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Vicky Mochama: The voice of Metro News.

Ahmed Hussen needs to show he knows racism is political, not just personal: Mochama

Politics and anti-Blackness collide around the issue of Haitian migrants to Canada

A group of people who claimed to be from Haiti walk down Roxham road in Champlain, New York as they prepare to cross the border into Canada illegally on August 4, 2017. Migrants have been crossing the border in greater numbers in recent weeks.

GEOFF ROBINS / AFP

A group of people who claimed to be from Haiti walk down Roxham road in Champlain, New York as they prepare to cross the border into Canada illegally on August 4, 2017. Migrants have been crossing the border in greater numbers in recent weeks.

In a recent speech, Ahmed Hussen, the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, told a story about “the journey of a country that is incredibly generous and welcoming and diverse, but continues to have challenges in addressing systemic racism and true inclusion.”

Along with the kindness of Canadians, he has encountered anti-Black racism. He was regularly stopped and carded by police. As a political staffer, he was met with incredulity about his job. While working, he was assumed to be the criminal, not the lawyer. As an elected representative, he still worries about being pulled over by police.

Many of these are familiar moments for Black people in Canada.

However, when I heard the speech, I was struck by his story and by its gaps.

The last half of the speech focuses on personal advice, like exhorting people to examine their unconscious biases and personal failings. But for a government minister, Hussen doesn’t really address the ways that he uses his position to think about undoing systemic racism.

Although Black people may share and recognize his experiences, few share his ability to create and reform policy.

That disconnect between a personal narrative of experiencing racism and policymaking affects a recent policy issue: The Trump administration’s rescinding of Temporary Protected Status from nearly 60,000 Haitians who arrived in the U.S. after the 2010 earthquake. (In my opinion, President Trump is a white supremacist in tone and policy.) While some Haitians will stay in the U.S., experts say many will come here.

Hussen and his department have been preparing for this moment, but not with open arms. Instead, for the many Haitians who were wrongly informed that Canada is a safe haven, the Immigration Ministry has planned to counter that misinformation.

One strategy has been to send Emmanuel Dubourg, a Haitian-born MP, to major American cities. Another has been for the Prime Minister to state that Haitian migrants cannot apply to be refugees but are in fact “economic migrants.”

(The 2004 US-Canada Safe Third Country Agreement does not allow most migrants to claim asylum in Canada if they arrive via the United States, which is officially deemed “safe.” Economic migrants are not afforded the same level of urgency or protection as asylum claimants.)

Dissuasion especially of Black migrants is not particularly new in Canada, from sending doctors to warn Black people about Canada’s dangers to rejections based on “climatic unsuitability.”

As noted in Robyn Maynard’s book Policing Black Lives, “The racist motivations behind demographic selection were seldom expressed in official documents, but lay hidden behind polite euphemisms, carefully crafted to avoid the outward appearance of racism.”

While Hussen is willing to speak to his own experience with racism, he doesn’t go far enough to engage with what that means for the government he is part of and the department he runs. It is even more troubling that the department’s response to Haitian migration looks eerily similar to unofficial early policy practices of anti-Blackness.

As he said in his speech, “It’s one thing to talk about identity and racism; it’s another to live the Black experience in Canada.” I am grateful for Hussen’s presence in government. But representation, though valuable, does not amount to meaningful policy change.

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