Governing Global Aeromobility

Canada and Airport Refugee Claimants in the 1980s

in Transfers


This article surveys Canada’s regulatory response to global aeromobility in the late twentieth century. It examines the Canadian state’s strategies to restrict the movement of refugee claimants landing at airports during the 1980s and the national discourse around this process. Mass air travel enabled more refugees, particularly from the Global South, to travel to Canada and, in the process, challenged how the country governed aerial and cosmopolitan populations. In response, Canadian authorities erected an enforcement regime at the country’s international airports, which transformed them into contested entry points to national space and normative citizenship where links between mobility, borders, and nation were simultaneously reinforced and contested. This article thus provides an integral case study of national ambivalence toward global aeromobility in the late twentieth century.

On 1 January 1989, Chhinder Paul, a twenty-two-year-old Indian national, sought asylum in Canada at Montreal-Mirabel International Airport following an overseas flight.1 Paul informed the Mirabel immigration officer that he was a refugee who feared for his life in India. The officer referred Paul’s case to a two-person adjudication panel and detained him as a likely flight risk. The panel swiftly met and ruled that Paul was not a genuine refugee and was therefore eligible for immediate deportation. The Canadian federal government deported Paul less than seventy-two hours later, making him most likely the first individual to have been removed under Canada’s stringent refugee system introduced at the beginning of that year to eliminate an enormous backlog in asylum claims that had rapidly accumulated by the end of the 1980s.2

Detained and then deported after requesting legal entry to Canada, Paul was one of a significant number of people who unsuccessfully requested asylum at Canadian airports during the 1980s. The Canadian government viewed Paul and many others as “bogus” refugees who had filed a false claim on-site. On the one hand, the bogus refugee signified criminality and nonnormative mobility for moving in ways that circumvented existing regulations. At the same time, they also represented an undesirable, nonnational air traveler, a connection fused by rising tensions in Canada between global aeromobility and ideas of national belonging and citizenship.

This article surveys Canada’s regulatory response to global aeromobility in the late twentieth century and the national discourse that framed this process. Recent mobilities scholarship uses “aeromobility” to describe air travel’s social and cultural imprint and the practices, spaces, and meanings that shape how it is produced, experienced, and regulated in relation to other networks and systems.3 Unlike most of the existing literature, this article looks to the past, and Canadian history in particular, to explore how specific aspects of aeromobility have become nationally politicized and intertwined with sovereignty and power. It contends that in the 1980s more asylum seekers, particularly from the Global South, arrived by air in Canada and challenged how the state governed aerial and cosmopolitan populations. In response, Canadian authorities erected an enforcement regime largely centered on the country’s international airports, which transformed them into contested entry points to national space and normative citizenship where links between mobility, borders, and nation were simultaneously reinforced and contested. This article thus provides an integral case study of national ambivalence toward global aeromobility in the late twentieth century by examining Canada’s systematic efforts to restrict the movements of many refugee claimants categorized as risky air travelers.

Risky Travelers: The State, Refugees, and Managing Mobile Populations

The Jet Age increased public interest in flying and restructured the possibilities of movement. Successive technological advances in the 1950s and 1960s brought greater speed, power, and regularity to air travel and lowered consumer fares.4 They also eroded the historical significance of distance as larger and safer planes able to fly longer distances transported people faster and more frequently across time and space.5 These changes affected who could be mobile and where they could go. A global aerial network largely replaced land- and sea-based migration routes and patterns, which transformed airports into primary immigration processing points and conduits for international travel. This was especially true in Canada. Pier 21, the country’s busiest port of entry for transoceanic steamship arrivals since the 1920s, closed in 1971 after steep declines in annual traffic during the 1960s.6 Meanwhile, aircraft volume nearly doubled at the country’s largest airports—Toronto and Montreal-Dorval—over the same period.7 These increases were part of a larger pattern of growth worldwide.8

