Soft Borders

The soft patriotic trust in Canada's softly administered border is fully compatible with the logic of restriction.

Is Canada anything besides not-America? In the weeks surrounding the 150th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation, which took place on July 1, op-eds in the American media engaged in the semiregular ritual of defining Canadian identity. Stephen Marche, a Toronto-based writer for the New York Times, delivered a pitch-perfect rendition of Canadian patriotism in his report on the sesquicentennial, writing that “Canada, at the moment, has a lot to celebrate.” Canada is bilingual; Canada celebrates multiculturalism; Canada is not brash like the United States; Canada’s Prime Minister is not Donald Trump but instead a “glamorous and internationally recognized . . . celebrity of progressive politics.” But the outpouring of patriotic sentiment that one would anticipate from a major national birthday was absent—and this was a triumph. For Marche, as for countless other proponents of the national non-identity, “Canada’s reluctance to celebrate itself is actually something worth celebrating. . . . Patriotism is for losers.”

With Marche expressing the virtue of negative patriotism (Canada is less clearly evil than other Western countries), another Times columnist, writing a few days later, offered a more calculated, positive account of Canada’s soft patriotism, positioning the country as an object lesson in how to craft bulwarks against xenophobic nationalism. Canada, Amanda Taub argued, had not fallen victim to the mainstreaming of white-nationalist movements across Europe and the U.S., because of a series of strategic political and legislative actions, starting with Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s announcement of a national policy of multiculturalism in 1971.

Trudeau’s declaration came at the end of a years-long commission on the issues of bilingualism and biculturalism, and, while primarily symbolic, included a framework for fostering minority cultural initiatives and access to French- and English-language programs for immigrants. Speaking in the House of Commons, Trudeau said, “Although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other.” The speech, made just a year after the FLQ, a Quebecois separatist organization, kidnapped and murdered an Anglo politician in Montreal, sought to dampen domestic cultural tensions by acknowledging the simple fact that Canadian “culture” had neither a single nor a double face. Instead, it had many, any of which could be superimposed on top of the white settler base. Parliament assented to the policy directive, and, eleven years later, with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canada became the first country in the world to enshrine multiculturalism in law as a guiding constitutional principle.

Placing multiculturalism in constitutional legal text refigured the image of the settler state. Trudeau’s declaration came four years after an overhaul of Canadian immigration law that, in 1967, eliminated a patchwork of discriminatory race and nationality restrictions in favor of a skills-based point system to assess and admit migrants. Larger influxes of nonwhite immigrants moved to Canada, and the patriotic national myth transitioned from that of a settler nation to that of a multicultural nation of immigrants. In a telling passage in Taub’s Times article, she quotes immigration minister Ahmed Hussen, himself a former refugee, who cites the “luck of geography” as a significant factor in widespread support for immigration and multiculturalism. (A 2010 poll indicated that roughly two-thirds of Canadians say that immigration levels are “about right.”) “We have the luxury,” Hussen says, “of being surrounded by oceans on three sides, and then by the U.S. border.” The implication is both obvious and impossible to overstate: Distance from the migrant-producing Global South gives the Canadian public a sense of confidence and trust in the regularity of incoming migrants—and affords the Canadian government a level of control only dreamed of by the more publicly violent border regimes of Europe and the United States.


The first Canadian immigration laws were concerned with the twin nation-building goals of promoting settlement and managing undesirable would-be settlers. The first cabinet position that dealt with immigration was the Minister of the Interior, whose portfolio married federal land management, Indian affairs, and natural-resource extraction. (The office was succeeded by the more aptly named Minister of Immigration and Colonization.) Much of the early law dealt with facilitating the passage of European migrants to and through Eastern seaports. Legislation and debates around exclusions—which included “paupers” and disabled people without family members—were focused on the maintenance of a steady influx of settlers to inhabit and farm the thinly populated Prairie Provinces. The country, put simply, needed immigrants to continue colonizing.

In 1885, when Parliament passed the Chinese Immigration Act, the first large-scale restrictive immigration legislation in Canada, the racist measure was discussed as a matter of political sovereignty. Chinese immigrants were a threat because they could elect—or become—Chinese officials, warned Prime Minister John A. Macdonald, and bring “immorality” and “eccentricities” “abhorrent to the Aryan race and Aryan principles . . . upon this House.” Decades later, with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, this claim to sovereign control over the racial makeup of Canada was extended inland. The law—which effectively eliminated the arrival of Chinese people into Canada for over twenty years—required those of Chinese descent, even if born in Canada, to register with the government to prove their compliance with the new restrictions. The desirable Canadian settler—white, hardworking, unlikely to become a charge of the state—was separated from the suspicious, policed, racialized immigrant both at and within the border.

