Refugees who arrive by boat and Canada's commitment to the refugee convention: a discursive analysis.

Author:Mann, Alexandra


This paper offers a comparative analysis of official discourse surrounding three incidents of asylum seekers arriving in Canada by boat: the Komagata Maru in 1914; the Sri Lankans who arrived in Newfoundland on lifeboats in 1986; and the Ocean Lady in 2009. The objective is to assess Canada's commitment to protecting refugees at these three points in history and evaluate academic contentions that the concept of the refugee is being eroded. The selected incidents trace the emergence and decline of the notion of the refugee in Canadian official discourse. Even during the peak of Canada's commitment to refugees in the 1980s, the discourse reveals blurriness between the ideas of the "refugee" and the "illegal migrant." However, the characterization of asylum seekers as "illegals" is more intense now than in the earlier periods. This shift in the discourse warrants attention as we face the prospect of what Audrey Macklin describes as the "discursive disappearance of the refugee."


Le present article propose une analyse comparative du discours officiel entourant trois cas de demandeurs d'asile arrivant par bateau au Canada : l'incident du Komagata Maru en 1914, les Sri-Lankais qui sont arrives a TerreNeuve sur des embarcations de sauvetage en 1986 et l'incident du Ocean Lady en 2009. L'objectif est d'evaluer l'engagement du Canada a proteger les refugies a ces trois moments de l'histoire et d'evaluer les arguments theoriques voulant une erosion de la notion de refugie. Les incidents choisis suivent l'emergence et le declin de la notion de refugie dans le discours officiel canadien. Meme au plus fort de l'engagement du Canada envers les refugies dans les annees 1980, le discours se revele flou sur les notions de > et de >. Cependant, la caracterisation des demandeurs d'asile comine > est plus intense aujourd'hui que par les periodes anterieires. Ce changement dans le discours justifie qu'on y porte attention alors que nous faisons face a la perspective de ce que Audrey Macklin decrit comine la >.


In Humanitarianism, Identity, and Nation: Migration Laws of Australia and Canada, Catherine Dauvergne argues that Canada has an international reputation as a country with generous immigration laws and a history of offering protection to refugees. Contemporary Canada, says Dauvergne, has to some extent been "created" by immigration and the mythology of immigration forms an integral part of Canada's national identity. (1) Compared to other "immigrant nations," such as Australia, Canada has a strong tradition of granting protection to those who meet the definition of "refugee" in the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees (hereafter the Refugee Convention). (2) This tradition, says Dauvergne, is linked to humanitarianism, which is a value that Canadians as individuals are willing to honour by upholding the country's commitment to provide asylum to those fleeing persecution. (3)

In recent years, however, immigration and refugee scholars have observed that Canada is becoming more hostile to asylum seekers than it was in the past. (4) In "Disappearing Refugees: Reflections on the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement," Audrey Macklin argues that the very concept of the refugee is being eroded in Canadian society and replaced with the image of the illegal migrant. Macklin explains that this "discursive disappearance of the refugee" is propelled by growing concerns about national security and the rise in interdiction measures. As developed countries like Canada make it more difficult for asylum seekers to enter their territories, individuals fleeing persecution are forced to cross borders secretly, often with the assistance of human smugglers, in order to avoid being detected by authorities. Macklin notes that while it is widely recognized that millions of people are living in situations that would make them eligible for refugee protection under Canadian law, as soon as they cross the Canadian border they become illegals. Unlike refugees, who have a right to make a claim for protection, illegals are transgressors who are perceived as unworthy of Canada's compassion. (5)

Dauvergne similarly argues that Canada has played a part in transforming refugees into illegals in spite of its humanitarian tradition. Like Macklin, Dauvergne links this process to concerns about security risks and the intensification of border control. She argues that when refugees are reconceptualized as illegals, they are viewed as criminals, and thus do not trigger the same discursive responses that refugees have in recent history. Dauvergne reflects that while the late twentieth century was marked by the emergence of a commitment to humanitarianism, the twenty-first century may be marked by the rise of border control. (6)

In this paper, I assess the validity of Macklin's and Dauvergne's observations by analyzing the official discourse surrounding three incidents in which asylum seekers entered Canadian territory by boat. The objective of the analysis is to assess Canada's commitment to the cause of refugees at these three points in history and evaluate whether the idea of the refugee is in fact being eroded and replaced with the concept of the illegal immigrant.

