While Syrian refugees have been greeted with widely applauded warmth by the Canadian government, other immigrants, jailed without trial, are resorting to a hunger strike to get themselves heard.

Fifty immigration detainees have started a hunger strike in Ontario to protest the conditions and the too-often undetermined length of their detention. Like thousands of others across Canada, the fifty men have been placed in custody without charges or trial, because their situation does not conform to the country’s immigration laws.

They have been refusing food since Monday and intend to keep doing so until they get a meeting with the Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. Immigration detainees had originally gone on a hunger strike April 21st and stopped after representatives from the Canadian Border Service Agency (CBSA) met with them to discuss their concerns. But the group End Immigration Detention (EID) says that the Agency has not followed through with their promises and now the detainees want to speak with elected officials.

“We would like immigration detention to end and something more fair or realistic be worked out,” said Toby Clark, detained since 2014 in an EID press release.

Migrants are the only category of persons that can be held in custody indefinitely and without charges in Canada. Every year, the CBSA issues between 4000 and 7000 arrest warrants against immigrant men, women and children who haven’t been able to prove their identity or haven’t been granted asylum.

The lucky ones are sent to one of the three overflowing CBSA immigration detention centres in Vancouver, Toronto and Laval. The others are held in provincial prisons, among criminal offenders. This is the case of the fifty protesters detained in Central East Correctional Centre and Toronto East Detention Centre, where they are often subjected to lockdowns and solitary confinement.

Immigrant detention lasts 23 days on average, but some people wait for years to either be granted asylum or deported. “If your country refuses to issue travel documents, some people are held months, some people are held years and there is nothing that they can do about their country not issuing travel documents,” explained Clark.

Despite the fact that immigration detention is supposedly an administrative procedure with no intent of punishment, the detainees are effectively treated like criminals in jails and CBSA centres alike.

One woman recounted her ordeal in the Laval facility to Radio-Canada last February: “when they escort you to court or to the hospital, they always cuff you, as if we were murderers.” She recalled the shame she felt, after waiting for hours in an emergency room, cuffed like a prisoner. “I asked God to take me, so I could just stop living. What use could all of this be? It was too humiliating,” she confided. She was released after one and a half months.

Immigrant detainees are released if they can provide the proper documents, but it is very hard to do so while in custody. Jenny Jeanes from Action Réfugiés Montréal visits detainees in Laval twice a week. According to her, they don’t have access to internet and are only permitted local phone calls at certain times.

The Larger Problem

Over 80 000 immigrants were arrested by the CBSA between 2006 and 2014, according to End Immigration Detention. Many of them were children, often unaccompanied. The UN has chastised Canada for making detention a systematic response, when it should be an exceptional one. The Red Cross, the High Commissioner for Refugees and multiple groups of legal experts, social workers and doctors have called on Canada to change its ways.

One would think that the election of PM Justin Trudeau, praised around the world for his compassion and acceptance of refugees, would have put an end to this practice, but they would be disappointed. The number of immigrants detained yearly is still above 4000 according to more conservative guesses.

And people are indeed guessing, since the CBSA has not known exactly how many people are in its custody since 2013. Apparently, it’s the fault of an outdated computer system.

90% of immigrants are detained for reasons unrelated to security. Half of the immigrants detained are asylum-seekers.

Who is Overseeing the CBSA?

Two years ago, Lucia Vega Jimenez died while in CBSA’s custody. The 42-year old Mexican was risking deportation when she hung herself in a cell in Vancouver’s airport. When the affair was finally made public one month later, it raised some serious questions about the federal agency.

Who is overseeing this process? What resources are available to detainees? Why didn’t Jiminez get medical assistance when she needed it? And how come Canada routinely infringes on the basic human rights of non-citizens?

These questions, just like the chorus of calls for a public inquiry, remain unanswered. Since 2000, 13 people have died in CBSA custody.

A Burundian refugee hung himself in Toronto East Detention Centre just last March, while he was awaiting deportation for killing his wife. Last year, a diabetic Somali refugee died in Central East Correctional Facility. Both those cases, like many others, are shrouded in suspicious secrecy.

Federal bodies with coercive powers usually have an independent commission overseeing them. The RCMP, the Canadian Intelligence Service and the Centre of Telecommunication Security all do.

