CYNTHIA WRIGHT AND SALIM VALLY: COMMENT
Mail & Guardian Online
The case of Brandon Huntley, the white South African recently granted refugee status in
Canada, has stirred much debate about the politics of racism, persecution and refuge in
both Canada and South Africa.
“That a Canadian court could take this seriously boggles the mind,” South African
commentators Herman Wasserman and Sean Jacobs write of Huntley’s claim in
Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
Their probing article situates for Canadian readers the South African context of
Huntley’s case. They contrast his mobility and ability to find refuge with the fate of
Skhumbuzo Douglas Mhlongo, who tragically killed himself after frustrating and futile
attempts to obtain an identity document from callous officials.
A reading of the Canadian context suggests still another set of contrasts and divides,
and some disturbing directions in Canadian immigration, refugee, citizenship and
foreign policy — a far cry from a previous era that prompted some South African exiles
to dub Toronto “a place to run to”.
For one, Huntley’s case makes a striking counterpart to that of Suaad Hagi Muhamud, a
Canadian citizen whose sorry saga when she visited Kenya was also prominently
featured in the Canadian media recently.
Her identity was questioned by Kenyan authorities on the basis of the size of her lips as
they scrutinised her passport photo. The Canadian High Commissioner’s office in
Nairobi, without evidence or investigation, continued the humiliating treatment by
concurring with the Kenyan authorities that Muhamud was an imposter and annulled her
After a nightmarish bureaucratic run-around, Muhamud was allowed to return to Canada
late last month — having endured almost three months in limbo in Kenya, eight days in
jail and enforced DNA testing, which only confirmed her identity and her Canadian
citizenship. Muhamud’s case can also be compared with that of Brenda Martin, a white
Canadian citizen who was whisked back to Canada on a private plane after problems in
Indeed, there have been a number of high-profile cases of Canadian citizens in trouble –
– almost all of them people of colour abandoned abroad. Most famously, Maher Arar
was seized by the United States with Canadian complicity and, through the notorious
“rendition” process, spirited clandestinely to a secret detention facility in Syria where he
was tortured. Arar was eventually the focus of a remarkable public inquiry, government
apology and settlement. Such cases have encouraged an anxious Canadian national
conversation about racism, immigration and citizenship.
Undaunted by these human rights violations, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
encouraged the imposition, two months ago, of stringent visa requirements on Mexican
and Czech nationals (the latter aimed at Roma people) on the grounds that they are the
producers of bogus refugee claims. Huntley’s case thus also contrasts sharply with
Mexican refugee claimants — victims of police brutality and/or of extreme gender and
homophobic violence — who have been told to relocate within Mexico to safer
communities rather than settling in Canada.
The Huntley case should also be contextualised. The conservative Canadian
government aggressively supported the Bush administration’s wars despite profound
dissatisfaction among Canadian citizens. In addition, the Canadian government was the
first, after Israel, to boycott the United Nations’s Durban Review Racism Conference
recently held in Geneva. This decision was made without consulting organisations
representing people in Canada most affected by racism, such as immigrants and
These communities have decided nonetheless to act on racism despite their
government’s abdication. The Canadian Arab Federation (CAF), which provides
services and advocacy for a large number of immigrants, has found its funding cut on
the grounds that the CAF is “anti-Semitic” because of its support for Palestinian rights
and criticism of Israeli state policies.
But the CAF’s record in fighting all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, is
impeccable — attested to by many community organisations, including progressive
Jewish groups — and the government’s punitive action is being challenged in the courts.
Other areas of comparison also exist. Huntley is, reportedly, an “illegal”, having
overstayed his worker’s permit. Besides Huntley, the detention and deportation of
“illegal” workers, overwhelmingly people of colour, appear to be increasing — as is the
organising to stop such removals. Meanwhile, the numbers of those coming on
temporary worker permits — permits offering few or no pathways to permanent
residence in Canada — continue to grow exponentially and now exceed those entering
as permanent residents.
In the context of such restructuring of Canadian citizenship, immigration and refugee
politics, one can ask: would Huntley have been granted refugee status had he not been
white? Some of the discussion around Huntley’s case suggests what Australian
sociologist Ghassan Hage calls “fantasies of white supremacy in a multicultural nation” –
– except that we are also seeing the anxious reassertion of the whiteness of Canadian
citizenship through moves that produce stratified labour, civil and political rights for
And although editors and mainstream pundits in Canada and South Africa want to
debate the distinction between the “bogus” and “real” refugees in this case, the actual
debate needs to be about a system of global capital that increasingly operates by
constraining the movement of workers, the better to secure their exploitation.
French academic Étienne Balibar, highly influenced by the campaigns of the sans
papiers, calls the contemporary geography of migration control “global apartheid”. For
the majority of the world’s poor, their countries provide no real refuge from poverty,
discrimination or exploitation. And the refugee systems of the global north, including
Canada, are increasingly restrictive.
A transnational, multilevel political fight for the right of free movement for all (not just the
wealthy or the white, not just for capital but also for workers) — and linked to social,
labour and political rights of all regardless of citizenship status — can provide a way to
reframe this debate.
In this connection, the anti-xenophobia and migrant campaigns on the ground, in both
Canada and South Africa, together with ongoing (if differing in scale) struggles in both
contexts for basic social services, for the means of life and for refuge, can provide us
with hope for a renewed politics and a more humane world.
Dr Cynthia Wright teaches at York University, Toronto, and is co-editing a special issue
of Refuge: Canada’s Periodical on Refugees. Salim Vally is a member of the South
African Association of Canadian Studies, was a visiting lecturer at York University last
year and is now based at the University of Johannesburg