Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control: An interview with author Chris Anderson

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The following is the second interview in LISPOP’s “Author Interview” series.  Here, I interview my colleague, Chris Anderson, on his new book from UBC press. Enjoy!

Dr. Christopher Anderson, Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Wilfrid Laurier University, has written a new book called Canadian Liberalism and the Politics of Border Control, 1867-1967, which is available for purchase from UBC Press here (hardcopy) and online here. This book “sheds light on the complex history of Canada’s response to immigrants and refugees during its first century” and offers “valuable lessons for understanding the nature of contemporary liberal-democratic control policies.”

Below is an interview I conducted with Dr. Anderson about his book via email in January and February 2013.

Alcantara: Chris, why did you decide to write this book on this topic?

Anderson: The book has its origins in a term paper that I wrote while a PhD student at McGill. I was taking a course taught by Jerome Black on “Immigrants, Refugees and Minorities,” and I was writing on “Neo-Liberalism and its Effects on [Canadian] Immigration and Refugees Policy.” In the process, I found that a perhaps more interesting question revolved around the relationship between the rights of non-citizens (immigrants and refugees) and how liberal-democratic states sought to control their borders. This subsequently became the focus of my dissertation work.

In the comparative politics literature at that time (e.g., in the work of Gary Freeman, Christian Joppke, James Hollifield) there was a fairly strong emphasis on how the recognition of such rights – often framed as rights-based politics – limited or diminished the ability of liberal-democratic states to undertake restrictive control measures. As the study of Canadian immigration and refugee policy was (and continues to be) on the margins of Canadian political science, there was a more limited Canadian literature to canvass, but it often drew on criticisms along the same lines in the Charter Politics literature (e.g., see the work of Ted Morton and Rainer Knopff, Christopher Manfredi). This negative view of the effect of the rights of non-citizens on control also appeared regularly in testimony put forward by immigration ministers and officials in various parliamentary committee hearings and in the press that I reviewed when I wrote that paper. It struck me that this argument contained conceptual and empirical gaps that could usefully be addressed. In particular, there was the possibility that not rights-based politics but the restriction of rights itself might help to explain certain control difficulties. To get at this, however, it would be necessary to move past a definition of control that was equated with restriction and that focused near exclusively on rights-based politics.
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Alcantara: So how did you decide to approach the topic, theoretically and methodologically, in your book?

Anderson: I think that it would be more accurate to say that I approached the topic conceptually, as an overdue exercise in conceptual clarification. A core claim in the book is that the Canadian and comparative literatures have conceptualized the intersection of control and rights in liberal democracies in an overly constrained manner, and that the end result has been to overlook or undervalue important dynamics that could help in explaining control policy outcomes. The focus has rested on how rights-based politics (often reduced to the courts) decrease liberal-democratic control. This calls attention to some important dynamics but excludes much that is possible within what I call the control-rights nexus. The question addressed in the book is therefore broader: “how does the liberalness of a liberal-democratic state affect the intersection of control and rights?” One benefit of this latter question is that it encompasses the former (and allows for it to be assessed critically) but does not preclude other logical/empirical possibilities. By addressing this broader question, then, a better understanding of the complex relationships that can arise between control and rights in liberal-democratic states can be achieved. This, in turn, could have concrete policy implications.

If rights-based politics producing a decrease in control is but one potential outcome, then it is important to explore other possible causal chains, and this involves moving both backwards and forwards from the literature’s focus on rights-based politics. Moving backwards, I consider what leads to rights-based politics, which I take to be rights-restrictive policies. Generally speaking, in the absence of restrictions, people do not mobilize to defend or promote their rights: you do not get rights-based politics until you have an explicit or perceived rights restriction. From this starting point, other possible reactions aside from rights-based politics emerge and I call attention to two of them: people attempting to avoid such restrictions by acting outside their scope, and the state implementing administrative procedures – sometimes to ameliorate the negative effects of the original rights restrictions – that produce significant caseload backlogs. Each of these paths can lead to a decrease in control. Moving forwards from rights-based politics, another possibility is that it can produce an increase (rather than a decrease) in control, as when – for example – the courts confirm the legality of a rights-restrictive approach. I also propose a feedback loop, which could see control loss prompting further rights-restrictive measures (based on the assumption that rights-based politics is the problem), setting the whole chain in motion again. In these ways, then, the book situates rights-based politics within a broader political and policy context.

