Manitoba becomes 4th province to say it will stop imprisoning migrants

The Manitoba government says it will stop incarcerating migrants detained by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), according to information obtained by Radio-Canada/CBC.

The office of Manitoba Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen told Radio-Canada migrants should not be “languishing” in jail when “they have not been convicted of a crime.”

Under agreements with the CBSA, many provinces imprison migrants detained for administrative reasons.

These foreign nationals, including asylum seekers, are subjected to the same conditions as the prison population, even though they are not accused of a crime.

“Provincial jails should be used to detain people convicted of crimes or awaiting trial on serious offences, not to hold travellers and refugees who arrive in Manitoba with incomplete paperwork, or some other issue with their inbound immigration processing that needs to be straightened out,” said an email from the justice minister’s office.

Some 2,000 migrants have been incarcerated in provincial jails in Canada each year from 2015 to 2020.

The office of Justice Minister Kelvin Goertzen says migrants should not be languishing in jail when ‘they have not been convicted of a crime.’ (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Former Liberal minister critical of Trudeau government

The office of Goertzen, who is Conservative, says they have taken the same position advocated by Lloyd Axworthy, a former Liberal foreign affairs minister under Jean Chrétien.

Axworthy, now the chair of the World Refugee and Migration Council, confirmed he met with Goertzen to ask him to review the imprisonment of migrants.

He said he was “really pleased” Goertzen responded that way.

“It’s a proper move to what I think was really quite a scandalous situation,” said Axworthy.

Manitoba becomes the fourth province after British Columbia, Nova Scotia and Alberta to inform Ottawa it will no longer detain migrants in its jails.

Axworthy, who also used to be an immigration minister, wants the Trudeau government to end all agreements with the provinces.

“Provincial governments are showing their commitment to a more proper and respectful set of rights for displaced persons and our federal government should just get the message and abrogate the agreements,” he said.

Lloyd Axworthy wants the Trudeau government to end all CBSA agreements with the provinces. (Travis Golby/CBC)

“I think it breaks every principle that we have in terms of the protection of the rights of people in this country.”

Axworthy said he met with Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, who is responsible for the CBSA, on this issue.

According to Axworthy, while Mendicino seems open to changing the system, border guards have a lot of “discretion” in deciding who is incarcerated.

“Immigration detention must always be a measure of last resort and only used in high-risk cases,” Mendicino’s office said, while promising to do better.

“The minister is exploring paths forward that would expand and enhance alternatives to detention and cease detention in provincial correctional facilities.”

Arrangements not revealed

CBSA has previously stated Manitoba is not one of the provinces with which it has a formal Memorandum of Understanding regarding immigration detention.

Neither the CBSA nor Manitoba would say what type of arrangement they have.

“We have advised the CBSA they will need to find a more suitable location for these individuals by January 2024,” an email from Goertzen’s office read.

Under agreements with other provinces, 12-month notice to the CBSA is necessary to terminate the contract.

For the time being, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Saskatchewan are maintaining their contracts with Ottawa under which they are being paid to imprison migrants in their jails.

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