The Canadian government installed tighter surveillance at major national airports as they evolved into international transit hubs. In 1970, the federal departments of Transport and Citizenship and Immigration jointly introduced a two-tiered screening system at the three busiest national airports, Toronto, Montreal-Dorval, and Vancouver, with plans to later expand to other airports.9 Before that system, four different government agencies—Citizenship and Immigration, Customs, Health, and Agriculture—had screened every incoming passenger, a time-consuming system now rendered inefficient in an age of higher volume. Instead, Customs would exclusively manage the primary inspection process and anyone flagged there was then referred to secondary inspection for additional questioning by one of the four agencies.10 These changes underscored how global aeromobility had begun to remake high-traffic airports into “delocalized” borders where international travelers were met by more rigorous and sophisticated security screening.11

These changes to airport surveillance were the latest governmental measure to regulate people on the move in the modern era and reshape the im-mobile environments that facilitated their movement.12 There is significant scholarship that discusses how the border has particularly helped consolidate sovereign authority and inscribe mobility as a conditional and contingent privilege rather than a right.13 Other literature explores the relationship between mobility and citizenship in the modern era, focusing particularly on the history of the passport and its subtle but integral connections to race and citizenship.14 In Canada, these dynamics prevailed in the post-Confederation period as authorities turned to various governance tools, including the passport, to legitimate and reinforce an exclusionary national citizenship that largely drew from white colonialism and ideas of “Britishness” based on Canada’s historical ties to the British Commonwealth.15

Aviation’s global expansion unsettled existing enforcement structures by giving more people greater means to contest national regulations through aerial movement.16 These changes had special implications for refugees across the Global South, or the vast majority of countries in Asia, Africa, South America, and the Middle East that have been plagued by overpopulation, underdevelopment, and large-scale poverty as a historical consequence of colonial rule.17 During the postwar era, more people in these areas were displaced from their homelands due to civil violence and widespread famine; by 1970, the global refugee population had surpassed two million.18 While it is erroneous to suggest that air travel represented a panacea for most Global South refugees during the 1970s and 1980s, it did expand the scope of movement available to some refugees who had the means to get to an airport by bringing more places like Canada within their orbit. This not only transformed Canada into a potential resettlement country, erasing the remoteness that had made it an unconventional asylum destination outside the United States. It also helped create the conditions for more refugees around the world to practice subversive mobility by circumventing off shore immigration controls and making asylum claims directly at airports.

Canada signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees in 1969.19 Convention signatories were bound to extend a set of basic legal rights and protections to asylum seekers, including the right to make a refugee claim at national points of entry. Moreover, in 1976, the federal Liberal government under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, which held virtually uninterrupted power between 1968 and 1984, created a separate immigration class for humanitarian refugees and assigned an annual quota for this group. These changes meant that refugees now had two legal means for resettlement in Canada. They could be selected abroad by Canadian officials as humanitarian immigrants or travel to Canada and request asylum as landed, or “Convention,” refugees. Canadian authorities, however, were ambivalent toward the Convention option because it undermined both the annual quota and their preference for carefully selecting and screening refugees off shore.20 Moreover, they were concerned that publicizing it would induce more spontaneous arrivals, as had occurred following the government’s short-lived legalization of landed immigration applications between 1967 and 1973.21

Having remained low throughout the 1970s, Convention refugee claims in Canada steadily grew beginning in the early 1980s. They quickly surpassed the annual number of humanitarian refugees admitted to the country. The surge in landed claimants occurred partly due to continuing civil violence in many formerly colonized countries and also to a series of procedural overhauls in Canadian refugee law that made a landed claim more appealing by enhancing applicants’ legal rights and reducing their burden of proof.22 Most of the new claimants came from countries in the Global South and flew into Toronto International Airport or one of Montreal’s two international airports, Mirabel and Dorval. For example, between May and August 1983, more than 1,250 people, over half from Sri Lanka, claimed refugee status at Montreal-Mirabel alone.23 By 1986, the number of refugee claims nationally had surpassed 23,000 because of serious bureaucratic delays in processing cases and hearing subsequent appeals.24