There is no independent entity overseeing the CBSA, or receiving complaints about them.

Last February, a senator with liberal allegiance introduced a bill to change this. Senator Wilfred Moore wants an independent inspector to be appointed as watchdog of the CBSA. “I don’t want Mrs Jimenez’s death to be in vain, he told Radio-Canada while explaining his motives.

The government refused to acknowledge that the CBSA’s methods were in any way problematic but claimed that they were open to consider ways to ensure some accountability mechanisms.


Fifty men are currently resorting to a hunger strike, facing indefinite detention in maximum security prison, despite having committed no crime. Canada would never treat its citizen that way; it should not treat anyone that way.

End Immigration detention has launched a campaign to reach out to Minister Ralph Goodale and ask him to meet the detainees.

You can participate by calling him at 613-947-1153, or tweeting at him using the hashtag #migrantstrike.

Just like Justin Trudeau told us, when greeting Syrian refugees in December: “show the world how to open our hearts and welcome in people who are fleeing extraordinarily difficult situations.”

If you are still surfing the net tonight, tune in the launch of The Rebel Beat, “a show of radical political music across different genres, and across different continents.” Their guests tonight are Ricardo “Emrical” Lamour-Blaise, Jahsun of Kalmunity and M1 from Dead Prez.

Sadly, M1 will only be attending via Skype since CBSA did not grant him access to Canadian soil on January 31st, gladly the internet knows no borders! M1 was coming to the 514 to give a talk and a performance for the opening of Fro Foundation’s Black History Month.

The Rebel Beat describe themselves as “the mixtape to a riot against police brutality. It is your nightly newscast set to bass and beats. It is a rallying cry against apathy. It is protest anthems from Hong Kong to Istanbul to Ferguson to Montreal.”

The show will air every Wednesday from 10pm-12am EST on CKUT 90.3 FM in Montreal, it can be streamed or downloaded at CKUT FM. Make sure to subscribe to their podcast as well.  The show is hosted by Aaron Maiden and featuring regular collaborators and guest DJ’s.

Check out M1 from Pierre Elliot Trudeau:

The show will go on!

Yesterday, a simple meeting with the Canadian Border Services Agency went very wrong very quickly for Miguel Luna Cruz.

Originally from Mexico, Cruz had been in Canada for six years as a refugee claimant with a permit to work. His refugee claim was denied and he went to a scheduled meeting to get his departure date. They gave him 20 days.

He asked for an extension until May so he could finish his work contract with Lasalle College which runs until the end of the semester and pay his income tax. He also informed them that if no extension was granted, he would have to take them up on their offer of paying his airfare and reimburse them when he got to Mexico (he had initially said he would be able to pay his own airfare because he gets paid early May).

That, according to Cruz’s lawyers Chantal Ianniciello and Perla Abou-Jaoudé, is when things went terribly wrong. Instead of trying to come to an agreement, which is normal procedure in these cases, the agents immediately arrested Cruz and said that there is nothing else he can do. He initially interpreted this to mean that he couldn’t contact his lawyer, but the affadavit they had him sign said he could, though he didn’t realize that at the time. He now faces deportation as early as tomorrow (Thursday).

“It’s happening more often now,” Ianniciello and Abou-Jaoudé observed, “when clients get the chance to get a detention review, they often get released but they are also  being deported before having a chance to attend a detention review. We do not always realize that this is happening as these kinds of deportations happen quickly and the clients have very little time to get a lawyer that is willing to take such a case in such short time, as it will possibly be pro-bono.”

I emailed the CBSA to see if they had anything to say about this case. They said “we have procedures for internal approvals of our answers” and a response may take until midday today. If I get a response, I’ll update this post, but since Cruz is facing deportation tomorrow and can’t wait, neither can I.

While I understand how it can take time for a proper media response, I find it interesting that they can make much quicker decisions when it comes to a legal immigrant like Cruz’s future.

* UPDATE 2:58pm: Cruz’s deportation was postponed so he can have a detention review tomorrow (Thursday) instead. If this doesn’t go well for him, though, he could be deported as early as Saturday

* Information updated at 12:54pm, this post originally said that Cruz had a temporary guest worker visa, when in fact he was a refugee claimant with a work permit, when his claim was rejected, he went into the meeting to get his departure date