600 Is Too Many
How the press used four boatloads of Chinese migrants to create an immigration crisis
In a small village in southern China, in the province of Fujian, a fruit seller is unable to face another winter without enough produce to make a living. It is the summer of 1999, and a group of men, human smugglers, show up in the village. They are driving cars and making promises. For a fee, they will arrange passage to Canada. The fruit seller mortgages his house and makes a $10,000 down payment to reserve a spot in the rusted cargo hold of an unmarked ship.
Others on the boat – 123 passengers in total – include farmers, students and fishmongers. Some have been given money by members of their village in hopes that once they are established in Canada, the sponsors might have the opportunity to follow. Some of the men have boarded because they fear imprisonment or a forced vasectomy by government officials who have discovered they have more than one child. They make the trip knowing that if their gamble is unsuccessful, the families they leave behind will have to pay off the smugglers. The voyage takes 39 days. Wooden slats placed over bags of rice are used for mattresses, and full buckets of human waste spill onto the decks. The only food available – chicken and rice – becomes contaminated. The stench is overwhelming, and several on the ship fall ill.
On July 20, the boat is tracked by the Canadian fisheries department and is towed to shore. The passengers are filthy, starving and confused. The fruit seller is handcuffed along with the others and put on a bus headed for a Canadian Forces Base in Esquimalt, B.C., where he realizes his ordeal, which looked to be almost over, is just beginning.
Over the next few months, three more boatloads – 599 Chinese migrants in all – would arrive on the shores of British Columbia. Although Canada routinely accepts 25,000 refugees every year with minimal media uproar, the plight of the 599 would become the most-talked-about domestic news story of the summer. As one reporter put it: “You’ve got hundreds of people standing on a ship out in the middle of nowhere – on a ship that looks like if you touch it too hard, it’s going to sink. For lack of a better way of putting it, it’s eye candy.”
While reporters found the human drama irresistible – and compelling visuals kept it consistently in the front sections of the papers – editorial writers and columnists across the country were incensed. They manufactured an immigration crisis where none existed. An examination of the newspaper coverage over the summer reveals not only blatant inaccuracies and misconceptions but also decidedly xenophobic undertones.
Just after the arrival of the first boat, three of Canada’s major dailies – The Vancouver Sun, The Globe and Mail and the National Post – ran editorials condemning the Chinese migrants. They were portrayed as criminals, ungrateful for the special treatment they were receiving in Canada, and as a drain on the country’s financial resources. Even worse, they were often depicted as an uncontrollable threat to public health.
The headlines said it all: “Ship’s passengers must be sent home” (The Vancouver Sun, July 23), “Boat people who need a return ride” (The Globe and Mail, July 23), “Gatecrashers are not welcome” (National Post, July 22). Canada’s immigration and refugee policies are admittedly complex, but while reporters managed to cobble together facts from government and armed forces spokespeople, a number of columnists and editorial writers didn’t appear to make any effort to understand the system. They simply jumped to conclusions. TheGlobe protested that “entry into this country must be orderly.” Editorials complained that the migrants – people who boarded floating death traps in a desperate attempt for a better life – didn’t enter the country through the proper channels. They were called queue jumpers. The fact is, a majority of the newcomers claimed refugee status, and under this country’s immigration laws, would-be refugees have, in effect, a separate queue. At the very least, they’re entitled to a hearing to determine whether their claim is legitimate.
Nevertheless, the migrants’ actions came under media criticism from the start. When the first boatload arrived at CFB Esquimalt, food was provided by Ming’s Chinese restaurant. Peacefully protesting the quality of food they were being served as well as a lack of time for personal hygiene, the migrants refused to eat. The Globeran the story under the inflammatory headline “Smuggled Chi- nese revolt in B.C.” Two days later, the paper published a column by Vancouver writer Paul Sullivan. “They’re not even grateful, staging a brief hunger strike apparently in protest against the quality of Ming’s noodles,” he wrote. “If it goes the way these things normally go, their desperate gamble will pay off.” This, despite the fact that between April 1994 and March 1999, the Vancouver acceptance rate of finalized refugee claims was only 14.4 per cent of 1,492 people.
Later, government sources told reporters they had increased RCMP presence after the migrants were found hoarding everyday items – pens, combs, safety pins and, in one instance, a folded tinfoil plate that a man was using to cut his hair. Although there were no reports of violence, the Sun trumpeted: “Migrants face tight security after police find weapons.”
Articles across the country were laced with xenophobia. But the most egregious examples, perhaps not surprisingly, appeared in the National Post. Diane Francis, whose column runs in the Financial Post section, used the arrival of the migrants to fuel an anti-immigrant crusade.