The vision of the impenetrable nation and its sovereign right to self-composition also extended beyond Canada’s territorial limits. In the 1910s, while eminent xenophobe Frank Oliver was Minister of the Interior, and in the context of significant pressure from white citizens’ groups calling for a ban on Black migration, Canadian immigration officials campaigned to dissuade Black American farmers from migrating north to Canada. Agents stationed in Oklahoma responded to requests for information by prospective Black immigrants with letters detailing the poor conditions of life for Black people north of the border. They paid Black community leaders to disseminate misinformation about maltreatment during border inspections, and refused to provide Black people with the appropriate certification required to enter Canada by rail as “bona fide” farmers. These measures were intended to prevent immigration before it happened—to limit the contact that undesirable immigrants could have with the border.

The early international enforcement of border security was a cooperative project. An agreement between the U.S. government and several Canadian transportation companies allowed the U.S. to extend its immigration laws and enforcement capacity to Canadian seaports. U.S. immigration officials were stationed at Canadian ports, and signatory companies were required to refuse landing for immigrants headed to the United States if their documentation was insufficient or they were found to be inadmissible under U.S. law. Responding to the restrictions, immigrants crossing through Canada en route to the U.S. began marking Canada as their final destination and then moving to the U.S. later on. If someone who took this route was later found by authorities in the United States—in prison, almshouses, or hospitals—they would be deported back to the company that had landed them in Canada, at the company’s cost. The agreement introduced a large-scale information-sharing program, with U.S. officials at the border equipped with ship manifests to cross-check non-Canadians attempting entry.

Efforts like these—partnerships forged between national governments to limit the movement of people beyond their own boundaries—were part of the project of self-definition for Canada as an emergent independent white settler state. As the U.S. and Canada encouraged the rise of a global migration system at the turn of the century, they introduced restrictions on the kinds of people allowed to move within it. Canada’s border, as the above examples demonstrate, was continuously redefined by laws and policies that could be enforced within, at, and outside its territorial boundaries.

The narrative that casts Canada’s immigration system as exceptionally welcoming coalesced largely around its leading role in developing refugee-resettlement programs in the latter decades of the 20th century. There are, of course, gaps in that positive narrative—most notably the refusal of the MS St. Louis, which sent hundreds of Jewish refugees back to Europe, where over two hundred were murdered in the Holocaust—which have been incorporated into the story of an intermittently shameful national past. But these more marginal examples of restriction—inland Chinese registration, anti-Black propaganda, cooperation with U.S. immigration enforcement—are indicative of anti-immigrant strategies that police movement beyond the border. The explicitly racist measures necessitated a public disavowal of racist border violence that attended the shift to the race-blind points system, but the strategies of enforcement remain continuous—constitutive of a border regime that, 50 years later, upholds Canada’s lauded commitment to multiculturalism.

 
In the early 2000s, Canada and the United States developed a shared approach to border security that departs from typical understandings of how the state polices its limits. The centerpiece of their cooperative agreement is the Multiple Borders Strategy, whose driving purpose is succinctly articulated by the Canadian Border Services Agency: “Push the border out.”

The strategy both prefigures and enacts a reconceptualization of the border. In a 2003 statement of mutual understanding between the two governments, they write:

Recognizing that moving the focus of control of the movement of people away from our shared land border to overseas . . . enables Canada and the United States to manage more effectively their movement into and within North America. . . . At every checkpoint along the travel continuum . . . there is an opportunity for the Participants to link the person and the document and any known intelligence. 

Under this enforcement strategy, the border is understood “not as a geo-political line but rather a continuum of checkpoints.” In practice, this means that the function of border control is exported beyond the territorial limits of Canada, with an increasing number of “liaison officers” (formerly called “migration integrity officers”) stationed at an increasing number of locations worldwide, whose stated objective is to “combat irregular migration.”

The purview of these officers is incredibly wide, encompassing a range of intelligence-gathering and law enforcement–related activities, and their purpose is to intercept potential migrants before they reach Canadian soil. Data obtained from the CBSA on its liaison officer program and published by the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Law Clinic in 2012 indicates that, between 2001 and 2012, 73,000 people were intercepted by these officers. Extending the border beyond Canadian soil means that, for immigration purposes, the state’s limits are any place worldwide at which one’s identity and intent can be interrogated. Restricting access to the state—and the legal protections it is compelled to give to migrants—begins at or before the point of departure.

