Canada is deporting its ‘guardian angels’

Many asylum seekers in Canada, who served as essential workers at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, are now facing the threat of deportation.

Asylum seeker Mamadou Konaté, worked as a janitor at elderly care homes in Montreal at the peak of the COVID pandemic in 2020, he now faces the threat of deportation. On July 6, he addressed a crowd gathered in front of Prime Minister Trudeau's constituency office in Montreal to protest essential worker deportations [Stacy Lee]

In 2017, in response to then-United States President Donald Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban”, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” Four years on, many across the world continue to believe Trudeau’s assertion that his country’s doors are open to refugees.

The reality on the ground, however, is very different. While routinely being praised for its extraordinary generosity towards refugees, Trudeau’s Canada is deporting asylum seekers en masse, amid a deadly pandemic.

According to the latest data published by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), Trudeau’s government deported some 12,122 people in 2020. This was the highest number of deportations in a year since 2015, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was in power. Thousands more face the risk of being forcefully removed from the country before the end of 2021.

Many asylum seekers currently facing the threat of deportation have served as essential front-line workers in Canada during the most difficult and deadly months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mamadou Konaté, who fled his home country of Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) in the aftermath of its bloody civil war and arrived in Canada as an asylum seeker in 2016, is one of them.

In 2020, at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Konaté worked as a janitor in three different long-term care homes (CHSLDs) in Montreal, Quebec. At the time, like most care homes in Canada, these facilities were devastated by the pandemic and were in desperate need of essential workers. Konaté tended to and cleaned the rooms of COVID-positive patients and contracted the virus while doing so. He quickly returned to work after surviving the illness.

Despite his service, however, he is now facing deportation as soon as the Canadian government arranges for Konaté’s travel documents for Ivory Coast to be issued.

“After years of working in this country, along with many, many others, contributing a lot, paying taxes, working in difficult jobs during this pandemic, now the government is going to remove us? Now the Canadian government is planning to deport us? This is injustice,” Konaté told a crowd gathered in front of Prime Minister Trudeau’s constituency office in Montreal on July 6 to protest deportations.

“During the pandemic,” Konaté said “many key jobs were performed by immigrants, by refugees. I am one of those people who stepped up, now, I face removal. I worked hard in the CHSLDs, cleaning many times, even on the night shift. Today, it is hard for people to know, to understand, the pain that we are going through, while facing deportation from Canada, after working in essential posts during this pandemic.”

Konaté’s case is only one of many that illustrate the ever-widening gap between the Liberal Trudeau government’s rhetoric of “embracing refugees” and the reality on the ground.

Abandoning the ‘guardian angels’

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Canadian politicians from across the political spectrum have been publicly celebrating essential workers, especially those working in healthcare settings.

For example, in April 2020, Quebec’s Premier François Legault, of the conservative Coalition Avenir Québec, described essential workers on the COVID-19 front lines – including asylum seekers – as “guardian angels” and voiced his government’s support for them.

A few months later, in December 2020, his government specifically acknowledged the contributions asylum seekers have made to the pandemic effort and initiated the “guardian angel” programme ostensibly to provide essential workers with precarious immigration status a direct path to permanent residency.

On the surface, the programme – accompanied by a similar Ottawa-led initiative for essential workers outside Quebec – appeared to provide further proof that Canada is a refugee-friendly country. But in reality, it was yet another demonstration of the hypocrisy of Canada’s leaders.

The so-called “guardian angel” programme, limited in scope to some essential workers in the healthcare sector who provided direct care to patients, left asylum seekers who laboured as front-line workers in other sectors, such as food packing and delivery, out in the cold. Moreover, it excludes many others, like Konaté, who worked as janitors, cooks or security guards in healthcare facilities.

The limitations of this programme show not only that Canada is not as welcoming of refugees as Trudeau likes us to believe, but also that the selective nature of the country’s immigration policies has changed very little since the British colonial era.

In the early 20th century, exclusionist and white supremacist immigration policies led Canada to turn away countless thousands of immigrants from across the world who endured long and arduous journeys to reach the country’s shores. Since then, Canada has made itself a name as a liberal safe haven for refugees. But as ongoing mass deportations and the state’s refusal to give permanent residency to all asylum seekers who served as essential workers illustrates, Canada’s immigration policies are still neither just nor inclusive.

Moreover, as Trudeau continues with his rhetoric of welcoming all those fleeing persecution, terror and war, Canada is rapidly militarising its borders. The 2019 federal budget, for example, promised a strategy costing 1.18 billion Canadian dollars ($940m) over five years to beef up border security and to detect, intercept and remove migrants.

Today, Trudeau continues to act as if Canada’s doors are open to refugees and the country is committed to protecting those in need. This, however, cannot be further from the truth. The country is actually allowing only a select few, who meet specific criteria, to settle within its borders, and shamelessly deporting many, like Konaté, who risked their lives to keep the country running at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So, no – all those “fleeing persecution, terror and war” are not welcome in Canada. And Trudeau should stop pretending they are.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.