To get at this, I pursue a form of historical discourse analysis that traces the prevalence of two approaches to the control-rights nexus, which I call Liberal Nationalism and Liberal Internationalism. In brief, the former generally privileges the state’s ability to institute restrictive control policies over the rights of non-citizens, while the latter does the reverse. Drawing on both primary (in particular, public government documents) and secondary literatures, I trace the evolution of the respective prominence of Liberal Nationalist and Internationalist views in terms of control policy debates and outcomes over the course of Canada’s first century. In doing so, I explore the merits of the conceptual clarification proposed and uncover aspects of Canadian border control history that have either been overlooked or ignored.

Alcantara: So what did you find? What were the results of the 100 years of debate between Liberal Nationalists and Internationalists in Canada?

Anderson: At a general level, the book confirms that a narrow focus on rights-based politics and diminishing (restrictive) control is insufficient. While there are bound to be other possible causal chains, the reframing of the control-rights nexus proposed in the book provides a more complete and nuanced understanding of control politics and policy outcomes. As a result, it generates a number of new perspectives on both Canadian control history and contemporary control politics.

One finding is that debates over control and rights are not especially new. There is a tendency to see rights-based politics as a particularly modern phenomenon that has complicated liberal governance/border control in the post Second World War – and in the Canadian case certainly the Charter – period. The book instead shows that there has been a rich and persistent debate surrounding the rights of non-citizens in Canada ever since the first significant rights restriction was implemented with the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act (bringing in the “Chinese Head Tax,” for which the Canadian government issued an official policy and compensation a few years back). Indeed, at that time the Canadian Senate attempted to turn back this legislation and likely would have succeeded had it not been for some deft procedural maneuvering on the government’s part. A major argument against the legislation was that it was illiberal, that – as Senator Alexander Vidal put it – it was “So utterly inconsistent with the well understood rights which every human being has when he steps on British soil.” This significant debate has essentially been ignored in the Canadian literature and is just one such case during Canada’s first century that is recovered in the book. So rights-based politics certainly has evolved over time, and the arrival of the Charter is obviously important in this respect, but the debate has been with Canada since the time of Confederation and reflects a much deeper tension stemming from the liberalness of the political system itself.

This relates to a second finding, that Canada began with an expansionist Liberal Internationalist approach to the border. Often, it is assumed that a restrictive Liberal Nationalist approach is a natural default position as it stems from efforts to maintain or bolster state sovereignty. In fact, Liberal Nationalism had to be constructed, both politically and as a practice, and this never – no matter how dominant Liberal Nationalism became – remained uncontested by Liberal Internationalists.

A third finding is that Canada has been the most successful at controlling its border (at least in terms of restriction) when it has acted in the most illiberal manner. Thus, as successive Canadian governments constructed a restrictive Liberal Nationalist approach between 1885 and the early post-Second World War period, control was predicated on instituting an almost completely unfettered authority to limit or deny the rights of non-citizens (and even citizens) in terms of such classically liberal ideas as equality and fairness. The illiberalism of successful control policies is a really important yet underappreciated (at least at a broad political level) aspect of contemporary control debates.

Finally, one last finding concerns the courts. The Canadian and comparative literatures often claim that the courts play a dominant role in a purported decline in control, and in the Canadian context the Charter has been of central concern in this respect. By examining the pre-Charter era, however, it is clear that the marginalisation of a rights-restrictive, Liberal-Nationalist approach that took place during the post-Second World War period up to 1967 was not courts-driven – indeed, the courts were all but barred by law from reviewing border control policies between 1910 and 1967. Instead, this was a political debate that took place within Parliament concerning the meaning of being a liberal political community. The shift towards greater equality and fairness for immigrants and refugees in Canada reflected, therefore, a century of debate over what it meant to be Canadian in the context of first British liberalism and later human rights. As with the focus on rights-based politics, then, too singular a focus on the courts obscures the richness and import of the politics of control in Canada and, I would suggest, other liberal democracies.

Each of these findings is significant in terms of understanding that first century of Canadian border control, but they also speak to subsequent debates over the rights of non-citizens and state control through to the present.

Alcantara: Wow! There’s quite a bit to chew on here! Let me begin by asking you about your first point, which is that a rights-based discourse has been around since Confederation. How different is the discourse in 1885 compared to the discourse about non-citizens and immigration today?

Anderson: At one level, the discourse has remained relatively unchanged – you can look, for example, at the debates surrounding the 1885 Chinese Immigration Act and then look at debates over asylum seekers in the mid-1980s and find that the central question in each period revolves around the relationship between the rights of non-citizens and state control in a liberal political system. The same basic question underpins more recent restrictive legislation (such as the 2012 Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act) and policies (such as the government’s decision to restrict the access of asylum seekers to basic health care services in Canada).

