The polite xenophobia compelling Canada’s ever tighter travel restrictions

How fear of the foreign has taken hold of Canada’s COVID response, hurt (im)migrants and newcomers, and shifted attention from root causes.

In a world so ravaged by crisis, Canada prides itself as a compassionate leader. Canadians rejoice in their country’s multiculturalism — congratulating their accepting society at a time when many nations rally around xenophobia. Canada takes pride in its decorum while looking at other nations with self-righteous distaste.

Canada’s reaction to the COVID pandemic has shown, however, that the polite nation is home to its own brand of xenophobia.

Throughout the pandemic, Canada has misrepresented foreigners and immigrants to affirm its benevolent image. Instead of addressing domestic causes of COVID’s rising tide — the government’s own “social determinants of health and health inequalities” — Canada chooses to fan xenophobic flames by instating ever tighter restrictions at the border.

What presents itself as a rational decision in the face of such an existential threat is nothing more than xenophobia politely masquerading as reason. Rather than examining the country’s own practices leading to a disastrous 2nd wave — particularly for Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC) frontline workers, migrants, and newcomers — Canada is doing what it knows best: hunkering down, apologizing for the loss, and claiming innocence.

How we got here

Canada closed its borders, except to Canadian status holders and “essential workers,” shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID a pandemic in March 2020.  Any person entering Canada became required to quarantine or isolate at home for 14 days, unless exempt to perform “essential work.” In late June 2020, the Liberal government granted entry permission to family members of Canadians as the 1st wave showed signs of decline. Strict measures at the border seemed to be working.

Now, after an unconscionably difficult year for many, the Canadian government has instated further restrictions making international travel — even on family or compassionate grounds — nearly impossible for the majority of Canadians.

After reports of airports crowded with holiday travellers, a majority of Canadians began calling for an international travel ban. Starting early January, notoriously xenophobic Quebec Premier François Legault urged the federal government to cancel all “non-essential” flights to Canada and for the mandatory 14-day quarantine to take place in hotels, rather than homes, at the traveller’s expense. Likewise, Ontario’s conservative Premier Doug Ford led calls to require COVID testing of landed air travellers and heightened quarantine surveillance.

On January 29th, these Canadians had their way. As new variants of the COVID-causing virus from around the world stoke fears that the worst is still yet to come, the government implemented sweeping measures to curb border crossing — notably, the suspension of all flights to so-called “sun” destinations of Mexico and the Caribbean and mandatory hotel quarantine with a price tag of at least $2,000. These measures also increase quarantine policing and promise to detain COVID-positive returnees in unknown “government managed facilities.”

Is foreign travel to blame?

What comes as a surprise is that there are less “leisure” or “non-essential” travellers entering Canada, and even less COVID cases linked to travel, than we have been made to believe. New statistics from Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) show that so-called “leisure travellers,” for whom quarantine is mandatory, account for only 26% of the 8.3 million people entering Canada since the start of the pandemic. While the category of “leisure” or “non-essential” traveller mistakenly equates family travellers with snowbirds, COVID cases linked to all travel in Canada linger at 2% of the national case total.

On the other hand, 6.3 million workers entered with quarantine exemptions to fill roles in Canada’s agriculture, trade, fossil fuel, and related industries. This summer, COVID cases reached an all-time low even while Canadians relied on migrant workers to put food on our plates and goods on our doorsteps. Though Canadian corporations regularly exploit migrant workers, the situation became even worse with COVID, for example in Windsor-Essex, Ontario. Still, Canada finds their entry essential and at low risk to the country’s overall public health.

This trajectory points to the relatively low, albeit consequential, burden that border crossings pose on our health system. It also speaks to the success of the at-home quarantine measures in place since March 2020. Moreover, the data calls Canada’s COVID mitigation strategy centred around international travel into serious question.

It is a shame that a relative few sun-starved vacationers led to further restrictions, which will inevitably punish BIPOC migrants, workers, and their families and restrict travel to the richest Canadians. Behind the government’s travel and border restrictions is a xenophobia firmly rooted in Canada’s benevolent self-image and a long history of racism.

Polite xenophobia: Canada’s shadow pandemic

As a Canadian newcomer born and raised in the United States to immigrant parents, I felt lucky to be in Canada during the pandemic. The problems raised here about Canada clearly hold a strong place around the world. Even so, COVID has seen the rise of xenophobia in Canada. Immigrants, migrants, and dual nationals experience increasing hardship during the pandemic.

Everyday aggressions only further Canada’s xenophobic policies like the most recent measures. Scapegoating, stereotyping, and paranoia benefit the most privileged Canadians and affirm right-wing extremists while the rest of us suffer.

What does it say when Canada prosecutes COVID patients, like the Ajax couple, for withholding exposure information while outbreaks continue in workplaces deemed “essential”? What does it mean when the federal government threatens travellers with isolation in undisclosed “designated government facilities” while human rights are eroded inside Canada’s prisons and shelters? Or even when Canada hires private security companies to police returnees while their neighbours go hungry and face eviction?

Unfortunately, many Canadians have not asked such questions. For one, the country’s xenophobic stance comes as a welcome change for the at least 40% of Canadians who view immigration as a threat. But COVID-related xenophobia does not only belong to conservatives. Canadians of all political persuasions — even/especially white progressives — now unite in fear of the foreign while benefitting from imported labour.

Polite xenophobia is all too common in Canada during COVID. Polite xenophobia looks like a Black Lives Matter sign on the front lawn, dozens of Amazon orders a week filled by exploited BIPOC workers, and a sigh of relief for Trudeau’s January 29th announcement. Polite Canadian xenophobia forgets that, in its own borders, live millions of dual nationals whose right it is to travel between home countries — dual nationals who are otherwise celebrated for contributing to Canada’s multicultural mosaic.

The new normal exposes the limits of Canadian multiculturalism. Take, for example, the temporary suspension of all flights to and from Mexico and Caribbean countries to “protect Canadians.” In this order, the Canadian government makes clear who they count as true Canadians: respectable, pale-skinned citizens with no reason to leave Canada. Noticeably absent are the millions of Canadians for whom Mexico and the Caribbean are home, not merely “sun” destinations, and dual nationals for whom travel may be essential.

Looking in the mirror

In fear of diminishing the severity of the deadly virus, many of us have kept silent about Canada’s polite xenophobia. There is a distinct difference, however, between anti-maskers risking lives and anti-xenophobes combatting systemic oppression.

Canada’s COVID response marks an alarming disregard to social determinants of health on behalf of all levels of government. In spite of popular calls for socially responsible approaches to the pandemic, Canada continues to invest in police, prisons, and unfair labour. These are violent tools that endanger entire communities, as Black Lives Matter, Status For All, and Indigenous sovereignty movements have taught us.

In the fight against COVID, we are safer when popular demands for social responsibility are met: frontline workplace safety; paid sick leave and universal basic income; eviction moratoriums and decent housing; and immigration status for all. As these demands are satisfied, so will be the social determinants of health.

If Canadians want to eradicate COVID as urgently as our situation demands, it is time to look in the mirror. By refusing xenophobia, we can focus on dire public health threats within our own society.

By Darian Razdar

Writer, researcher, and artist with an activist bent.