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Roxham Road and the Canadian unconscious

The closure of the border crossing is a living embodiment of Canada’s continued white supremacist and Eurocentric foundations

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

Former Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer tours the Roxham Road crossing in 2018. Photo from Flickr.

Joe Biden paid an official visit to Canada in late March. While he was here, the United States and Canada struck a new deal on Roxham Road that will allow both countries to turn away a rising surge of asylum seekers and refugee claimants from their borders. Roxham Road straddles the Québec and New York state border at the towns of Champlain on the US side and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle on the Canadian side. It became an “irregular” border crossing at some point between 2016 and 2017. The deal was reported as having secretly been worked on for months in advance. With the deal, the Trudeau government was able to interrupt a partisan debate in which Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre could stoke fears of migrants swarming the Canadian landscape. I have been sitting with the information of the new agreement. Prior to President Biden’s visit I had simply tweeted a few times that Roxham Road represents the Canadian unconscious. What did I mean?

In 2017 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sent Liberal MP Emmanuel Dubourg (who reportedly spoke Haitian Creole) as a special envoy to Miami to dissuade Haitian migrants from traveling to Canada. It was alleged that so many migrants had crossed Roxham Road that they had to be housed in Montréal’s Olympic stadium that year. Since then, Roxham Road has been a sore point in Canadian federal and provincial politics. Migrants fleeing Donald Trump’s America, where his presidency began with attacks on migrants from the nomination stage through to the campaign and all the way to the White House, saw an increase in numbers crossing unmanaged Canadian border points. However, Roxham Road stood out because it was alleged that it was mostly Haitians crossing the border there. The Trudeau government’s response to the allegation that Haitians made up the majority of those crossing Roxham Road must be understood in the context of Canada’s anti-Black migration legislation and practices. When I say Roxham Road is Canada’s unconscious, I mean Roxham Road is a reminder that Canada thinks of itself as a white nation and that Black people here are always understood to be too many already. Roxham Road and what it has come to represent in contemporary struggles around the freedom to move exposes this racist unconscious.

In 1997, R. Bruce Shepard published Deemed Unsuitable: Blacks from Oklahoma Move to the Canadian Prairies in Search of Equality in the Early 20th Century Only to Find Racism in Their New Home, a work that revealed the Canadian state’s successful effort to end Black Oklahoman migration to western Canada. One thing the Canadian state did was to send immigration agents to the US to dissuade against emigration, claiming the weather up north was inhospitable to Black people. Legislation by the government of Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier concerning Black people “deemed [them] unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” Shepard’s work on uncovering the order-in-council and the measures Canada took to keep the nation white should be much better known. In the 1960s, Black people in Canada led the movement for immigration reform that moved Canada from race-based immigration policies to a points system. This has been further elaborated as a model driven by market requirements. That system opened up the demographic changes that we witness and live with today. However, even with this system the fear of a ‘too Black’ Canada remained a central element of the white racial unconscious. Trudeau and his government, at least with respect to its policies, inhabits this historical white racial consciousness as an unconscious anti-black racist response to the movement of Black people. Roxham Road represents that racial unconscious for the moral panic it has engendered among Canada’s elite politicians. The once secret orders-in-council of the early part of the last century now mirror the secret negotiations with the US in the present.

The wealthy West is concerned that it will be overrun by the Black and brown hoards of the world’s global poor moving towards where the planet’s riches are being hoarded. And to avoid such movement, to prohibit it, all kinds of planned migration schemes have been hatched (and to respond to unplanned migrations other schemes have been hatched, too). The Roxham Road agreement is one such scheme. It might appear mild compared to others like those being unveiled in the EU and the UK, but it is not. In fact, we already have reports of deaths that might be an outcome of the deal. Suella Braverman, the UK Home Secretary, and her government might offer a vulgar policy decision to deal with migrants, which is to ship them elsewhere. But Canada and its government offer a ‘gentler’ approach that is rooted in the same vulgarity: tell them not to come before they even try to leave. These positions are ultimately not that different. And with the multicultural and multiracial representatives of the state presenting and representing these policies, what stays firmly in place is the assumed and unquestioned whiteness of the nation.

The unplanned migrations of the world’s oppressed is a refusal of the conceit that the wealthy West, which has exploited the peoples, lands and waters of the Global South, can also govern their movement across this earth. The Roxham Road deal is not just a bad policy decision or a lapse in thinking that will be corrected later. It is part of a deeply conditioned ideological position that sorts out who gets to live and who gets to die. Indeed, Roxham Road is more than a crossing—it is the embodiment of Canada’s continued white supremacist and Eurocentric foundations. The multicultural adjustment and the reconciliation rhetoric in no way changes this.

I sat down to write this column as war rages in the Sudan. I have been reading the tweets of Sudanese Canadians as they despair about the information that is coming out of the region. And I have noted the federal government’s agonizing delay in creating an emergency program that would allow Sudanese refugees to migrate to Canada. Of course, the opposite has been true for Ukrainians, and before that Syrians (because Alan Kurdi’s death shamed the world). Why is this the case? We all know what Haitians and Sudanese share in common, as much as we also know that it would be entirely a surprise to see Prime Minister Trudeau greeting Sudanese refugees at a Canadian airport anytime soon. We cannot deny that because Canada thinks of itself as a fundamentally and foundationally white nation state that its response to global catastrophes is coloured by this deep-rooted consciousness. Indeed, this consciousness is why reconciliation with Indigenous peoples will continue to fail. Whiteness is the place from which all policy proceeds, and it is hell bent on keeping the darker races out or at least believing it can plan when, how, and where they enter.

Since the abolition of transatlantic slavery and the various indentureships that proceeded in its wake, Euro-America has believed that it can manage global migration as a distribution to the unequal wealth it has acquired. From labour migration including domestic and farm work schemes, to limited family reunification programs, a range of reasons for planned migration has meant that Euro-American policy and interest have attempted to impede global movement. But if Roxham Road is to mean something other than the brutal and exclusionary nature of the nation state it could become the first volley in Canada moving towards an open borders nation. But let’s be clear: our leaders do not possess the visionary imagination that would make such a demand a lived reality.

Rinaldo Walcott is a writer and critic. He is professor and chair of Africana and American Studies at the University of Buffalo (SUNY).

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