Incidents involving refugees arriving by boat tend to elicit strong public and political responses in comparison to refugees who arrive by other modes of transportation. Commentators note that refugees who arrive by boat gain a disproportionate amount of media attention, considering that they represent only a small percentage of asylum seekers who enter Canada by illegal means in order to make a claim for protection. (7) There is something evocative about the image of asylum seekers arriving by boat that attracts peoples' attention and generates discussion among public officials about the country's immigration and refugee policies. For this reason, the arrivals of refugees by boat offer material for a discursive analysis of Canada's commitment to refugees.

Although asylum seekers have travelled to Canada by boat on a number of occasions, I will limit my analysis to the following three incidents: the Komagata Maru, which arrived in British Columbia carrying 376 migrants from British-controlled India in 1914; the two lifeboats carrying 155 Sri Lankan Tamils who were rescued off the coast of Newfoundland in 1986; and the Ocean Lady, which arrived in British Columbia carrying 76 Sri Lankan Tamils in 2009. I have selected these three incidents because they attracted a significant amount of media attention and generated political discussion. These incidents also share a common feature in that they involve asylum seekers of South Asian origin. Therefore, differences between the official discourses surrounding each of the incidents cannot be attributed to the asylum seekers' ethnicities.

I chose the 1914 Komagata Maru incident as my starting point because it provides a picture of how Canada responded to asylum seekers prior to the coming into force of the Refugee Convention. The official discourse surrounding this event thus illustrates how Canada perceived asylum seekers before the legal concept of the refugee came into existence. I selected the 1986 incident because it took place after Canada became a signatory to the Refugee Convention and during a period which is now regarded as the heyday of Canadian refugee policy. The year 1986 was the year in which the United Nations awarded Canada the Nansen medal in recognition of its commitment to protecting refugees. In the preceding ten-year period, Canada had brought over 150,000 refugees to be resettled in Canada, which was more per capita than any other country. (8) The official discourse surrounding this incident exemplifies how Canada conceptualized the refugee during the height of the country's commitment to protecting those fleeing from persecution. For the third incident, I selected the arrival of the Ocean Lady in 2009 because it is the most recent high-profile incident involving refugees coming to Canada by boat. The Ocean Lady incident thus provides an opportunity to consider the current state of Canada's commitment to refugees. With the two earlier incidents as points of reference, I assess whether the official discourse surrounding the Ocean Lady indicates that Canada is becoming more hostile to asylum seekers, and whether the notion of the refugee is being eroded.

Another reason why I selected these three incidents is that they all involve individuals fleeing circumstances of widespread persecution in their home countries. In 1914, the British-controlled Indian government persecuted Indian citizens who were involved, or perceived to be involved, in the movement for Indian independence. Several of the passengers of the Komagata Maru were in fact persecuted on this basis when the Canadian government forced them to return to India. It is therefore likely that they came to Canada with a well-founded fear of persecution. For this reason, it is appropriate to include the arrival of the Komagata Maru in this analysis of Canada's commitment to protecting refugees even though the event predates the coming into force of the Refugee Convention.

The second and third incidents both involve the arrival of Sri Lankan Tamils during a period when Tamils suffered widespread persecution at the hands of the Sri Lankan government due to their ethnicity and their real or perceived involvement in the movement for an independent Tamil state. This persecution has been especially prevalent since the beginning of the Sri Lankan civil war in 1983. (9) Though the war technically ended in May of 2009, several months before the arrival of the Ocean Lady, reports indicate that the Sri Lankan government has continued to persecute Tamils. For example, the government has kept emergency legislation in place that permits warrantless searches and extended detentions of Tamils without criminal charges. (10) Given this context, it...

To continue reading