The steady arrival of refugees during the 1980s coincided with increasing racial diversity in Canada following recent liberal shifts in immigration and cultural policy. In 1967, the Liberals under Lester Pearson, Trudeau’s predecessor, had revised the Immigration Act, removing racially discriminatory language and introducing a new points system that selected immigrants by designated needs categories. These measures gradually brought an end to Canada’s historical preference for European immigrants. The proportion of Asian and Caribbean immigrants annually jumped from 10 percent in 1965–1966 to 23 percent in 1969–1970; by 1976 only 38 percent of immigrants admitted that year were of European origin.25 In 1970, moreover, the Trudeau government instituted Official Multiculturalism, a type of cultural pluralism that aimed to create a more “just society” free of racial and other forms of discrimination.26 These institutional changes suggested that Canada, under the Liberals, had undergone a progressive ideological shift by the early 1970s that emphasized greater tolerance and inclusivity while encouraging the settlement of more non-European peoples.

But national reactions to refugees in the 1980s underscored significant reservations toward these liberal policies and the pace of racial change. The Canadian state and public articulated these concerns by drawing on neoliberal discourses of risk to cast many asylum seekers from the Global South as undesirable citizens. By the early part of that decade, the increasingly unpopular Liberals as well as the subsequent Progressive Conservative government under Brian Mulroney, elected in 1984 and in power until 1993, had begun to subscribe to neoliberal ideas based on reducing the role of government in many spheres of life. This was part of a seismic ideological shift in the late 1970s and 1980s that saw neoliberal governments assume power in the United States and much of Western Europe on austerity platforms of deregulation, privatization, and massive tax cuts.27 These regimes turned to risk management to keep government small. They shifted state resources from welfare policy to security enforcement in order to minimize risks that they believed carried a large socioeconomic burden and threatened the health and security of the general population.28

As the 1980s progressed, the Mulroney government increasingly appropriated neoliberal discourses of risk to crack down on aerial asylum seekers by criminalizing their mode of spontaneous movement. Collectively speaking, these measures made citizenship more elusive for a greater percentage of legitimate “Convention” refugee claimants who moved in newly unsanctioned ways. In their push to regulate global aeromobility and exclude undesirable nonnationals from entering the country, federal officials redefined many legitimate refugees as risky travelers simply for moving outside regulatory power structures.

(Non)normative Aeromobility: Visas and the Global South

In the early 1980s, the Canadian government turned more heavily to visas to shrink refugee flows at airports. Visas are state-issued documents that authorize individual travel to a particular country along with a legal passport.29 Federal officials saw visas as a way to thwart air travelers who were allegedly arriving without identity documents after destroying or swallowing them en route to conceal their nationality and delay their removal from the country.30 Moreover, the state linked normative aeromobility to visas since people from nonexempt countries had to obtain them before travel. By forcing many legitimate refugee claimants to request visas outside the country to secure legal entry, authorities betrayed their discomfort with global movement patterns that had brought greater numbers of undesirable people to their national doorstep seeking citizenship.

During the 1980s the Canadian government progressively stripped many countries of free movement rights that they had previously enjoyed. This was in spite of the fact that Canada had taken steps to open its land border with the United States during the previous decade by waiving the passport requirement for American nationals and by instituting preclearance of U.S.-bound travelers at specific Canadian airports in 1974.31 Tellingly, by the late 1980s, more than one hundred countries, including India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Guatemala, Jamaica, Peru, and Guyana, had lost visa-exempt status, many within the previous fifteen years, while the United States and most of Europe had not.32 These developments illustrated that federal authorities had taken steps to smooth the movement of designated safe travelers while steadily increasing mobility surveillance of other nonnationals predominantly from the Global South.

In 1987, the Mulroney government introduced more restrictive measures that required people traveling from visa countries to also carry “transit visas.”33 These visas even applied to those who stopped for less than forty-eight hours in Canada or landed at a Canadian airport for a fuel stop without leaving the plane. Like visas, transit visas represented a sovereign countermeasure against spontaneous aerial movement and the presence of unwanted travelers within national space by funneling specific people through an additional regulatory layer that screened and authorized their right to travel. In 1985, Brian McQuillan, the Ministry of Immigration’s director of case review, had justified the forthcoming transit visas as a necessary preventive measure against suspected illegal travelers, declaring that “it will inconvenience people, but if they have nothing to hide they will get a visa.”34