In an effort to uncover the immigration “boondoggle,” she aligned herself with an ultraconservative organization called the Canada First Immigration Reform Committee. The group is responsible for a website that posts what is widely considered hate literature. It features the phrase “Immigration Can Kill You!” with the word “kill” dripping with blood, and such headlines as “Diseases from the third world can be passed by not washing hands!” A box at the bottom of the site proclaims: “Made with European culture, accept no substitute!” The director of the CFIRC, Paul Fromm, is a notorious racist who has defended hate-mongers such as James Keegstra and Ernst Zundel. He was once videotaped addressing skinheads at a “Martyr’s Day” rally and was later removed from teaching high school students and reassigned to teaching adults. His group’s site has links to Francis’s anti-immigrant articles online.
In her column on August 21 – headlined “These refugees and immigrants can be deadly” – Francis shared “health horror stories” that were brought to her attention by the CFIRC. She portrayed immigrants from Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe as diseased and unacceptable for admittance into Canada. In the past decade, she wrote, the influx of refugees means “an awful lot of Typhoid Marys are probably in our midst. Who knows how many Canadians have died or been injured as a result?” To support her contention, she cited several vague examples, including this one: “In 1986, a Manitoba woman died of a rare blood parasite from Central and South America even though she had not travelled there.”
On August 24, Francis defended her opinions and those of Paul Fromm by writing, “anyone who criticizes immigrants or refugees, or the policies and process in place, is labeled a ‘racist’ by vested interests.” Fromm, she added, is merely “a Canadian [trying to take] a stance against immigration/ refugee practices.” She went on to list reasons why her views are not racist. “It is not racist to enforce borders. It’s racist to insist that anyone of colour can intrude on our society at will because they have superior rights. For those who agree with me,” her justification continued, “remember it is not racist to prevent undesirables from entering our country.” The migrants housed in the gym at CFB Esquimalt “are accessories to a crime and should be punished, not given room service and lawyers….Canada is our home. No one can force us to invite someone to supper if we don’t like them, can’t afford to feed them, can’t communicate with them or they don’t know how to behave.” For Francis, “it is really that simple and has nothing to do with bigotry.”
It is late September and about 70 people have gathered in Toronto at the Bloor Street office of the Joint Centre of Excellence for Research on Immigrant Settlement. They are here to discuss the media portrayal of immigrants and refugees as a threat to public health. Francis’s xenophobic columns, both before and after the arrival of the Chinese migrants, were the impetus for Dr. Morton Beiser to organize the discussion. Beiser is the director of CERIS and a professor of cultural pluralism and health, Clarke Division Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, at the University of Toronto. He is also the author of Strangers at the Gate: The “Boat People’s” First 10 Years in Canada, in which he demonstrated that Indochinese boat people, 10 years after their arrival in 1979, were more likely than the average Canadian to be employed, were using fewer social services and were giving back to society more than they had originally taken out.
At the CERIS gathering, Beiser speaks softly, in the measured tones of an aca- demic. “There are some real issues with respect to health and immigrants and refugees that we don’t want to lose sight of,” he says. “And if health issues are being used as a kind of metaphor for other kinds of anti-immigration feelings, I think that has to be revealed.” Beiser sees a significant subtext to Francis’s tirades on supposed immigrant health problems. Referring to her August 21 column about disease-carrying immigrants from other continents, he says, “If you eliminate all of those places as sources of immigrants, what’s left? Presumably, the only people pure enough to come here are Americans and Western Europeans, people just like Diane Francis.”
The panel is a mix of health officials, journalists and politicians. The experts include Dr. Ron St. John, director of global surveillance and field epidemiology with Health Canada; Dr. Barbara Yaffe, director of communicable disease control for Toronto Public Health; and Dr. Jay Keystone, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and part of the Toronto General Hospital’s tropical disease unit. Among the journalists is Margaret Wente of the Globe, and Haroon Siddiqui, editor emeritus of The Toronto Star. The most lively comments from the participants, all of whom agree that there are imperfections in Canada’s lengthy immigration and refugee determination policies, relate to the role that journalism plays in informing public debate. Conspicuously absent from the panel, although she was invited, is Diane Francis.
Wente feels that there have been some purposefully inflammatory pieces on the migrants and that there is a market for scaremongering in Canadian journalism, mostly in columns. In news reporting, journalists are generally obliged to get the facts right, she says, while in commentary there is a mandate to get an audience and hold it. “There is an old adage in column writing: don’t make that call; you’ll wreck your thesis.” Keystone points to several instances when Francis apparently chose not to make that call before offering her anti-immigrant rants as fact. In one of her columns, she had written that “Asians are bringing syphilis and malaria, too, spread through prostitutes in that area of the world.” As Keystone explains to the panel, “malaria is not an STD. It is transmitted by mosquitoes.” He also takes issue with Francis’s claim that 25,000 refugees are let loose in Canada every year without being screened. Within 60 days of their arrival, all refugees must have a medical examination that includes a chest x-ray, urinalysis and, if they are over the age of 15, a test for syphilis. The department of citizenship and immigration could improve the system, he admits, but Francis’s notion that the current practices have allowed “an awful lot of Typhoid Marys” into the country is simply false. “There are 40 to 80 cases of typhoid fever in Canada every year, and most of those aren’t in immigrants,” he says. “The majority are in Canadians who travel abroad in high-risk areas.” The idea that closing the gates will keep out disease became obsolete with the advent of air travel. Refugees can’t be held responsible for the spread of diseases that could just as easily be brought to Canada by Post columnists returning from vacation.
For Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, a nonprofit umbrella organization that works to protect the rights of refugees in Canada and around the world, xenophobia in media coverage of the migrants was not surprising. “While there were some good pieces,” she says, “they came in reaction to some really very, very negative ones. And the negative ones continued to be prominent throughout. The extent of it and the viciousness with which the coverage was formulated was much worse than we’ve been used to in recent years. It was extremely discouraging.” Dench feels that Francis and the Post are not alone in their negative portrayal of refugees, although Francis “uses stronger language and less attention to accurate facts than others.”
For several months before the arrival of the Chinese migrants, the CCR tracked the dailies’ treatment of immigration issues. It found a pervasive anti-immigrant bias, particularly in the Post. In a letter dated May 21, 1999 – two months before the first boat of migrants arrived – the CCR wrote to Ken Whyte, the Post‘s editor in chief, pointing out “a significant disproportion of negative news stories and commentary concerning immigrants and refugees in Canada.” During the month of April 1999, the letter continues, the Post ran “17 articles and columns that referred to immigrants and refugees in Canada in an antipathetic context,” compared with only six articles and columns “in which the context was positive or supportive.”
The CCR singled out Francis, citing her depictions of “refugees and immigrants in this country as ‘undesirables’ (January 9), people who’ve made Canada ‘a nation of suckers’ (February 27), ‘trash’ (April 3), ‘criminals, warlords, and terrorists,’ ‘bogus and expensive’ (April 6) and ‘scum’ (April 8).”
The letter concluded: “The overall antipathetic attitude towards immigrants and refugees…is of grave concern to us and our 140-plus membership across Canada. In our opinion this is an urgent matter that requires immediate attention. As such we are requesting a meeting with you and your editorial staff in hope that we can 1) further discuss the concerns raised in this letter; and 2) foster a relationship to facilitate a better understanding of immigrant and refugee issues.”
What came in response was a fax from the Post‘s lawyers that ended: “The menacing tone of your letter and its slanderous allegations cannot form the basis of any constructive discourse between your Association and the newspaper. We have, therefore, counselled the newspaper not to meet with you.”
The powers that be at the Post are obviously reluctant to comment on accusations of bias. Over a three-month period, repeated efforts, via phone and email, to set up interviews with Whyte and Francis were ignored.
Outside of her columns, the only public forum in which Francis discussed her opinions was on The Editors, a round-table show that aired on CBC Newsworld in December. The panel of guests included Barbara McDougall, the former immigration minister, and Iona Campagnolo, chair of the Fraser Basin Council, with Keith Morrison of Dateline NBC as moderator.
Francis opened with comments familiar to those who read her column: that immigrants are contributing to the national unemployment problem, and that the current standard of living will be sacrificed if we don’t reduce the number allowed into this country. Good immigration is good for Canada, she maintained, while bad immigration is not. Asked to define what she meant by good and bad, she refused to go there. “Anybody opposed to immigration is [considered] a racist or a white supremacist,” she said, “and that’s where the whole thing gets bogged down. It’s politically very incorrect to even question it.”
She went on to accuse the government of arbitrarily choosing a magic number of immigrants granted entry each year. In response, McDougall (a Progressive Conservative) found herself defending the policies of the current citizenship and immigration minister, Elinor Caplan (a Liberal). The immigration target, McDougall pointed out, is one per cent of the population, and even that is rarely reached.
The discussion heated up when Campagnolo questioned whether her co-panellist was qualified to dictate public policy. Francis, who for months demonized immigrants and refugees in her columns, complained that she herself was being demonized. “You’re personalizing it again – Diane Francis, that right-winger from the United States, is an immigrant,” she said sarcastically to the panel. “You know the demonization that goes on in the debate. It’s always the demonization.” At which point, Morrison piped in: “Don’t be defensive, Diane; it’s all right.”
Unable to convince them of her point, Francis sighed: “It’s exasperating; it’s hopeless. People will not talk about this except on an emotional level.” Having already referred to newcomers as “guests in our living room,” however, she had made her feelings quite clear. “It’s a privilege to come to our country. [Immigrants] are here at our pleasure, because we need them.”
Many of the 599 Chinese migrants who came to Canada last summer won’t have the privilege of remaining. Some have been found to be illegitimate refugees and face deportation. Whether journalists influenced the process is impossible to say. But when its coverage is intelligent, accurate and balanced, the media can, and often do, play a valuable role in informing public debate. The misinformation spread by Francis and her ilk seriously undermined that function. The story of the fruit seller was never really told. It was lost in politicized editorial rants that tried to suggest our way of life was somehow threatened by a few hundred desperate foreigners arriving on our shores. The sad truth is that the anti-immigrant sentiment expressed in the coverage, the ugly racism that rose to the surface, is the real threat.
Beth Clarkson was the Managing Editor, Production for the Spring 2000 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.