Speaking Notes – BCIT Diversity Circles – Immigration, Systemic Racism and Barriers to Student Success

My name is Will Tao. My Chinese name is Tao Wei. I wrote a post recently where I talked about being named after Victoria where I was born.  I am a Canadian immigration and refugee lawyer and a racialized settler on these unceded Coast Salish lands. 

I want to begin my remarks thanking Elder Alf Dumont, Ocean, Splash for their welcome and to reiterate that we’re having this discussion on stolen land and that as we talk about systems such as immigration we are talking about historical systems that were created to populate these lands with people who do not look like most of us in this room and that it was done, and continues to be done, with little to no consultation or input with the original stewards of the land, the Indigenous communities. I also want to thank Justin for being brave in sharing his remarks and for speaking for many silenced students. I could not have done what you have done when I was a student. 

I have been asked to address the context of immigration as it relates to status, belonging, and talk about my role as an immigration lawyer who works extensively with students like yourselves. Can I get a show of hands of how many of you are or were international students in the room?  [there was one]. I ask you to keep your hands up if you can. How many of you are friends with or have loved ones who are international students? [almost everyone]. 

I want to start by also acknowledging that immigration law and policy is steeped in colonialism and white supremacy. It is steeped in ableism and discrimination against those with mental health illnesses. It has created systemic barriers for women and those from other marginalized communities who do not fit the traditional check boxes of immigration. Both then and now. It is a reality that keeps me up at night and often leads me to both “seize up” and struggle to “speak up” to borrow the words of Canadian author, David Chariandy

It begins with history. Two remaining minutes is not enough to track the whole history of our immigration system but up front we need to name these things and giving light to some of these events.

  • 1906 immigration to open gates to British Subjects/Europeans – 96% European;
  • In the late 1800’s early 1900’s – Anti-Race Riots/Head Tax/use of domestic legal policy/foreign policy to exclude people of colour – 
  • Black Canadians in 1911 were excluded and climate suitability was used as an excuse;
  • Asians were excluded in 1923- beginning a long period of family separation and closure of the borders to a majority of Asiatic migrants until 1947. 
  • Immigration was once the Office of Immigration and Colonization in 1917 before being transitioned into the Department of Mines and Resources in 1936. That is the historical underpinning of where you are at – as colonized bodies, mines, and resources for the European settlers who assumed this would be “White Canada Forever.”

My historical argument is that we’ve moved from front end barriers that were explicitly enforced in law to now back-end barriers or dissuading factors that are more implicit. This is done largely through a process of assimilation that unfortunately by virtue of your immigration statuses you are all subject to and must master to obtain the status, permanent residency, and later, citizen.

Today, you continue to see an area of law and policy develop mostly off the backs of coloured migrant bodies and lives, yet with little attention paid to the role of race and a reticence to actually addressing. 

You will notice the lack of Black students in the room. You have African colleagues with 80-90 percent refusal rates where in many European Countries you have those as acceptance rates. For you in this room, you have an Express Entry system that sorts you into pathways and gives you points based on your, age, and language – possibly assimilating you and separating you from the work you want to do and the community you want to work within. You face challenges as a student with a two-tiered system that examines your attendance, your transcripts,and your border entries in a way it never did mine. 

The amount of stress these outside systems provide, don’t begin to address the inner challenges many of you face as migrants with temporary status. Through my own family’s lived experience, I know the effect it has on your internal family lives, financial challenges, emotional challenges.  I know it is in your interactions on transit, your interactions in the classroom, within diaspora with those think they can speak over you because they have been here longer than you, and so much of this is due to ignorance or assumptions that we must work to displace. I know as someone who works in these spaces I can say “I hear you, I see you, and I feel for you.” I will do what I can to share stories and hold your truth to their power.” 

My final advice, particularly for the men of colour in this room and with the additional layer of migration status and all the culture and history it brings with us, is to do your own healing and form stronger bond with each other but listen carefully and honour the experiences of Indigenous matriarchs and women of colour in your lives. It is a process that will change your world view and ground you. I know it has for me. Thank you. Gan Xie.

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