At the same time, the discourse today is much less obviously racist than it was in the past. Indeed, one of the great successes of the Liberal Nationalist perspective has been to shed its explicitly racist framework and shift to a potent discourse of abuse. In the past, Galicians, Doukhobors, Jews, Black Americans, East Indians, the Japanese, and almost any other non-British, non-northern European peoples were simply understood by Liberal Nationalists to be inferior to those of British/northern European “stock”. Hence, a major justification for restricting their rights was that they lowered the “quality” of the British/Canadian nation. This view was often shared by Liberal Internationalists but their commitment to liberal rights such as equality and fairness anchored their support for much less restrictive policy options, and therefore explicit racism was much less prevalent in their discourse. By the end of the Second World War, however, as the reality of the Holocaust was being recognised and the concept of human rights was taking hold through the new United Nations system, it became harder to make such bold, racist generalisations unchallenged, and – almost overnight – they disappeared from parliamentary debate.

During the immediate postwar period, therefore, Liberal Nationalism was on the defensive because although Canada was still quite restrictionist, there was no obvious, non-discriminatory justification for such an approach. Meanwhile, the idea of anchoring Canadian border control to liberal rights was much more prominent in public discourse and came to play a much larger role in defining policy. From the late 1960s onwards, however, Liberal Nationalists began to focus on a new concern – that of immigrants and refugees “abusing our generosity” – and this became a new framework for a more restrictive approach. You can see this widely reflected in the media, in the work of prominent immigration critics such as Daniel Stoffman, Diane Francis, Martin Collacott, and Joe Bissett, and it has been used to justify most every restrictive measure introduced by Liberal and Conservative governments since the 1980s. For their part, Liberal Internationalists have not really shifted much in terms of their justifications for a more less restrictionist approach, except insofar as they draw on a richer language of human rights as opposed to the older discourse of British liberalism.

Alcantara: Do these groups, Liberal Nationalist and Liberal Internationalist, continue to exist today? If so, what kinds of individuals and groups form them today?

Anderson: The short answer is yes, but it must be stressed that these two categories are neither simple nor mutually exclusive. It is perhaps less useful to think of them as groups in the concrete than as orientations that have concrete manifestations. You can, for example, have a Liberal Nationalist stance and yet promote certain expansionist policies, and you can work within a Liberal Internationalist perspective and advocate for restriction in certain contexts. Indeed, since both international migration and the border are complex and varied phenomena, you can be more expansionist or restrictionist towards some aspects and less so towards others. At the bedrock of each position, however, is a set of normative claims about the state and the (non-citizen) human being, and the more you privilege the rights of the former over the latter, the more likely you are to reflect a Liberal Nationalist view, and the more you privilege the rights of the latter over the former, the more likely you are to fall within the Liberal Internationalist camp.

When it comes right down to it, there is quite a bit of an “us and them” aspect to where people and groups fall. The more you frame your interpretation as one of needing to protect us (Canadians) from them (non-Canadians), the more Liberal Nationalist your orientation tends to be. For a clear example of this, you can look at the Centre for Immigration Policy Reform ( On the other side, look at the work of the Canadian Council for Refugees (, and you see a strong commitment to traditional liberal human rights commitments of equality and fairness for asylum seekers, very much a Liberal Internationalist orientation.

Alcantara: So what are the implications of your research for the debate about immigration and non-citizens today?

Anderson: I will focus on two here. One is to open up possibilities for seeing patterns of continuity and change over time, and thereby shed additional light on today’s politics of control. The shift towards a more Liberal Internationalist approach that occurred in the 1960s-1970s happened because there was significant support for the idea that a liberal political system ought to incorporate non-citizens within its understanding of how the state recognises and protects basic liberal/human rights in Canada. This was a vital part, it was argued, of what it meant to be Canadian. By framing policy choices in a narrower set of concerns over abuse (one that incorporates criminality and security issues), the contemporary Liberal Nationalist approach not only skirts this important debate over what it means to support liberal/human rights but it also diverts attention from that existential dimension of being Canadian. A broader historical context allows for a better understanding of how this reflects a very particular form of special interest politics that has perhaps not been so prominent in Canadian control politics and policy since before the Second World War.

A second implication is that if the core causal chain has merit – that rights restriction can produce reactions that produce a loss of control, and that this creates a feedback loop that encourages greater restriction, and so on – then many of the restrictive measures that have been implemented in the past 15 years or so are not only problematic on a rights-based level (that is, they have a real and profound impact on the rights of – and therefore the lives of – non-citizens), but as well may contain the seeds of their own failure, so to speak. Thus, from a good governance perspective (both in its rights-based and more pragmatic policy coherence dimensions), this is an important debate. It also raises questions about Canada’s engagement with these issues at a transnational or global level, but that has been left more implied than addressed in the book as it was a much less central feature of how borders were controlled during Canada’s first century.

