Canadians have a tendency to be pretty smug at times. We point our fingers at other countries and criticize how they do this or that, while patting ourselves on the back for our own behaviour. In Canada, we boast, women have equal rights and we do not tolerate violence against women; a statement that is clearly contrary to fact. Canadians we like to say, are not racist, despite both historic and current evidence that there is plenty of racism in Canada, starting with the invasion of this land by Europeans.
Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about this smugness in the context of children, as I have followed the separation of children from their parents by United States immigration officials.
Children should be seen and heard
We all had the opportunity to see and hear images of screaming and sobbing children being pulled away from their parents and led into detention. We saw images of the secret holding facilities for children as young as two years of age. We were duly horrified.
This situation arose when Trump decided to criminally charge anyone who came across the Mexico/U.S. border without proper documents. In the past, people entering the United States illegally would be taken to a deportation centre and, eventually, returned to wherever they had come from. These are not pleasant places to spend time, but at least children and parents were generally kept together.
Under Trump’s zero tolerance approach, implemented in the early spring of this year, adults entering the U.S. without proper documentation were to be criminally charged and held, with other accused people, in criminal facilities. Children are not allowed in such places, so they had to be separated from their parents. In just a couple of months, more than 2,000 children were taken from their parents and sent to other holding facilities just for kids.
So outrageous was this approach that Laura Bush, wife of former Republican President George W. Bush, wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post, declaring that separating children from their parents was “cruel,” “immoral” and “breaks my heart.”
The U.S. government has been ordered to reunify children with their parents, and this process is now underway, but many children and their parents remain separated from one another.
“This is not how we do things in Canada”
Despite Prime Minister Trudeau’s claim that Canada does not do these kinds of things, a closer look indicates that Canada does, in fact, do very similar kinds of things.
Children are held in detention with their parents when the adults cross the border into Canada without legal documents. The numbers do not rival those in the United States – 151 were held last year and 155 have been held this year so far. However, Canada has no direct border with Mexico, so far fewer people are able to get as far as our border without proper documentation.
Children are not routinely separated from their parents; but they are kept in holding centres that are off limits to the public and the media. Those centres are surrounded by razor-wire fencing and the people held there, including children, are under surveillance by guards.
We bring a typically Canadian approach to separating children from their parents: rather than ripping kids from their mother’s or father’s arms, immigration authorities ask parents when they take them into detention whether they would like to surrender their children to foster care rather than have them in detention with them. And, the children who remain with their detained parents are called “guests” not detainees.
Somehow, it all just seems nicer when we ask first and then call them guests, but it amounts to the same thing as far as the families affected are concerned.
A 2015 study by researchers at McGill University found that the detention of asylum-seeking children is a frightening experience for them that creates “psychiatric and academic difficulties long after detention.” The research noted that the children are left “idle, sleeping or lying on couches for long periods during the day.”
In nearly half the cases studied, children were separated from their parents at some point in the legal process. Fathers were almost always kept separate from their children and allowed just one or two 15-minute visits a day.
Perhaps it is time for this country to consider Nelson Mandela’s words:
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”