By Nicholas Wu
The first thing we saw when we arrived in the customs and immigration section of the Winnipeg airport was a sign for a beach. In friendly, slightly kitschy text with a cartoon dolphin, it welcomed us to Winnipeg and invited us to the “South Beach Hotel and Casino.” All were confused, having just felt a blast of cold air as we stepped off the jetway. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but it was still 30 degrees outside with gray cloudy skies. Where in the freezing cold could a beach possibly be?
Passing through the airport, we noticed the prominent placement of other signs advertising the South Beach Hotel and Casino. As we discussed the potential location of the beach among the group, poking gentle fun at the province and the delusion of a beach amid the frozen weather, one of the border control agents shot us a dirty look. Perhaps he knew where the beach was. Perhaps he was annoyed at the loud group of American students that would make his job more difficult. Perhaps he was just cold. Who knows. But we were still starting off on our journalism trip here in Winnipeg, and the fact remained that none of us knew that much about what was to come in Winnipeg.
Our dinner later that night was with Bashir Khan, an immigration lawyer based in Winnipeg who represented a lot of refugee and asylum cases. What emerged during the conversation was less a question of what to ask and more what we really didn’t know about the refugee and asylee situation in Winnipeg. Among other things, we found that the rosy, liberal vision of Canada that so many Americans idolized was rapidly changing. Khan described a general conservative backlash and change in Canadian values that significantly changed the refugee program under the premiership of Stephen Harper and threatened to eliminate the refugee program under Justin Trudeau. For as much as Canadians liked to present themselves as the tolerant North American nation, in contrast with what they saw as a racially discordant and dysfunctional America, the reality was actually something much different.
He also described the disparity in treatment of asylum cases between provinces, something surprising to many of us in the group given the federal policy control over immigration. Many asylees decided to go to Manitoba instead of Saskatchewan or other provinces because Manitoba provided free legal aid for asylees. That said, unlike in the United States, where lawyers could earn the CLE credits necessary to maintain their job as a lawyer, Canada had no such system, which significantly limited the number of Canadian pro bono attorneys who were willing to take on immigrant cases.
So, after six hours or so in Winnipeg, I’m reminded of a famous quote from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the “known knowns” and the “unknown unknowns.” We know that we’re exploring the migration crisis and the process of resettlement here in Winnipeg. But the actual stories we might find? Those are perhaps as unknown as the location of the beach.