Advocates for Manitoba newcomers, critical of former immigration minister Jason Kenney's "tumultuous reign," aren't expecting much difference under his replacement, former diplomat Chris Alexander.
"I hope it doesn't usher in any worsening of the situation," said Dr. Mike Dillon, with Canadian Doctors for Refugee Health Care. The city physician helped organize rallies when the federal government last summer cut supplemental health benefits for privately sponsored refugees and refugee claimants.
"I hope this is an opportunity for government to have a second look at some of the contentious policies introduced in the last year and under Jason Kenney's leadership... They were fairly ill-considered and done without consultation," said Dillon, who's worked with refugees for more than 20 years.
'Maybe Mr. Harper and his colleagues have started to recognize Canada isn't about an attitude of meanness and insularity'
Another longtime refugee advocate called Kenney's "reign" both "tumultuous" and "paradoxical."
"On the one hand, he has clearly made Canada more inhospitable to refugee claimants, and the numbers of these have fallen," said Tom Denton, executive director of Hospitality House Refugee Ministry, citing the loss of supplemental health benefits that had been in place more than 50 years as an example.
"But on the other hand, he has almost doubled (from the days of former prime minister Jean Chr©tien) the number of privately sponsored refugees permitted to land here, he has initiated the new Blended Visa Office Referred program for encouraging the additional private sponsoring of refugees with partial government financial support, and he has recently announced an initiative to begin to address the Syrian refugee problem."
A "worrisome legacy" of the Kenney years, still to be implemented, is the age reduction from 22 to 18 for allowing children to come as part of the family unit, Denton said. "This will be devastating to some families, whether (they're) coming as refugees or as ordinary immigrants." Denton said he hopes Alexander rescinds the age reduction before it takes effect.
Kenney may have been seen as a "doer" who took action to solve problems, but he was a dividing force rather than a uniting one, Denton said.
"Unfortunately, he has had a penchant for surrounding and defending his actions with language that has often been inflammatory and has tended to polarize Canadians and to make immigrants, especially refugee immigrants, into scapegoats," he said. That hasn't helped the building of a tolerant, multicultural society, he said.
It has hurt Canada's international reputation, said Dillon, who hopes Alexander can heal it.
"Maybe Mr. Harper and his colleagues have started to recognize Canada isn't about an attitude of meanness and insularity."
Press releases from Kenney's office usually made reference to "bogus" refugees.
"I hope this is ushering in a new phase for some of the language, and that you can get away with saying 'refugee' without it being prefaced by the word 'bogus,' " Dillon said. "It's totally wrong and mean-spirited."
"It presupposes and gives an image that immigrants and foreigners are bad people," yet they helped build Canada, said Migrante Manitoba co-ordinator Diwa Marcelino. "Under Minister Kenney, how many hundreds of thousands of temporary foreign workers came into this country instead of immigrants? The temporary-foreign-worker plan has eclipsed the number of immigrants," said Marcelino, who advocates for foreign workers' rights and a path to citizenship for them.
Kenney was following in the footsteps of many immigration ministers, Denton said.
"To the extent that our immigration policy can be criticized as a 'nation-maintenance' strategy, as opposed to a 'nation-building' one, blame for this cannot be placed at Mr. Kenney's door."
Immigration's main purpose for many years has been related to Canada's labour-market strategy, he said. It's needed for the Canadian economy, with its aging population and declining birth rate, to grow, he said. "It was there before him and it continues."