Echoing McQuillan’s words, proponents claimed that visas tightened border security by preemptively banning undesirable travelers before they reached the border. A 1987 federal government press release about transit visas endorsed a strong border so as to police global mobility: “population increases, global strife and reduced immigration opportunities turn more and more people toward Canada … we need a positive immigration program and it cannot be effective if … [it is] subject to unmanaged flows of migrants.”35 Another official concurred: “refusal overseas makes it possible to delay a decision pending the completion of criminal and other background checks. This allows for better control of persons.” He continued, “it must be stressed that visa requirements simply move the examination process abroad, they are not an attempt to prevent the admission of the many thousands of bona fide visitors and businessman [sic] who seek to enter Canada each year.”36 This view explicitly drew connections between mobility and capital and cast largely unregulated movement as a privilege reserved for the low-risk “kinetic elite,” namely, the travelers who composed the global leisure and business class.37

On the other hand, critics, including academics, lawyers, media, and social agencies, saw visas as an expression of hostility toward genuine refugees who moved on their own terms. “The government is trying to choose its refugees before they arrive in Canada,” observed Maclean’s, a widely read national magazine.38 Immigration lawyer David Matas suggested that Canadian actions flew in the face of its international legal obligations under the UN Convention. “If a visa exemption means that it is the refugee who chooses Canada, rather than Canada’s choosing the refugees, that is the consequence of the UN Convention,” he argued. “Signatories are not free to choose whether or not to protect refugees … It is not the Signatories countries that make a person a refugee by choosing him. It is the person with a well-founded fear of persecution who makes himself a refugee, by choosing to flee his country.”39

Opponents also attacked the logic of imposing visas on asylum seekers to deter systemic abuse, pointing out that the Canadian government had constructed a false binary between genuine and bogus refugees based on the logic that unsanctioned aeromobility automatically signified criminality. Immigration lawyer Barbara Jackson contended that many refugees traveled with false or no documents because they had no time to obtain real ones: “They can’t get passports and have to leave the country clandestinely. The only way they can travel is on forged passports.”40 The Toronto-based Urban Alliance on Race Relations took a similar line: “refugees need to come to Canada more quickly than ordinary immigrants.”41 These comments stressed the difficulties many asylum claimants faced in satisfying regulatory requirements and endorsed spontaneous travel as a subversive but practical expression of resistance to national norms.

There were instances where the government contradicted its own logic of using visas. In 1984, Carol Anderson of Jamaica was detained for five days upon arriving in Toronto to visit his cousin despite having a three-week visitor visa. Immigration officials alleged that he lacked credibility and thus refused to legally admit him, claiming that Anderson could not answer some basic personal details about his cousin when asked. The action incensed Anderson’s lawyer, who questioned the government’s right to violate a policy it held up as sacrosanct: “What’s the sense of issuing visas if people are going to be hassled by immigration when they come here.”42 In this case, visas operated in tension with another part of the aerial enforcement regime focused on detaining and deporting people suspected of trying to enter Canada illegally.

Airport Hotels: Detention, Deportation, and Borders

In the 1980s the Canadian government began to detain and deport more refugee claimants—many from the Global South—and other nonnationals from airports. But unlike earlier periods in Canada that saw people, particularly political radicals and surplus labor, targeted mainly for ideological or socioeconomic reasons, federal officials cast many asylum seekers at the airport as criminals who were national risks because they had tried to enter Canada illegally as bogus refugees.43 Authorities used this reasoning to expand enforcement strategies and apply sometimes legally ambiguous methods to suspend the mobility of these people. In so doing, they stretched the airport border to off-site locations as a way of imposing sovereign power over undesirable, largely nonwhite people and withholding from them certain basic rights and freedoms. Detainees and deportees, then, differed from the kinetic elite in experiencing airports not as global nonplaces of anonymity, transiency, and homogeneity, but as distinct national places of control.44