Alcantara: Sounds like a great book and I look forward to reading it!  Now that this book is done, what are you going to be working on next?

Anderson: The book took me up to 1967, a pivotal moment in terms of control politics and policy, as the courts were once again allowed oversight over immigration and refugee matters and a formal policy of non-discrimination was instituted. This reflected long-held Liberal Internationalist commitments to fairness and equality. The next book will move forward from 1967 to the present, looking specifically at how Canada has responded to asylum seekers. While immigration is seen more as a question of privilege (albeit with rights-based aspects) for non-citizens, policies towards asylum seekers operate within a framework of the state’s obligations towards those who have a well-founded fear of persecution. This has produced some very sharp yet complex tensions between control and rights that are worth examining in detail.

Although I will still explore the operation of the control-rights nexus – especially in terms of the effects of Canadian policy decisions on refugees and asylum seekers – in this context, there are other dimensions that I want to centre on in the analysis. In particular, I want to develop a more sophisticated understanding of where the courts fit into the politics of control, how non-government actors import ideas from national and international sources into control debates, and the relative effects of bureaucrats and politicians in domestic, continental and global control politics arenas.

How Generous is Canada’s Refugee Asylum Process?

In a recent column in the Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson commented on Canada’s refugee system. The following is an analysis of the history of the myth that this system is “generous” and provides some data to assess its veracity. It is written by Edward Koning, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Guelph

In discussing Minister Jason Kenney’s new plans for refugee reform, Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson opened with perhaps the most oft-heard cliché in Canadian discourse on immigration: “Canada has had one of the most generous – if not the most generous – refugee-determination systems in the world.” In that light, so Simpson reasons, we should not be too critical about Kenney’s sharpening of refugee regulations.

The line of reasoning sounds awfully familiar. At least since the 1990s, politicians and public commentators have justified restrictions in refugee policy by referring to Canada’s alleged unmatched generosity. In debating a refugee reform in early 1994, for example, the Reform Party’s immigration critic Art Hanger stated that Canada accepts “numbers of refugee class immigrants that are virtually unheard of in the industrialized world”. More recently, when presenting the ‘Balanced Refugee Reform Act’ in April 2010, Minister Kenney began by boasting that Canada’s generous approach to the protection of refugees is “perhaps unique in the democratic world”.
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It is curious that the argument has not lost any power. The last two decades have seen several encompassing refugee reforms in Canada, which have, among other things, narrowed the definition of a refugee, increased identification controls, facilitated deportation, limited the possibilities for appealing a rejection, and given the Minister more individual leeway in deportation decisions. But it appears you can always make the case for yet another reform by arguing the extant system is overly generous by comparative standards.

The problem is, of course, that it is not true. According to 2010 data, Canada is number 7 among OECD countries in its acceptance rate: it approved roughly 38 percent of all asylum claims. This is indeed high by comparative standards, albeit still four places short of the podium. Acceptance rates are difficult to interpret, however, because they mask self-selection effects (the high score for Israel, for example, reflects that refugees do not apply for asylum in Israel unless they are sure their claim will be accepted) and supply-side differences (Turkey scores high on this measure, for example, because the share of applicants with a legitimate claim is larger). For that reason, it is more instructive to look at overall intake levels. On these indicators, Canada scores around the OECD average. Relative to the size of the population, Canada takes in five times as few asylum seekers as number 1, Sweden. And if we look at the number of asylum seekers as a share of the entire immigrant inflow, Canada’s relative standing is even worse.

Acceptance rate
(UNHCR, 2010)

Intake of asylum seekers per 10,000 citizens (OECD,

Intake of asylum seekers as % of total inflow (OECD,

1. Israel (100)

1. Sweden (33.9)

1. Greece (44.7)

2. Turkey (59.9)

2. Norway (20.6)

2. Sweden (40.3)

3. Netherlands

3. Belgium

3. France (35.4)

4. Australia

4. Switzerland

4. Turkey (30.9)

5. Portugal

5. Luxembourg

5. Finland

7. Canada (37.9)

13. Canada (6.6)

16. Canada (8.0)

None of this is to say that we should leave the refugee system as it is. There are few countries with a refugee backlog the size of Canada’s (according to UNHCR data, only Greece and Germany do worse in this respect). Simpson is right, therefore, in arguing that we should seriously consider proposals to expedite the determination process. It is difficult to have a serious debate, however, when its participants stubbornly perpetuate a patently false myth.