A few weeks ago, Gloria Enns could barely lift a pen, let alone write a letter.
She had surgery on her right hand in May, and the scars were still visible as she pressed the tip of her ballpoint down on a piece of loose-leaf Tuesday at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization of Manitoba headquarters, writing to Ahmed Hussen, the Canadian minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship.
Enns and about 25 other volunteers and human rights activists gathered on World Refugee Day to compose letters to Hussen and their respective MPs in an effort to convince them to rescind the Safe Third Country Agreement — a federal policy enacted in 2004 that requires claimants to request refugee status in the first safe country they arrive in. The Winnipeg letter-writing session, which also focused on equitable funding for First Nations communities, was organized by Amnesty International and local non-profit organizations SEED Winnipeg and IRCOM.
Under the agreement, Canada recognizes only the United States as a "safe third country." However, given the recent instances of refugee claimants risking life and limb to cross the border, the letter-writers believe a change in policy will lead to fewer fatalities and tragedies.
"My hand is sore, but it's not like those people who lost their fingers due to frostbite crossing the border," Enns said. "My hand will heal, but they will never get their fingers back."
Enns, a teacher and volunteer, was referring to Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, two Ghanaian men who crossed into Manitoba at the U.S. border near Emerson in December. She also mentioned Mavis Otuteye, the Ghanaian woman who died last month while trying to cross the border near Noyes, Minn.
Louise Simbandumwe, co-chairwoman of Amnesty International Winnipeg, says the current political climate in the U.S. makes the Safe Third Country Agreement a problematic and potentially dangerous one.
"(The agreement) is predicated on the idea that the United States is a safe country for refugees and asylum-seekers, and I think the last few months should tell us that is definitely not the case," Simbandumwe said. "We need to make sure people have an alternative. The ability (for someone) to come to Canada and make a refugee claim, even though they went through the U.S., is fundamental and important."
Seid Ahmed, a journalist from Ethiopia, came to Canada as a government-assisted refugee in 2003. Ahmed was imprisoned due to his role as a journalist and his refusal to comply to government pressure. He later escaped.
His story "is not exceptional," he said. In Ethiopia, many reporters and government dissidents end up in prison.
According to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, only countries that "respect human rights and offer a high degree of protection to asylum-seekers" can be classified as safe third countries. Ahmed said recent executive orders by U.S. President Donald Trump make that country unsafe for refugees, specifically Muslims and those from Muslim nations. That's just one reason he wants the agreement rescinded.
"The U.S. is not safe anymore under the current government, so why are we still respecting this agreement when they don't respect human rights?" Ahmed asked after finishing his letter.
Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said her organization has always opposed the Safe Third Country Agreement. She said by keeping it, the Canadian government is "shutting the doors to refugees."
"We have the capacity as a country to do right by refugees, and under (the agreement), we are not doing the right thing," Dench said.
Suspending the agreement doesn't require a lengthy request process. There is a provision allowing for either the U.S. or Canada to suspend the policy for a renewable three-month period.
Before the agreement, Dench said, people could represent themselves at the port of entry instead of taking the dangerous, irregular routes by foot or with smugglers. The rule discriminates against some of the most vulnerable groups, including mothers with children, the elderly and people with disabilities, she said.
Simbandumwe said much of the opposition to rescinding the agreement stems from existing human rights violations within Canada: some believe before the government accepts refugees, it must first deal with issues such as the mistreatment of indigenous people.
A former refugee herself, Simbandumwe doesn't view the two sets of issues as dichotomous.
"There are still concerns that need to be addressed, particularly when it comes to indigenous rights," she said. "So, as human rights activists, we always need to be connected to and always advocating to ensure that human rights are protected for everybody, everywhere and at all times. And no country is immune from critique."
After finishing her letter, Enns massaged her sore hand, and discussed the claimants who recently risked their lives to reach Canada.
"We could have welcomed them," she said. "People shouldn't have to sneak into this country."