Detentions and deportations increased at Canadian airports, particularly in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, as international traffic volume climbed through the late 1960s. By the mid-1970s, the Trudeau government had begun to use nearby airport hotels for lengthier detentions, signing formal leases in Toronto and Montreal and ending a practice that had previously sent longer-term stays to city jails.45 In Toronto, federal officials leased space at the Avion Hotel, which consisted of about twenty rooms on two floors of a wing, at an annual cost of around $800,000.46 Airlines were responsible for picking up the costs of their detained passengers and were also fined $1,000 for carrying any travelers without acceptable documentation. This continued older practices of penalizing transportation companies for transporting illegal migrants, a policy dating back to the early twentieth century.47

When the government formalized airport hotel leases, it also began to hold people longer in these locations. Revisions to the Immigration Act in 1976 sanctioned lengthier detentions and granted immigration officers the power to hold someone—usually characterized as a public safety or flight risk—as long as their case was reviewed by an adjudicator within the first forty-eight hours and then again every seven days.48 At the same time, federal officials denied these practices were draconian or that detainees were being treated as convicted off enders. As Terry Sheehan, acting director-general for the Department of Immigration, said of these passengers, “they’ll still be in detention. But it’s not a jail. That’s what we’re trying to avoid … we’re not dealing with criminals, we have people here who for one reason or another have to be detained.”49

However, the leased spaces of airport hotels, and particularly the Avion, functioned as an environment where the Canadian state wielded enormous disciplinary power over detainees. In the process, it gradually extended the strategies of rule that had transformed airports into delocalized borders to the detention corridors of nearby airport hotels. At the Avion, the detention wing for airport detainees was cordoned off from the rest of the hotel and the windows of these rooms were barred from the outside with wire mesh. The back parking lot at the hotel was bounded by fences more than four meters high and topped with barbed wire, projecting a carceral atmosphere to detainees and observers alike.50 Security guards hired by the airlines to police the wing were stationed at its entrance, and eligible visitors, which included only the detainee’s lawyers and family, had to sign in.51 While the hotel was not officially a jail, refugee claimants and other detainees held there were thus subjected to conditions that suggested incarceration in many traditional respects.52

By the time the government’s lease at the Avion expired in 1985, a large number of detainees had stayed there for varying periods of time at considerable cost. Determining the exact number of detainees held here is difficult, but some figures help shed light on its vital role within the national regulatory structure, particularly during the early 1980s. In 1982, for instance, officials sent approximately 2,400 people to the Avion, each for an average length of stay of eleven days.53 However, detention lengths could vary widely; at the end of January 1985, four people had been detained for more than six months, nine from three to six months, seventeen between one and three months, and eighteen less than a month.54 Air carriers, consequently, incurred large expenses in detainee costs in the 1980s. In 1983 alone, Air Canada, the largest Canadian airline, spent about $850,000 to accommodate 1,200 detained passengers, mainly in Toronto, while CP Air, the second largest domestic carrier, spent about the same in total detention costs.55 Expenses from detainees at Montreal-Mirabel were not insignificant either, with both carriers estimating annual costs of $475,000 in the mid-1980s.56

During the 1980s, critics alleged there were abuses of power and inhumane conditions for detainees at the Avion. One of the more notable cases occurred in August 1981, when almost one hundred Sikh refugee claimants being held there for more than two weeks began a hunger strike to protest living conditions, including significant overcrowding in men’s single rooms and regular verbal and physical abuse from the security guards.57 The strike lasted more than a week, attracting media attention and inspiring a public protest, but failed to produce substantive changes. Nonetheless, it not only revealed that citizenship struggles between the Canadian state and individual asylum claimants had spilled over from airports to nearby sites. It also showed that detainees who actively contested the terms of their detention at airport hotels were questioning the normative discourse that sanctioned their stay at these places.

