Canada can’t Tackle Climate Change Independently

179299295_1024a70998_zIt’s no secret. We have all seen various rankings showing Canada as one of the best countries in the world to live in. Its cities also consistently rank highly in publications that examine solely cities. While these lists are far from scientific, they do validate the opinions of many observers abroad, as well as Canadians about their homeland. Immigrants and refugees have long flocked to the true north seeking a better life and, while the government’s history in dealing with minorities has not always been fair, Canada has certainly come a long way from the 19th-century policy of Chinese head tax. Canada’s newest challenge to its stellar reputation — climate change and the refugees its effects may create — threatens to be its most daunting yet.

Climate change, a simply-defined phenomenon, is giving rise to effects that are anything but: rising sea levels leading to inundation, higher average temperatures, increased instances of viruses and diseases, stronger storms, and droughts and famine. An estimated 44% of the world’s population lives within 150km of the coast. Many of these people, if displaced by rising sea levels, will be compelled to move further inland, perhaps within their own country. But what if this is not an option? What if people have nowhere to move to within their state? What if their entire country becomes inundated? Pardon the apocalyptic imagery, but if business as usual continues, then this will be the future of millions.

It’s a cruel fate that befalls the already poor and downtrodden of the world, to then have to endure the worst effects of climate change. It is even worse to perceive these people, who want nothing more than to take care of themselves and their families, as an imminent threat that must be thwarted.

Pro-Immigration Trudeau
If we are to read into recent precedents set by the Trudeau administration, Canada is destined to continue being a world leader in immigration policy. 2016 is set to be the year when over 300,000 new Permanent Residents are accepted into the fold (among them, 55,800 refugees, 80,000 through the family reunification stream, but at the cost of a lesser number of intakes through the economic migrant scheme- 160,600, down from 181,300 in 2015). As a demonstrably pro-immigration Prime Minister, Mr. Trudeau’s thinking seems to be ahead of the curve, distancing himself from the idea of a national identity, choosing rather to embrace the fluidity of immigration and its role in shaping the future, stressing the importance of the family unit. His administration has made commitments to make the immigration process easier for those suitably qualified. With respect to refugees specifically, Canada’s commitment to those fleeing war-torn Syria may be a sign that welcoming climate migrants may not be out of the realm of possibility.

Wishful thinking?

As admirable as these prospects may seem, Canada may be considered simultaneously brave and foolish if it tries to tackle climate change issues alone. Without cooperation from the UNHCR, (a body that was originally envisioned to manage the legal aspects of refugees, and not to micromanage distribution of food and supplies etc.) the road will be tough. Other countries may be inspired to follow suite but many may be relieved that the ‘burden’ is taken up by someone other than themselves.

The Paris 2015 Climate Summit failed to meaningfully acknowledge the very people who are in need of the most protection. As it is, the only convention that governs the acceptance of persons fleeing due to threat to personhood is the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. The convention does not recognize climate related issues that may cause persons to flee. The fault does not lie with the Convention, as it was not designed with that purpose in mind.

The current legal vacuum that exists in the international sphere is already having negative effects on would-be climate migrants. In 2015 New Zealand’s Supreme Court denied the application of a Kiribati national to stay in New Zealand on the grounds that he did not meet the legal definition of a refugee. Ioane Teitiota argued through his lawyers that due to the effects of climate change including inundation, storm surges, and saltwater contamination, he would be persecuted passively, an argument framed to appeal to the ‘persecution’ clause of the Refugee Convention.

Critics may argue that an emphasis on worst-case scenarios may defeat the current efforts to curb greenhouse emissions, but this line of thought reveals a wider current of ignorance towards climate change as a future phenomenon. Millions of people are at this very moment experiencing devastating effects of climate change.

Mr. Trudeau’s ahead-of-the-curve thinking may well be appreciated in a global context where solutions are often devised after major disasters have occurred. While many may assert that this vision is overly optimistic, they might be right. Consensus on an issue such as climate change is often hard to come by. Canada is not on track to meet either the targets set at Paris nor its own targets set by the previous administration. A recent meeting between the Premiers and the Prime Minister yielded some positive news: a broad agreement on cutting back of emissions, but they lacked consensus for a national minimum carbon price.

On the flip side, given that Canada is a major emitter of greenhouse gasses, one would like to think that adequate support for those adversely affected would, at least, be an aspiration of the current and future administrations. Who knows, 2016 may very well be the year that Canada changes the course of global immigration policy.

See below for a detailed timeline of Immigration in Canada.

Immigration Timeline in Canada

1869- Canada’s first immigration act (Restricted immigration to British, French and Americans)

1885- Chinese Immigration Act.  Implements Chinese head tax of $50 per person.

1906- Immigration Act of 1906. Power to deport persons granted.

1910- Immigration Act of 1910. Power to restrict immigration from unwanted ethnic groups

1923- New Chinese Immigration Act. Banned nearly all Chinese from entering

1947- Canadian Citizenship Act. Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 repealed.

1952- Immigration Act of 1952. Continued ability to select immigrants who come to Canada. Gives Minister significant power to restrict immigration.

1962- Racial discrimination eliminated in Canada’s immigration policy

1967- Points system established to evaluate applicants without bias

1971- Policy of Multiculturalism announced by Pierre Elliot Trudeau

1977- Citizenship Act defined Canadian citizens, grouping naturalized and native-born citizens.

Immigration Act of 1976

1978- A new Immigration redefined “prohibited classes.” Also defined classes of immigrants: family class, humanitarian class (primarily refugees), assisted relatives, and independent class. The Act is named 1976 for the year it was drafted, although it entered into effect in 1978.

1994- Citizenship and Immigration Canada created

2003- Canada Border Services Agency created

2016- Canada changes discourse on climate migrants?

Jordan Maicoo (2 Posts)

Jordan is a citizen of Trinidad and Tobago, and holds an Honours BA in International Studies and a minor in Hispanic Studies from York University's Glendon College. His areas of interest include migration, international politics, North-South cooperation, and climate change. In addition to contributing to Freedom Observatory, he writes for the blog The South Side of Things. Jordan works as the International Relations Officer at the European Development Fund, Ministry of Planning and Development in Trinidad. He is fluent in Spanish and has a working knowledge of French.


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