Harper Didn't Blame Canada. I Blame Bad Planning.

The Three Amigos

Stephen Harper is in Mexico, this week, along with the American President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon as part of a North American summit that has traditionally been called a gathering of “the three amigos”. However, relations between Canada and Mexico have been a little strained, ever since the Canadian government suddenly imposed visa restrictions on Mexicans. Incensed, the Mexican government countered with visa restrictions on Canadian diplomats.

Today, Stephen Harper tried to soothe things with Mexico with a line that sounded suspiciously like, “hey, it’s not you, it’s me.” Here’s a quote:

“This is not the fault of the government of Mexico - let me be very clear about this,” Mr. Harper told reporters, explaining his mid-July decision to clamp down on soaring bogus refugee claims from Mexico by requiring Mexicans to obtain visas before entering Canada.

“This is a problem in Canadian refugee law which encourages bogus claims.”


Now, from this, the Globe and Mail employed, in my opinion, some sloppy headline writing, entitling their article “Harper blames Canada for visa furor”.

At which point, Liberal Party supporters pounced. Warren Kinsella, calling Harper’s words “idiotic”, linked to a quick mashup one enterprising young Liberal put together deriding Harper for “blaming Canada”.

But did Harper really blame Canada? No he didn’t. The quote makes it quite plain: in Harper’s opinion, a flawed refugee claimant system forced his hand, making his government impose visa restrictions on Mexicans so fast, tourism companies in Canada took an economic hit. And it seems that the Globe is the only one not to acknowledge this context in its headline, unlike the National Post.

I’ve been watching politics for a while, and I have to say that conflating Harper’s remarks with the suggestion that he “Blames Canada” is one of the bigger stretches I’ve seen. It’s a fair comment to say that you’re doing something drastic because a system is flawed and needs fixing. It’s not blaming a nation to say that a government department needs to be reformed. And in any event, heaven help us if we can’t step forward and say that our country isn’t perfect and there are flaws that need fixing.

And I’d be perfectly willing to accept Harper’s explanation for slapping visa restrictions on Mexicans so fast if… he actually had been serious about making reforms to Canada’s refugee claimant system before now. After all, he has only been in power for three years! You’d think that, if fixing flaws to the system were truly a priority for this government, we’d have heard more about this issue in parliament by now.

But, not quite. This government has proposed and made changes to the immigration process — changes so dense they have frustrated efforts of immigration lawyers to provide decent service for their clients (and, believe me, I know of what I speak) — but the refugee system wasn’t really touched, or even referred to in the three years that this government has been in power. And then all of a sudden, the Minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, slaps visa restrictions on Mexico and the Czech Republic, offering no transition period, and so little warning, that a number of Mexican tourists had their vacations to Canada scrubbed.

This government has rightly been criticized for acting without forethought — or possibly acting with no thought at all, nor care nor interest in the unintended consequences that follow their actions. You’ll note that the Mexican government’s response has been a lot more nuanced: requiring visas from Canadian diplomats, rather than all Canadians everywhere. The European response to Canada’s actions is still caught up in the debate process. Clearly, they put more thought into their actions than this government does.

Given the similarities between Harper’s government and a bull in a china shop, Harper’s explanation should be criticized as “idiotic”, not because it “blames Canada”, but because it simply makes no sense. If the refugee claimant system is so flawed now that it requires such drastic actions before we can even begin to fix it, where has this government been in the past three years when this problem has supposedly been building? In this context, Harper’s words come across as making excuses for his government’s lack of skill in actually governing. And, here, we have a bit of a theme.

However, that doesn’t make for as pithy or provocative a headline, does it?

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