Complaints continued during the 1980s. In a 1985 report, the Toronto Refugee Affairs Council sharply criticized conditions in detention areas at Toronto International Airport and in the Avion itself. According to the report, Avion detainees were denied the daily hour of fresh air mandated under UN standards, instead only allowed a half-hour walk in the fenced-in back parking lot. They also were held several to a room, again in contravention of UN rules requiring single detention in a cell or room at night. The report also highlighted the “hostile” and “aggressive” behavior of security guards and revealed that the firm employing them primarily had experience guarding factories and warehouses, not people.58

Evidence of carceral conditions at the Avion intersected with concerns that the state was violating individual detainee rights in other ways. In March 1985, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service allegedly spoke to detainees in the absence of lawyers and without informing them of their right to counsel. Immigration officials contended that they informed detainees of this right at the airport either orally or via a letter, an action that essentially sanctioned private interrogations.59 A similar issue had occurred one month earlier after the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) allegedly questioned more than a dozen Iranian refugee claimants at the Avion without telling them they could hire lawyers and without asking other immigration officials to sit in. The RCMP defended its actions by claiming the Iranians were noncitizens and therefore not subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. RCMP inspector T. J. Wylie, argued that “it’s an individual judgment [of an officer] based on what the interview is about … [and they are] not Canadian citizens, so I don’t think it [the Charter] applies here.”60

The RCMP’s use of normative citizenship discourse to defend certain detention methods underlined how state rhetoric could normalize exceptional legal circumstances for suspected risky refugee claimants. But the RCMP’s conduct conveniently ignored the basic human rights to which these asylum seekers were entitled under international and Canadian law, framing their in-limbo status as reason to not fully recognize their humanity, or their right to have rights.61 The fact that the RCMP could arbitrarily suspend basic protections to refugees underlined the opaque power that the Canadian state wielded in airport hotels. Through their actions, airport hotels came to resemble the camp and other holding centers in which detainees were reduced to the status of “bare life” as dehumanized bodies rather than rights-bearing subjects.62 One lawyer who had clients at the Avion seemed to recognize these elements at play, characterizing it as “a Kafka-esque place like a little, lost part of the world,” a description that suggested a disorienting existence where detainees were unsure of the state’s charges against them.63 The RCMP’s association of mobility with nationality underlined how airport hotels, like the Avion, could function as zones of exclusion where detainees were cast outside normative citizenship and subjected to extralegal and quasi-judicial sovereign power.

The actions of Canadian security agencies against detainees also shed light on how global aeromobility had reshaped borders and machinations of border enforcement.64 More specifically, the rise of detention sites near airports suggested that the border was growing thicker and more elastic as the state targeted international air travelers at a distance from the physical edge of the country. As a result, asylum seekers in airport hotels occupied a place and status that was in but not of Canada. Despite having entered national space, they were marginalized outside the Canadian community and denied full recognition as rights-bearing persons because many had moved in unsanctioned ways. Airport detentions and deportations thus became linked to the larger national project of managing mobile populations.

Competing Citizenships: Aeromobility, Race, and the Nation

By the late 1980s, Canada’s backlog of airport refugee cases had sparked a national discussion about border security and citizenship politics in the modern global era. In mid-1987, there were more than thirty-five thousand outstanding refugee claims after fourteen thousand applicants had arrived in the first six months of that year alone, mainly from Global South countries including El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Sri Lanka, Ghana, and Iran.65 Witnessing these events, some national commenters sought more progressive solutions for governing displaced populations worldwide. “[Traditionally] Canada has been afforded the luxury of being able to sit back and play its international and humanitarian commitment to refugees from behind a desk, selecting who it wants and how many it wants,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s Victor Malarek. “However, in the past five years, those once seemingly insurmountable barriers are being easily circumvented by the sheer doggedness and increasing sophistication of refugees.”66

Nevertheless, national fears and anxieties about more undocumented refugees off set calls for sober reassessment and reform. “I think it comes down to, who’s in charge?” stated one Canadian immigration officer. “Is Canada going to be in charge of its borders? Or is any Tom, Dick, and Harry that can buy the plane fare or the bus fare going to be in charge of the borders? And I happen to think we should be in charge.”67 Segments of the Canadian public similarly wondered why asylum seekers had the right to make landed claims and be treated differently than other immigrant classes, pointing to the existing backlog that was expected to take years to process. Anne Davidson, a researcher for a Vancouver television show with a call-in segment, indicated she had heard from a number of angry viewers about refugees: “The feeling here is quite staunch—let these people wait their turn like everybody else who immigrated to this country. Everybody gets his back up over this issue.”68

