status, or who will soon be deported.
Canada’s History of Racist Immigration Policy
However, before delving into the concerns about the centre in Laval and current immigration policy, the presenters noted the importance of contextualizing this discussion within Canada’s history of racism, colonialism, and detention. Canada’s exploitation of the “dispensable” Chinese immigrant labour force to build the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), they explained, was capitalist and opportunistic. They specifically noted the Head Tax imposed on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923, which required them to pay a fee of $50 – later increased to $100 and $500 – following the railroad’s completion. Further, while the government collected $23 million from Chinese immigrants, they were, at the same time, funding efforts to attract white European and American immigrants to settle the West. Immigration policy delineated any non-British immigrants as “foreign” and neatly excluded white, English-speaking immigrants from America from falling under this label, despite the United States having no colonial ties to Canada. The presenters explained that while Canadian immigration policies of the 1800s were unabashedly racist and colonial, these notions still persist in modern immigration policy – simply in a more clandestine manner.
Currently, the world is experiencing the largest refugee crisis ever recorded; an estimated 70.8 million people are forcibly displaced to date.
Current Refugee Crisis
Currently, the world is experiencing the largest refugee crisis ever recorded; an estimated 70.8 million people have been forcibly displaced to date. The numbers projected from governments neglect to tell the whole story; after all, the presenters stated, figures and data projected on televised screens do not account for the lived experiences that each one of those numbers represents.
This global crisis reaches into our own backyard, with the Canadian government’s decision to build a detention centre in Laval. At this point in the workshop, SSF called out several caveats and problems revolving around the detention centre – and the immigration system as a whole – that serve as a detriment to those in need of the most help.
The Detention Centre
The blueprint of the new centre reveals plans for a children’s play structure, indicating that the government is planning to continue to detain children. The imprisonment of children, regardless of the presence of a flimsy plastic play structure, they stated, is psychologically and physically damaging. Furthermore, the presenters added, even more concerning is the Canadian policy of indefinite detention: there is no maximum length of detention, even for children.
Another central aversion to the detention centre is its inevitable and detrimental impact on the detainees’ mental health and wellbeing. For instance, detainees who are suffering from a mental health condition, trauma, PTSD, or who are suicidal, often lack access to proper resources and treatment (especially for the third of all migrants in Canada who are held in traditional criminal prisons).
Not only are detainees’ mental health often compromised, the presenters explained, but their physical well-being is also at risk. Last year, Lucy Francineth Granados, a Montreal community organizer for the rights of undocumented women and workers, was arrested with excessive force by the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA), shoved to the ground, hospitalized, and then deported. In addition, the workshop touched on the case of Bolante Idowu Alo, a Nigerian man who died in the custody of the CBSA. To this day, few details about his death are known, and justice for him and his family remain in limbo.
Not only do detention centres have physical and psychological impacts on people, but they also play a role in putting people in precarious situations and keeping them there. For instance, an SSF representative explained, if a worker being paid under minimum wage pushes for higher, legal compensation, their demand could be easily silenced with the threat of detention or deportation.
One troubling issue for many migrants is the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). In brief, the STCA assumes that both Canada and the United States are safe countries for refugees, and as a result, turns away most migrants who arrive at the Canadian border due to the agreement stating that the US is a “safe” country for them.
Similarly, if a person arrives having fled their home out of necessity, they risk being detained and deported because they lack proper ID and legal documents. Although many altruistic lawyers work countless hours to help those in precarious situations, the presenters explained, legal help is scarce and often fruitless. The problems are numerous: the people needing legal help greatly outnumber the lawyers available; the lawyers simply do not have enough time to complete complex cases effectively; immigration law is incredibly complicated; and legal fees can be unaffordable. Another troubling issue for many migrants is the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA). In brief, the STCA assumes that both Canada and the United States are safe countries for refugees, and as a result, turns away most migrants who arrive at the Canadian border due to the agreement stating that the US is a “safe” country for them.
“What is the prison system purportedly saying that it’s addressing? It’s saying that it’s addressing the fact that many people are moving from country to country. But then we have to ask the question – why are people moving from country to country?”
– Representative from Solidarity Across Borders
Solutions and Further Action
Although the aforementioned problems are extensive and complex, the solutions are as massive as the problem itself – the SSF advocates for a borderless world, where no one is illegal (especially in Canada, on stolen land). One representative from SSF stated that we’re framing the questions the wrong way: “what is the prison system purportedly saying that it’s addressing? It’s saying that it’s addressing the fact that many people are moving from country to country. But then we have to ask the question – why are people moving from country to country?”
“Then we get into even bigger questions,” they continued. “For instance, why is Canada stealing people’s minerals [in Guatemala] and displacing people from small villages, and where are those people supposed to go after they can no longer live in their homes? Is it surprising that they try to come to Canada? Where they know the wealth is, because that wealth is flowing from their country up to Canada?”
While some may feel that an abolitionist perspective is out of left field, an SSF representative told the audience, “it’s hard to imagine any intermediate answer that is leading us in the direction we want to go in.” Considering the broader systemic issues of colonialism, patriarchy, capitalism, and racism that fuels the roots of the crisis, the SSF has been working diligently to oppose the construction of the detention centre on a substantive and ideological basis, hoping to reframe and reshape our attitudes towards detention. SSF has taken a stand against the centre by writing a declaration that has been signed by over 70 organizations, occupying the site on a regular basis, presenting workshops across Montreal, and organizing demonstrations and other actions in solidarity with immigrants and migrants
If you want to learn more about the actions opposing the Laval prison, you can visit Stop the Prison’s website here, and if you wish to join the SSF news list, email them at firstname.lastname@example.org