In tandem with the 2004 Safe Third Country Agreement—another bilateral initiative between the US and Canada—the Multiple Borders Strategy signals a comprehensive effort to limit the ability of people to move and arrive at Canada’s physical border, where refugee claims can be made. Under the Safe Third Country Agreement, asylum seekers are compelled to claim refugee status in whichever country they first arrive in. A 2010 report jointly issued by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the CBSA, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, acknowledged that, through the agreement, “Canada sought to limit the significant irregular northbound movement of people from the United States who wished to access the Canadian refugee determination system.” Publicly marketed as a “burden sharing” initiative, the STCA effected a precipitous, albeit temporary, drop in the number of asylum claims made at the border. These measures, regardless of their efficacy, are part of an effort for Canada to circumvent its obligation to process asylum claims, which are only triggered when a claimant is processed at the border. “Pushing out the border”—either through international interception programs or the “burden sharing” exportation of asylum-claim processing to the United States—means enacting a roving border wall with no oversight and no ability for migrants to appeal their refusal.

These cooperative control policies produce and protect the understanding of Canada’s immigration system as uniquely welcoming. Lacking a racialized land border that the nativist imaginary can cohere around—and at which egregious examples of state repression and neglect take place—Canadians are able to take pride in an immigration system based on a meritocratic points system and internationally praised refugee resettlement efforts. Exporting border violence—both by its own agents and in collaboration with other enforcement regimes—outside of Canada allows the managed order of its immigration system to be read as organically produced, and all immigrants as the recipients of Canadian fairness and benevolence.

Trust in this system has become a bedrock of Canadian public opinion and self-estimation. A 2012 study by political scientists from the University of British Columbia and UC Berkeley demonstrated a positive correlation between patriotism and support for immigration and multiculturalism. (The inverse was true for the United States.) Proud Canadians—who balk at the vicious nativism south of the border—understand immigration and cultural tolerance as part of their national identity. But this broad support, bolstered by domestic and international rhetoric about the good nature of Canadian multicultural society, relies on a bureaucratic chauvinism. This false piety surfaces in paradoxical arguments: Protectionist discussions of immigration in Canadian politics take the form of a defense of the generous spirit that supports it. Jason Kenney, a Conservative politician known for his restrictive immigration stance, was a frequent mouthpiece of this sentiment. In 2010, he invoked the good faith of the Canadian patriot in support of a bill roundly criticized for the restrictions and penalties it could place on asylum seekers, saying that failure to pass more restrictive laws would “put at risk the broad public consensus . . . in favor of immigration and refugee protection.” In place of the border wall, a nation’s generosity under threat from “line jumpers” and “bogus refugees.”

Such contradictory logic is not limited to the Conservative party. The rare immigration-related scandals in Canada display an agreement that cuts across the political spectrum—the most salient subject of immigration debate is how to defend the well-oiled bureaucracy. This summer, a large influx of Haitians crossing the U.S. border into Quebec has brought this rhetoric back into popular circulation. The motive for the crossings has been widely attributed to the Trump administration’s promise of increased deportation enforcement and the suspension of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians. Critics, who see the crossings as evidence of a system gone awry, have blamed Justin Trudeau for extending a blanket invitation to those fearing violence under the Trump administration. (This “invitation” came in the form of a characteristically anodyne and viral tweet made after Trump’s attempted Muslim ban in January: “#WelcomeToCanada,” Trudeau wrote.)

That this gesture toward Canada’s distinctness from U.S. immigration policy has pushed Trudeau to make increasingly rigid statements about the rule of law is a brittle irony. Echoing Jason Kenney, he said recently, “If we are a country that is open to immigrants . . . it is because Canadians have confidence in the integrity of our immigration and refugee system.” This PR campaign of dissuasion has also dispatched members of Parliament to diaspora communities in the US—to Haitians in Florida and, most recently, in anticipation of TPS being revoked for citizens of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, to Central Americans in Los Angeles. Pablo Rodriguez, an Argentine-born Liberal MP, said, about his trip to LA, that the goal was to communicate that Canada’s immigration system is one that “works, and has to be respected.”

The soft patriotic trust in the softly administered border is fully compatible with the logic of restriction. For widespread goodwill towards immigration to take a less trivial effect it would have to divorce itself from the fantasy of total control. Positive rhetoric around immigration and multiculturalism is a salve to the settler state’s ongoing colonial violence, and maintains its foundational exploitative relationship to nonwhiteness. The liberal satisfaction that boasts Toronto’s status as the most multicultural city on Earth is predicated on an immigration system that sees the entire world as a site for the management and prohibition of human movement, and requires its neighbors to do the same. To claim a comparative innocence in an age of violent borders—either through feigned passivity or the posture of active beneficence—is itself a tool of border violence.