St. Catharines Standard Columnist Grant LaFleche wrote an impassioned column last week about a petition for sugar intake regulation calling it – “The Election Issue We Aren’t Talking About.” I agree with the column, but the clickbait headline opened up lots of thoughts in my mind about election issues that are not getting coverage in that same paper, or by Grant. Top of mind being immigration.
We are currently living through the largest human migration since World War II. Photos and videos of refugees and migrants pushing through the elements and human barriers in hopes of refuge are dominating news cycles and political discourse throughout the world. Although Canada does not play a position close to that of Greece, Italy, or the Balkans – that doesn’t mean we are not touched by this issue. In fact, our relative distance to this human crisis has been shaped partly through the overhaul of immigration policy by the Harper Administration – a change which Conservative MP Rick Dykstra played a central role in crafting as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration from November 2008 to September 2013.
Working under Minister Jason Kenney, Dykstra lived through the heart of a contentious era of Conservative Immigration Policy. At least two of the policy changes brought forward over those years have been struck down so far by the Federal Court of Canada – cuts to refugee healthcare and the ban on wearing Niqab’s at Citizenship Ceremonies. This era also saw the institution of the 4 and 4 rule, a mass increase in migrant detention and temporary foreign workers alongside a mass decrease in accepted refugee applications. Neverhome.ca, a detailed and exhaustive resource outling changes to immigration under the Harper administration launched today and provides full context for this backdrop, “citizenship is becoming harder to get and easier to lose. Permanent residency for refugees, skilled workers and family members is restricted, but the migrant worker program is exploding. Enforcement, in the form of detentions, deportations and secret trials, is also on the rise. Pervasive sentiments such as “bogus refugees”, “terrorists”, and “foreigners stealing jobs” have justified the increasing exclusion and marginalization of migrants. If migrants are allowed in, it is with temporary, conditional or precarious status.” The site hammers home the distinctiveness of this era by citing the work of Keegan Williams and Jenna Hennebry, “Researchers Keegan Williams and Jenna Hennebry have identified 111 new immigration policies since 2002, compared to 19 during 1867-2001. The vast majority of these new changes are Ministerial Instructions, which require no parliamentary approval.”
As the Conservative MP for St. Catharines and Parliamentary Secretary for Immigration from 2008-2013, Rick lived through the heart of this era and under Jason Kenney he played a direct role in reshaping how this country talks about, views and enforces immigration policy. Based upon local media coverage though, you would have almost no idea that such an overhaul of immigration policy has taken place, let alone that a local politician had played a central role in it. Of the little coverage of this era of Dykstra’s politics, there is almost nothing that exists as a critical counter point – and nothing editorial. In 2011, managing editor Erica Bajer covered Dykstra’s support for the niqab ban and printed his claim that “Ninety-nine percent of the population who have been asked about this issue have indicated they agree…” That is the same ban a Federal Court later ruled was unconstitutional. Since the November 2008 article that announced his post as the “right hand of Minister Jason Kenney” only three articles acknowledged his role – the article above on the niqab, one on abuse of the temporary foreign worker program and another that involved a protest I was part of against Bill C-31. What is extremely odd is that in the lead up to this posting, in 2008 alone, the Standard gave decent coverage or immigration issues in the city – Grant wrote this profile of immigration case worker Sharon Salci in August 2008 which details the importance of the issue locally, and he also wrote a personal family deportation story that same month. In one month, August 2008, the Standard provided better coverage of immigration issues locally then they did from November 2008 to September 2013 – when Rick shifted roles to become the parliamentary secretary for the Minister of Heritage.
The Standard didn’t go silent on Rick, there is ample coverage of funding announcements, charity involvement, party platforms and also some critical coverage of Rick politics in other areas – but for some reason this region’s largest paper slept walked through the largest overhaul of immigration policy in our history. Even as traditional media outlets and organizations are now picking up on the migrant/refugee crisis and Canada’s role – “Global Refugee Crisis Shames Us All” – “On Syrian Refugee Crisis, Canada Failing Miserably” – “The Closing of the Canadian Border” – “Three Things About Canada’s Election and Immigration” – local media still hasn’t made the connection. Aside from Rick’s role in Immigration and Citizenship, the region also includes Conservative MP Rob Nicholson – who is the current Minster of Foreign Affairs and who has also held the post of Minister of Defense and Minister of Justice, all roles which have impacted policies around our involvement in foreign conflicts that have shaped and been shaped by our immigration policy. One would think there would be endless content for which local journalists to mine to relay back to constituents who are represented by these politicians. Not so. What coverage who do get is usually dispassionate and devoid of the context that it is our local representatives who are driving these changes.
I don’t intend to make the connection conspiratorial. This era was also marked by a steady decline in the region’s newsrooms alongside shuffling corporate ownership and unfortunately there has been an across the board lack of political policy coverage. Although the Standard picked up some coverage on energy giant Enbridge’s proposed Line 9 reversal, you won’t find anything that will link that project, or their exception to not go face an environmental assessment, to then Provincial Environmental Minister and longtime St. Catharines Liberal MPP Jim Bradley. I get that writing about policy takes a bit more depth and have some sympathy for the economy of local news media. Also, the smaller Metroland owned Niagara This Week hasn’t exactly filled this void either. However, if Grant could write about immigration in 2008, he could have also wrote about it at any point during Dykstra’s 5 year Immigration and Citizenship posting. Similarly, if Grant can follow up his impassioned plea for sugar intake legislation with another good column on the troubling relationship between Niagara College and a satellite campus in Saudi Arabia – he, and the paper, can also take a long hard look at the roll that self censorship has played in how they talk about local politics. Grant ended that more recent column on a sober note about the role of the journalism program at Niagara College and the importance of freedom of the press – a right not acknowledged in Saudi Arabia and too frequently a muscle not worked out by journalists here.
If there are any white hats left in local media in Niagara – now is the time to ask Rick Dykstra point blank if he is proud of what he accomplished in the office of Immigration and Citizenship. Is he proud that he is part of an administration that placed billboards in foreign countries actively telling refugees to stay away from our country? Is he proud that between 2006 and 2014 over 87,000 migrants have been detained indefinitely without charge – including up to 807 children a year? Is he proud that he has played a role in policy that has been consistently struck down as unconstitutional and that has been denounced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights? Is he proud that Canada is entering the largest human migration in human history since WW II with a 50% decrease in refugee claims and a 30% drop in acceptances?
Don’t accept a glib answer, either Grant. The stakes are actually higher than we want to admit.