Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Conservatives craft plans to thwart human smugglers

Tamil asylum-seekers crowd the deck of the MV Sun Sea off the coast of British Columbia in August.

MCpl Angela Abbey/DND/MCpl. Angela Abbey/DND

Fearing another shipload of migrants is headed here, Stephen Harper's Conservatives are drawing up measures to demonstrate Ottawa is cracking down on illicit passage to Canada.

The Harper government is preparing a package of measures - which may include legislation - to make life more difficult for smugglers and those who crew their ships, such as the MV Sun Sea that ferried 492 Tamil refugee claimants to Victoria in August. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews is expected to present a list of options when cabinet meets next week.

Sources say Ottawa is also considering controversial options, such as empowering Canadian authorities to intercept smugglers' vessels in international waters and process refugee claims outside Canada.

Story continues below advertisement

This would help Ottawa get around a 1985 Supreme Court ruling, Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration, that established would-be refugee claimants who reach Canadian territory are granted the same treatment as landed immigrants - including all Charter of Rights protections.

Here's a range of measures being enacted, hinted at, or internally debated:

Stop the ships at sea (under debate in government)

Under this scenario, the Conservatives could enact or pass measures allowing Canadian authorities to stop ships on the high seas. This could enable Canada to detain would-be claimants on a government vessel or in a third country while officials probe claims for asylum and root out those who don't qualify. One problem with this option is Canada could find itself in breach of international law. As maritime law expert Christopher Giaschi points out, Canada has signed and ratified the International Law of the Sea - Article 87 of which grants ships "freedom of navigation" on the "high seas." This means Canada has agreed not to board foreign vessels without invitation - an obstacle that could thwart interception. The United States has not ratified the treaty and is not similarly bound.

Encourage snitching on human traffickers (announced)

The Harper government on Tuesday launched a campaign appealing for Canadians to report suspected incidents of human trafficking, which can involve migrants exploited for sex or cheap labour. NDP immigration critic Olivia Chow, however, warns that migrants are unlikely to feel sufficiently safe from retribution to co-operate and finger those who are exploiting them.

Mete out heavier punishments for smugglers (hinted at and under debate)

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews left the impression through public statements in August that Ottawa is looking at increasing penalties for smugglers and the captains and crew of ships that transport human cargo. Sources say this is one option under discussion when cabinet meets on Sept. 13. However, Canada already has laws on the books to punish such activity and the chief problem is properly identifying and apprehending the culprits.

Strike deals with allies to stop the ships early (hinted at and under debate)

Mr. Toews vowed during the MV Sun Sea episode that Canada would press other countries to work harder to prevent the smuggling ships from setting out for this country. However, Canada would require larger cadres of officials in regions such as South Asia to identify ships and support requests to stop them. The Conservatives are also considering whether to sign additional treaties or memorandums of understanding on the subject with allies.

Strip boat-borne refugees of some existing rights

There's no evidence it's under serious consideration in Ottawa but the Harper government could nevertheless announce it will treat claimants who arrived illegally differently. This might entail detaining ship-borne migrants in Canadian jails until their claims are verified - or issuing them temporary refugee status with no right to apply for residency. (Australia has used temporary protection visas for boat arrivals that, among other things, forbid them from travelling overseas or receiving social security benefits.) These controversial options would likely require the government to invoke the Constitution's rarely used notwithstanding clause. It's hard to imagine the Tories would relish the political backlash that would ensue if these measures were taken.

Story continues below advertisement

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at