Ah summer. A time for relaxing, taking a step back from the pressures and incessant schedules that drive Canadians from September to June. For a brief couple of months, while the days are long and warm, forgotten projects are resuscitated in the sanctity of one's own space, allowing for thoughtful contemplation of bigger issues to be tackled when school or work begins anew in September.
But such quiet, regenerative time is not for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney. Recognizing that idle hands are the devil's tools, the minister was presented with a problem this summer and attacked it with all the efficiency of a doctor performing delicate surgery with a chainsaw. Acting to stem a rising tide of bogus refugee claimants from Mexico and the Czech Republic, Kenney announced this week that all citizens of those countries must now obtain a visa before they are allowed to enter Canada.
The move prompted the Czechs to withdraw their ambassador to Canada. Mexico has been less demonstrative, but similarly appalled.
And so, rightfully, is the Canadian tourism industry. Mexico was the sixth largest source of tourists to Canada last year, with 266,000 visitors. The numbers had been steadily increasing, including in Whistler. One of the advantages Canada had, and one of the things prompting the increasing numbers of Mexican visitors, was that the United States had placed a visa requirement on Mexicans.
But with no warning, no grace period and apparently no consultation with the tourism industry, Kenney has wiped out that advantage - seven months prior to Canada hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics.
And it is not only the tourism industry that is affected. Temporary farm workers from Mexico, who have become an important part of the farming economy in B.C. and Ontario, will now need a visa.
The imposition of a visa requirement is Kenney's knee-jerk response to phony refugee claims. Mexico has become the largest source of refugee claims in Canada - 9,400 last year, and a 50 per cent increase in claims in the first few months of 2009. Only 11 per cent of Mexican refugee claims are considered legitimate.
This is not the first time bogus refugee claimants have started landing in Canada. As the Globe and Mail's Jeffrey Simpson noted, in 1996 there was a surge of phony refugee claimants from the Chilean port of Valparaiso. Canada's response was to institute a visa requirement on all Chileans, which remains in effect today. Canada now imposes visa requirements on 142 countries.
These periodic waves of illegitimate refugee claimants are prompted by Canada's multi-layered, generous and inefficient system for determining refugee status. The appeals process and the support network available during the determination process were designed to give genuine refugees every chance of success in Canada. Illegitimate "economic refugees" have taken advantage of it.
But rather than address the root cause of the problem - Canada's refugee system - the Immigration minister has reacted in the simplest, bluntest way, without apparent thought for the consequences. The 89 per cent of Mexican refugee claimants that are phony are supposedly messing up the system, but reports indicate the total number of refugee claimants has changed very little in recent years. In other words, Canada's refugee system isn't dealing with more claimants, just more claimants from Mexico and the Czech Republic. It's the system that needs fixing, not Mexicans.
Kenney, who has been in charge of Immigration since Oct. 30 last year, says he is working on a proposal to reform the refugee system. "Stay tuned," he told the Canadian Press.
But in the midst of a global recession, the Canadian tourism industry doesn't have the luxury of "staying tuned." An era that was supposed to be more open and efficient - the starting point for the North American free trade agreement - has again become bogged down by political agendas. Tourism across North America has been negatively affected by the U.S. government's ironically-named Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Now, after Canada's largest foreign tourist market has been hamstrung, the Canadian government is in effect telling Mexicans, the sixth largest foreign tourism market, we don't trust you.
Kenney was voted Best Overall MP by his peers in the House of Commons earlier this year. Perhaps people in the tourism business would like a vote of their own.