An RCMP officer in Saint-Bernard-de-­Lacolle, Que., intercepts migrants in 2017 as they cross from Champlain, N.Y., outside a regular point of entry. (Photo: Charles Krupa/AP Photo)

Topics: Justice, September 2021 | Opinion

Canada needs to do better for Black refugees and immigrants

Black refugees from Africa still face barriers to integration and long processing times


In 1951, Canada did not sign the newly adopted UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It feared the United Nations treaty would limit its ability to deport communists and others considered security risks, by giving these foreigners the right to legal representation at deportation hearings. Canada finally signed the treaty in 1969. Still, there is continuing evidence that Black refugees from Africa face excruciatingly long processing times and other barriers to integration in Canada.

Prior to 1960, Black Africans were a very small, scattered and unknown group of newcomers to Canada. For decades, British and other Europeans were deemed the most “desirable” citizens, whereas Asians and Africans were considered “unassimilable” and therefore “undesirable.”

Expanding immigration for non-white people was initiated by Lester B. Pearson’s Liberal government through the revised Immigration Act in 1967. This ushered in many waves of immigrants from Asia, South America and Africa. Five decades later, visa applicants from Africa find it more difficult securing permission to visit Canada than applicants from any other continent.

In 2011, the government introduced caps on how many applications refugee sponsors could submit in a year, as a solution to application backlogs. Additional limits were put on visa offices in Cairo, in Nairobi, Kenya, in Pretoria, South Africa, and in Islamabad. These were removed in December 2016 amid accusations of being selectively and systemically prejudicial to refugees from African countries.

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Three years ago, the Catholic Register reported that church-sponsored Iraqi refugees were arriving in Canada after an average of 15 months while refugees from Ethiopia and South Africa endured waits of 68 and 69 months, respectively.

Racialized wage and employment gaps are still significant in Canada because of systemic racism in hiring. Immigrants’ credentials aren’t recognized. According to Statistics Canada, African-born immigrants have the highest unemployment rate among all immigrant groups.

Social exclusion and anti-Black racism are very present in Canada. Social and policy-based barriers prevent Black and other racialized migrants from easily integrating into Canadian society. As the 2016 census shows, 20.8 percent of people of colour are low-income, compared to 12.2 percent of non-racialized people. In 2015, the median annual wage for Black men was $41,000, compared with nearly $56,000 for other men.

Black Canadians have a lower employment rate than other Canadians. Among those aged 25 to 59, the rate was 78 percent for men and 71 percent for women, compared to 83 percent and 76 percent respectively for other Canadians. The unemployment rate for the whole Black population was 10 percent, compared with seven percent for other Canadians.

Canadians must do more to live up to our reputation as a welcoming country. The federal government needs to tackle inequities that delay the processing of refugee applications from Africa and the barriers that deter Black immigrants from integrating fully into Canadian society.


Stephen Kaduuli was the refugee rights policy analyst for Citizens for Public Justice. He died in April.

A version of this column first appeared in Broadview’s September 2021 issue with the title “Less than a warm welcome.”

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