Justin Trudeau’s first government revived the Bloc. As so often with Justin Trudeau, this mistake originated not in any policy decision, but in an act of performative politics. On January 28, 2017, Trudeau’s Twitter account posted this tweet:
“To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada”
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Trudeau did not intend those words to signal any particular action. In the shock of Donald Trump’s election, Trudeau and his team saw an opportunity to position themselves as the shiny faces of global progressivism. Trump had tried to impose a ban on Muslim refugees—so Trudeau extended a welcome. Despite the example of Germany in August 2015, when a careless tweet from that country’s migration agency triggered a surge of 1.2 million people across German borders, Trudeau seems not to have intended his tweet as anything but political marketing. Canada made no preparations for a refugee surge in 2017. Where would such a surge come from anyway?
The answer materialized within hours. The surge appeared from the most unexpected direction: from across the U.S. border. Thousands of people living illegally in New York City began taking buses to Plattsburgh, New York, then hiring taxis for the $75 drive to the Canadian border. There, with their luggage, they walked into Quebec to claim the welcome Trudeau had promised. By summer 2017, they were arriving in Montreal at a rate of 250 people a day.
More than 14,000 people walked across the U.S.-Canadian border in the first nine months of 2017, almost all of them into Quebec. Nearly half of these unauthorized immigrants were Haitians, hoping to join family and friends in Montreal. But Quebec has long had an uneasy relationship with immigration. French-speaking Quebecois have historically mistrusted immigration as an English-Canadian plot to submerge their language and culture in an ever-growing English-speaking majority. (That Haiti is a Francophone country did not prevent opposition from forming.)
Trudeau represents a Montreal riding, or district; his government is acutely sensitive to Quebec’s concerns. Startled by the consequences of Trudeau’s tweet, the Canadian federal government struggled to reimpose something like order on the country’s boundary with the United States. It warehoused Haitian asylum-seekers in dormitories in an unused hospital on the site of the 1976 Montreal Olympics. But, under Canadian law, the asylum-seekers were entitled to work and to health coverage during the many, many years that processing their cases from beginning to end would take. The numbers grew and grew: more than 20,000 in 2018. In summer 2018, the Montreal Gazette interviewed Francine Dupuis, the head of a government-backed refugee settlement agency in Montreal. “It’s unheard of,” she said of the cross-border surge. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen this kind of volume or intensity.”