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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

You Shall Not Pass

Nathan Raine
Published Thursday March 19, 05:18 pm
Why do the feds hate foreign environmental activists? Duh.

Photo Credit: Illustration by Myron Campbell

Sometimes the most important stories are about things that didn't happen.

On March 24th, as part of a cross-Canada speaking tour, leading members of La Federacion de Campesinos Hacia el Progreso, a grassroots development organization in the Dominican Republic, were to have a speaking event hosted by St. Thomas More College at the U of S. The event was to address the devastating effects of resource extraction and mining in both the Dominican and northern Saskatchewan. To offer solidarity and draw parallels between different oppressed peoples, La Federacion was to be joined by a panel of respondents from Saskatchewan.

The Dominican group also had speaking appointments at the University of Toronto and the University of Western Ontario. Their trip was being financially supported by the three universities.

On March 10th, weeks into an inordinately long wait, Citizenship and Immigration of Canada denied La Federacion's visas to visit Canada. These marginalized voices, essentially, had been silenced.

Reasons for the denial weren’t exactly made explicit, but Irena Smith, a local organizer working with STM and La Federacion, says there’s no reason why their visas should have been denied.

“They filled out the forms with the help of the visa application centre to make sure that was all in line. Then we also secured letters from faculty at the three universities that said the reasons behind the delegates’ visit, where they're going to stay, how long they're going to stay for, how this whole trip was being funded,” says Smith. “I thought that there was no rational way that their passports could've been denied. And I was right: there was no rational way. But they did it anyway.”

Jessica Vorstermans, PhD candidate at York University and one of the organizers working with La Federacion, outlines the extremely flimsy rationale for the visa denial.

“The main factors they’re looking for is if you have enough money to come to fund your trip, and whether you’ll leave. So when we went through this process with three major universities in Canada saying that they will take full responsibility for the financials of this trip, outlining that they will be coming on their invitation, I assumed it we would be very straightforward,” says Vorstermans.

“The second piece is that they ‘didn't give sufficient proof’ that they would not remain in Canada. I mean, one of the delegates has five young children at home. They love their country and are invested in their struggles at home. If that's not significant reason of why you would want to return, I don't know what is,” she said.

Vorstermans herself is familiar with the process, as she has Dominican nationals in her family. But these visa problems have never been an issue before.

“I worked with family members to get visas and it's never been a problem,” she says. “When I've spoken with the Dominican delegates, they said they’ve known many other NGOs who have had similar invitations and they have gone through. So one can only speculate on why.”

One of those responsible for their trip was Darrell McLaughlin, Associate Dean and professor at STM, who wrote the letter requesting acquaintance for the Dominican delegates.

“I cannot see where the reasons given are sufficient to have denied their application for visas in this case. They are not valid reasons,” says McLaughlin.

Evidently the purpose of their trip wasn't something the federal government was entirely welcoming of. The Dominican Republic is a major mining site for commodities such as nickel and gold — but the resource extraction has been disastrous on the locals, their land, and their lives. Water contamination, withering agriculture and livestock, and other irreparable environmental harms have been a result of foreign mining concerns. The companies operating in the Dominican include Barrick Gold and Goldcorp, two massively bloodthirsty lucrative Canadian mining companies.

La Federacion was planning on addressing these environmental harms inflicted by Canadians during their speaking appointments in Canada.

So, looking for some kind of explanation for the visa denial, we sent several requests to Citizenship and Immigration, in hopes of some clarification. They eventually came back with the following:

“We understand the disappointment of those whose visa applications were refused. While we cannot comment on the admissibility of any particular individual, we can say that, in general, all visitors to Canada must meet the requirements for temporary residence in Canada, as set out in Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Visa applications are considered on a case-by-case basis on the specific facts presented by the applicant in each case by professional highly trained independent officers. The onus is on the applicant to show that they meet the requirements for a temporary resident visa.”

Highly trained officers! Fancy schmancy! McLaughlin says there's a discrepancy between what the government preaches and their actual conduct.

“Our federal and provincial governments all talk about Canadian students becoming familiar with global issues, being citizens of the world. And to not be able to hear dissenting voices from the margins is really a disservice to students. I'm really surprised that the government would not allow these people in,” says McLaughlin.

Smith, who had worked to bring these dissenting voices to the fore, says that it might be naïve to believe in our democratic right to freedom of expression.

“We feel very silenced. It's extraordinarily discouraging, being from what I maybe naïvely still consider a democratic country with freedom of speech. Right now I feel like it's that hard line of saying, 'If you have voices that we don't want to hear, we will find a way to silence you.' It's incredibly discouraging,” she says.

Unfortunately, this kind of silencing isn't anything new. Organizations like the National Farmers Union and the Northern Trappers Alliance, who were planning on speaking with La Federacion during their conference, are more than familiar with the workings of the federal government.

“Particularly recently, Canada has been on the wrong side of social justice. Unfortunately our government has taken a turn to side with more of the big corporate interests, which is far from Canadian in my opinion,” says Matt Gehl, member of the board of directors for the National Farmers Union.

“It's disappointing that we don't get the opportunity to create some fraternal links with farmers from another country, especially when there is the opportunity there to find some common ground [...] It's highly under-reported, but there's Canadian companies doing some really awful things both here and in impoverished countries that they get away with,” says Gehl.

Candyce Paul, from the Northern Trappers Alliance, says she has seen big corporations in northern Saskatchewan come in and sack the land of its resources, with no regard for the people who live there

“It's not surprising that the government would [deny their visas]. They certainly are protecting mining and resource-extraction companies, especially ones from Canada. And with the reputation that Canadian mining companies have abroad, they don't want the general public to know that much about it. Just like they don't want the general public to know what's going on in northern Saskatchewan,” says Paul. “When it comes to people in northern Saskatchewan or in the Dominican Republic, they don't give a shit about human lives. We feel very oppressed.”

What makes this all even more nefarious is the looming Bill C-51, legislation which would allow the police and government to preventatively detain or restrict terror suspects, allow the Public Safety minister to add people to Canada's “no-fly” list, and enhance the powers of Canada's spy agency, CSIS.

“The bill defines terrorism as anything that can damage the economic interests of Canada — which could very will be these activists. I am obviously in support of them and gave these groups my personal information,” says Smith. “I've realized how real the surveillance data is. I could very well end up on a surveillance list. It's been an eye-opener.”

Volstermans says that this focus on anti-terrorism is an effort to try to make the public focus on specific incidences and forget larger issues, like global warming and environmental damage. Silencing voices against Canadian economic interests might be exactly the direction we're headed.

“I think we've increasingly seen this crackdown on opposition. So I think as issues around the environment become increasingly more precarious, it’s something the government is moving towards trying to dampen — trying to have us not speak out against these things. I do think it's very scary,” says Vorstermans.

“These are environmental activists from a country where we have mining activities which are very contentious. There's a lot of opposition right now in the Dominican Republic against Canadian mining companies. So yeah, I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that there are other reasons behind this.”  

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