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Legault offends Haitians, health workers in rambling Trump-esque remarks

“I was shocked, saddened and angry when I saw his response,” says Haitian-Quebecer Fabrice Vil.

Quebec Premier François Legault offends Haitians, health workers in rambling Trump-esque remarks as the CAQ rejects a motion to fast-track applications for asylum seekers employed as frontline healthcare workers.

Asylum seekers make up a large percentage of the frontline healthcare workers in long-term care homes that Quebec Premier François Legault has praised as “guardian angels” during his almost-daily COVID-19 press briefings.

Yet when independent MNA Catherine Fournier brought forward a motion to grant permanent residence to the many asylum seekers now working in essential services during this deadly pandemic, the motion was immediately rejected by the CAQ. All the other major provincial parties — the Parti Québécois, Liberals and Québec Solidaire — have said they would support it.

During last Friday’s press briefing, Premier François Legault was asked about the rejection by a member of the local Haitian press. In what can only be referred to as “word salad,” the Premier said a lot, but essentially said nothing at all. He went on a rant about Roxham Road, seemed to imply that being favourable to the motion would only encourage more asylum seekers to cross the border and then, to add insult to injury, pulled a political “I have a black friend” move by referring to Haitians as “les cousins” and Deputy Health Minister Lionel Carmant as “his good friend.” All lovely sentiments, but completely irrelevant to the specific question asked. I certainly wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Applause isn’t enough

“I was shocked, saddened and angry when I saw his response,” says Fabrice Vil, a Haitian-Quebecer who is the co-creator (along with filmmaker Jorge Camarotti and Sofiane Belaid) of the popular “Je Me Souviendrai” videos, showcasing frontline workers and members of Montreal’s cultural communities fighting the pandemic, many of them Haitian.

“Days later, I’m still feeling all of those things,” he says. “I can’t understand it, to be honest. This motion goes beyond political beliefs. We’re not discussing whether to increase or decrease immigration. We’re talking about people who are already here, on the ground, who are giving a lot to us and not receiving. People need to understand that you have frontline workers right now who are leaving their homes in Montreal North to travel to Drummondville to work as orderlies and [because of their status] are not entitled to daycare services, which all essential workers are supposed to have access to. We can’t applaud them and then be completely inconsistent by denying them access to basic services.”

As was pointed out in a recent Canadian Press article, some migrant frontline workers can’t even access a COVID-19 test when they suspect they’re sick because they don’t have a Medicare card, even though they’re working in COVID-positive environments. Ze Benedicte, who’s interviewed in the article linked to above, had to seek help from a migrant rights group before she could even get tested. She was indeed positive.

“When we die at the frontlines, we’re called guardian angels,” she’s quoted. “But when we need to be treated on equal footing, we’re not guardian angels. We’re nobody; we’re invisible.”

It was only a few weeks ago that Marcelin François, a Haitian asylum seeker working on the frontlines, became ill with COVID-19 and died, leaving behind his wife and three young children.

Conflating and deflecting

Considering how raw that loss still is in the local Haitian community and how many migrant rights groups are working hard on the ground to get asylum seekers the recognition they amply deserve, it was frustrating to listen to François Legault conflate two completely different topics in an obvious effort to deflect the question on Friday. The Roxham Road is not an issue right now, because the border is closed. Therefore, fast-tracking the applications of frontline workers can in no way encourage more asylum seekers to cross a border that simply isn’t available to them.

A quick addendum here, to repeat what I’ve said before about immigration and asylum seekers: fast-tracking their applications doesn’t “reward illegals” as some have suggested, since there’s nothing illegal about crossing the border and initiating a refugee claim.The 1951 Refugee Convention and international law make that clear. Another important clarification: asylum claims made at the border do not “delay” immigration applications and they don’t get to “cut the line.” Immigration applicants and asylum claimants are processed by two different departments at the federal level, so concern for the applications of “legal” immigrants is a moot point.

“I can understand that the average citizen may not understand the complexities of the immigration system,” says Vil, “but politicians should know better.”

Jobs no one else wants to do

Noelle Sorbara is the executive director of the Welcome Collective, a Montreal-based non-profit organization that connects newly arrived refugee claimants with locals and helps them gather basic furniture and essentials for their new homes. She finds the dismissal of the motion by the CAQ “heartbreaking.”

“It hasn’t been thought through at all,” she says. “François Legault is just appealing to his base, but he’s not looking at the facts. The reality on the ground is that asylum seekers are doing jobs no one else wants to do and making huge sacrifices in the process.”

Sorbara says the first thing asylum seekers that she encounters always ask about are jobs. “They want to work, and they want to contribute. These are brilliant, resilient, competent people. We have professors and economists and IT specialists working in meat-packing factories, as orderlies in seniors’ homes and in dollar stores right now, working low-paying, dangerous jobs. And the simple truth of the matter is that if they picked up and left tomorrow, we would be so screwed.”

Vil, whose own mother is a nurse, made the videos because he wanted to get to people’s hearts and show the basic human characteristics of people who contribute, but are often not valued,who are so often seen as “foreign and who trigger fear.”

“We don’t see direct advocacy in those videos,” he says, “but they were designed to incite important conversations about the movement to regularize the status of migrants who are on the frontlines.”

What will we be remembered for?

Despite the CAQ’s rejection and unwillingness to debate the motion, Vil remains hopeful that pressure will eventually mount for this program that addresses a specific group of people. He points to two petitions addressing the provincial and federal governments, media interest in his videos raising awareness and public interest in the movement, and the fact that all other parties support it and it will most likely and eventually be debated at the National Assembly.

“I really hope it’s pushed through,” says Sorbara. “This isn’t even about the provincial government making the decision to fast-track their applications, it’s about a motion to ask the feds to consider it, since it’s their jurisdiction. It’s an opportunity for us to say, ‘We care about you, we acknowledge your service and respect you enough to go to bat for you,’ and we can’t even do that? It’s heartbreaking.”

Despite her disappointment, Sorbara hopes that the motion and the subsequent public conversation it has created shines light on how much asylum seekers, migrants and immigrants contribute to society. “If it can change the narrative, it’s a good thing.”

Ultimately, for Vil and others who support this movement, it’s about more than just the here and now. His videos are about change, about solidarity, and about humanity even after the COVID crisis has come and gone.

“Who are we as a country, as a nation, and what will history remember if we let these people down when they were there for us?” he asks. It’s a good question. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.

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Quebec Premier François Legault offends Haitians, health workers in rambling Trump-esque remarks as the CAQ rejects a motion to fast-track applications for asylum seekers employed as frontline healthcare workers.