Vancouver Sun

Why the Liberals are sending Blair to the border

- Douglas Quan

Despite accusing critics of fear-mongering over the influx of asylum seekers, the Trudeau government appointed Bill Blair, Toronto’s former top cop, as minister in charge of border security and “irregular migration” Wednesday, signalling a realizatio­n that the issue likely won’t go away before next year’s election, political observers say.

In recent weeks, federal opposition critics and Ontario’s Progressiv­e Conservati­ves have criticized the Trudeau Liberals for mismanagin­g the issue of the thousands of migrants who’ve crossed unguarded parts of the Canada-U.S. border.

The announceme­nt that someone with law-and-order bona fides has been put in charge of a new department focusing on the border appears to be an attempt by the Liberals to show the Canadian public — as well as U.S. President Donald Trump’s security-obsessed administra­tion — that they’re on top of these issues, said David Moscrop, a political scientist at Simon Fraser University.

“The Liberals are aware the 2019 election is coming and security is going to be a predominan­t issue,” Moscrop said. “It’s a framing exercise as well as a publicpoli­cy exercise. … It’s making sure the public knows you’re on the file.”

Polling last summer by the Angus Reid Institute showed a majority of Canadians — 57 per cent — disapprove­d of the Trudeau government’s handling of asylum seekers crossing the border through irregular channels.

“There is a solid awareness among the ranks of the Trudeau government that this issue has a potential to be a political liability for them. Why take the risk?” said Shachi Kurl, the institute’s executive director. “By putting in Blair — Mr. Law and Order — that is a move designed to shore up the vulnerabil­ity that they have on this file.”

Trudeau’s mandate letter to Blair won’t be released until later this summer. But in broad terms, Trudeau said Blair, who previously served as parliament­ary secretary to the justice and health ministers, will be expected to “ensure Canada’s borders are managed in a way that promotes legitimate travel and trade while keeping Canadians safe and treating everyone fairly and in accordance with our laws.

“He will play an important role in coordinati­ng efforts to reduce gun violence and tackle organized crime. Minister Blair will also continue to lead the legalizati­on and strict regulation of cannabis, and will be the minister responsibl­e for irregular migration.”

Until Wednesday, oversight of borders and border jumping migrants were the responsibi­lities of the public safety and immigratio­n ministers. The hiving off of some of those responsibi­lities to a new minister makes sense, some said.

“My view has always been that the minister of public safety’s job is too big … and should be divided,” Stephanie Carvin, a professor of internatio­nal relations at Carleton University, said in an email.

The Canada Border Services Agency, however, will remain under the purview of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.

Blair told reporters he was aware “that the flow of migrants and refugees is having an impact on some of our municipali­ties” and that he hoped to work with mayors and premiers to resolve those issues.

“We know this is a concern to Canadians, and we want to do everything that is necessary to address it,” he said.

Blair was non-committal when asked whether he would support Canada’s withdrawal from the Safe Third Country Agreement, a treaty that allows Canadian border officers to turn away asylum seekers at ports of entry if they come from the U.S. because the U.S. is considered a “safe” country to be a refugee. Advocacy groups have said refugees are no longer safe in the U.S. under the Trump administra­tion and that’s what’s driving some of them to cross into Canada illegally.

According to government figures, for the first six months of 2017, RCMP apprehende­d 4,375 asylum seekers who had crossed the border between ports of entry. During the same period this year, that figure grew to 10,744; however, the numbers have been on the decline since April.

Opposition critics have been pressuring the government to detail how they plan to manage the influx of asylum seekers, many of whom are being housed in shelters or college dormitorie­s. At least two special hearings of the House of Commons immigratio­n committee are planned in coming days to examine the issue.

“It is completely unacceptab­le for us to normalize the government being able to expend hundreds of millions of dollars in a piecemeal fashion without having that broader conversati­on,” Conservati­ve MP Michelle Rempel said this week.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has said the influx was putting a strain on local and provincial resources and had resulted in a “housing crisis.” He also said the federal government should “foot 100 per cent of the bills.”

Immigratio­n Minister Ahmed Hussen accused Ontario’s Progressiv­e Conservati­ves of stoking unnecessar­y division.

“It’s fear-mongering and it’s not Canadian,” he said.

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