The Archdiocese of Montreal has issued a strong rebuke to the federal government for the March 25 closure of Roxham Road, the most heavily trafficked “irregular” entry point for asylum seekers located on the Quebec-New York border.

Source - by Anna Farrow - April 12, 2023

A statement issued March 27 on the archdiocesan website called the decision “a mistake” that “criminalizes asylum seekers who seek to protect their lives and the lives of their families” and suspends “the inalienable right to asylum.” 

On April 4, the Day of Refugee Rights, Le Pont, a refugee centre run by the archdiocese, participated in a demonstration in front of the Montreal constituency offices of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Le Pont, together with 11 other groups that assist refugees, including Jesuit Refugee Service Canada, organized the event as a protest of the extension of the Safe Third Country Agreement to the entire border. A press release, distributed by the communications office of the Archdiocese of Montreal, said organizers were concerned the “human, social and health consequences will be disastrous.”

The Safe Third Country Agreement, a 2002 treaty between Canada and the United States, stipulates refugee claimants must apply for asylum in the first of the two countries they reach. Claimants presenting themselves at any of the official land border crossings will be turned away. 

Roxham Road, the eight kilometre stretch of road that connects the border towns of Champlain, N.Y., and Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., is not an official border crossing but until its closure provided both a legal and practical loophole to the STCA. Canadian officers who met asylum seekers at the unofficial crossing were not obliged to turn away claimants. 

At the time of ratification, the STCA was understood to have been sought by Canada to prevent refugees from “asylum-shopping” and to avoid pressure placed on Canadian immigration and border services if the United States came to be viewed as merely a thruway to Canada.

Following the STCA coming into effect in 2004, asylum applications to Canada began to drop. But a change of the political climate in the U.S. in 2015 led to the more regular use of Roxham Road as an entry point for asylum seekers. 

On Jan. 27, 2017, then-U.S. President Donald Trump issued an executive order that suspended entry to the U.S. of individuals from several Muslim-majority countries, including Syria and Iran. The day after the order being signed, Trudeau tweeted, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.”

The number of asylum seekers crossing into Quebec at Roxham Road surged. In 2017, 18,000 refugees entered Canada at Lacolle. This new wave of refugees came as Canada was already two years into Operation Syrian Refugee, an initiative of the federal government that launched with the ambitious goal of welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees within 100 days.

The  Montreal archdiocese has an established track record of hospitality and engagement with asylum seekers. During Operation Syrian Refugee, the archdiocese appointed Alessandra Santopadre as coordinator of the Refugee Sponsorship Program. Due to a special appeal of Archbishop Christian Lépine, $140,000 was raised to support Syrian refugees in Montreal and Santopadre reported that 15 individual parishes committed to sponsoring one or more Syrian families. 

In October 2017, two months after the Olympic Stadium was set up as a temporary shelter to accommodate refugees, the Archdiocese of Montreal responded to the border crisis with its own initiative. Space was found in a vacant rectory of a parish in the east end of Montreal and Le Pont, a short-term accommodation for families and women who are seeking refugee status, was born.

Arthur Durieux, director of Le Pont, has served as the point person for the archdiocese on the Roxham Road closure.