Despite the rain trickling down Saturday morning, about 100 protesters gathered at La Fontaine park in Montreal with plastic rain ponchos, umbrellas, signs and flags to set off on a three-day march toward Roxham Road, in the Montérégie.
Refugee advocacy groups, migrants and supporters will be walking 73 kilometres to protest the recent closure of Quebec’s irregular border crossing to asylum seekers arriving in Canada from the U.S.
“It’s a symbolic walk for us,” said Maryne Poisson, the director of social initiatives at Welcome Collective, a group that helps asylum seekers in Montreal.
Poisson says she meets families every day that walked or hitchhiked from places like Brazil, Chile and other countries in “horrible conditions,” suffering relentlessly along the way.
“So this is a super small walk, but we’re doing it thinking about them,” she said.
Claudia Aranda claimed asylum in Canada after fleeing persecution in Chile. She says refugee rights are a matter of life and death.
“I walk because human rights are rights of all people … human rights are not relative,” she said.
Protesters will walk in three stretches, roughly 25-kilometres each. They will stay under church roofs overnight and are expected at the border on Monday.
Supreme Court upholds controversial agreement
The start of the journey comes a day after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Safe Third Country Agreement (STCA) is constitutional — at least as it relates to the right to life, liberty and security.
The agreement, which came into force in 2004, stipulates that asylum seekers must make their claims in the first safe country they reach, allowing Canada to turn back most asylum seekers coming from the U.S.
Roxham Road, a well-travelled unofficial border crossing for asylum seekers, was previously exempt from this treaty, which only covered official border crossings. A renegotiation of the agreement expanded the pact in March to cover the entire land border, closing the loophole.
Lauren Lallemand, co-director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, argues the situation will only get worse now that the border is closed. She wants to see the agreement withdrawn altogether.
“We’ve seen that there are people who have died trying to make irregular crossings. So this isn’t just a matter of an agreement, it’s really a matter of life and death for vulnerable migrants,” she said.
Before the new treaty went into effect, the Canadian government reported that since December of 2022, about 4,500 people were crossing through Roxham Road every month.
On Friday, the top court sided with the Canadian government which argued the U.S. is a safe place for migrants, despite groups saying they face deportation and detention there.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court did not, however, rule on whether the STCA violates Section 15 of the Charter of Rights — the section that guarantees equality under the law.
Refugee groups have argued the U.S. often denies refugee claims that cite gender-based violence as the reason for the claim.
The case was ordered back to Federal Court for a review of the policy in light of equality concerns. Poisson says there’s still hope the agreement will be scrapped when it’s back in court.
‘Closing our borders is not the solution’
Marisa Berry Mendez, a campaigner with Amnesty International who left for Roxham Road Saturday, argues Canada must step up.
“We have international human rights obligations to respect the right to asylum,” she said.
“Closing our borders is not the solution; it doesn’t stop people seeking protection. It just makes them take more dangerous routes to get there.”
In a statement following the Supreme Court’s decision Friday, Canada’s immigration minister said the government will continue to promote safe and regular pathways.
“We will continue to work with the United States to ensure that the STCA reflects our commitment with respect to our domestic and international obligations in its application,” said Sean Fraser.
For her part, Poisson is hoping asylum seekers are given the opportunity to plead their case in Canada.
“We don’t want them to have status right away; we want them to have a chance to be heard, to have a chance to explain why they need protection,” she said.