Other commenters sought tougher measures against asylum seekers by arguing that the state’s monopoly over mobility superseded the right of people to make spontaneous refugee claims. Their logic positioned borders and citizenship as key mechanisms protecting a specific vision of national community threatened by global aeromobility. But this was also a racialized vision since the imagined nation evoked by many refugee skeptics was of a rapidly vanishing white, British Canada that stood in stark contrast to the racial change and official multiculturalism that had come to define the country since the 1970s.69 Maclean’s writer Barbara Amiel lamented its passing in a mid-1980s column that argued for controlled refugee entry. “Canada ought never to close its doors to those of different cultures, but should bring them in with some regard for the concepts of gradualness and assimilation, which should not be dirty words,” she wrote. “The more distant a culture is from our own Canadian culture, the more gradual the number of people from it you let in at one time.”70 Amiel’s remarks betrayed deep concern over extending citizenship to refugees who were not visibly aligned with declining white cultural hegemony. In the process, she located Global South migrants outside an idea of national belonging tied to the logic of cultural difference.

The Canadian public shared these views to some extent. A 1987 Gallup poll found that of 1,048 people questioned, 77.6 percent said that “the size and content of immigration should not be permitted to change Canada’s ‘ethnic and cultural balance’” and 52.7 percent said they wanted immigrant selection to be based on one’s ability to culturally assimilate.71 Another pollster acknowledged similar concerns: “[some people] just don’t like the idea that when you get on the subway at working time, drive time, morning or night, it looks like the UN. They don’t like it, they really don’t. They thought they lived in a white middle-class society and they want to recapture it.”72 And in 1986, Benoit Bouchard, minister of employment and immigration, remarked that many Canadians were anxious about refugees because they were “from places like Asia, whereas in the old days they came from Europe … we are not closing the door. People are worried, however, about the level of refugee claimants. I can’t deny it, it’s there.”73 Refugee claimants from the Global South who moved on their own terms were thus also racialized because they threatened a white national imaginary that was resistant to racial change.

In 1987 Canadian authorities introduced more punitive measures as airport refugee claims continued to rise and after discovering several boatloads of asylum seekers off the country’s western and eastern coasts that summer.74 The Mulroney government swiftly proposed amending the Immigration Act through Bills C-55 and C-84, the latter known as the Detention and Deterrents Act. These bills toughened measures against asylum seekers who did not have identity documents, which the government claimed had come to number in the hundreds each month, and further jeopardized the rights and protections to which refugee claimants were legally entitled under international law. Bill C-55 significantly restructured the refugee determination process to prevent future backlog by limiting case appeals and carrying out deportations within seventy-two hours of arrival.75 Bill C-84 gave the government new powers to punish refugee claimants, including indefinitely detaining nondocumented persons, extending detention periods without a judicial review, and using new security certificates that stripped the legal rights of non-Canadians cast as national security threats.76 Officials also briefly explored the idea of building a giant detention center between Montreal and Toronto to enforce the new laws and contain the airport refugee claimants in those cities. The center was to be made up of prefabricated housing units capable of holding as many as 2,500 people at one time.77

With the twin bills, Canadian officials also sought to extend surveillance to the air itself by making airlines and their employees stronger regulatory actors. Bill C-84 required airlines to hold passenger passports during the flight and hand them over to immigration officials upon arrival, illustrating a renewed push to relocate citizenship matters outside the country. To entice compliance with this order, Bill C-84 also increased fines on airlines carrying undocumented passengers from $2,000 to $5,000 per person.78 Airlines ultimately balked at the passport seizure requirement, contending that their employees were not border guards and documents would inevitably get lost or mixed-up midflight.79

Critics decried the twin bills as an unequivocal national rejection of displaced persons. “For the first time in many years,” declared Lorne Waldman, a national immigration lawyer, “we will turn genuine refugees away from our shores.”80 Susan Davis of the Refugee Status Advisory Committee agreed: “people, some with children tagging along, go from airport to airport for years. How human is it to put people in this floating orbit situation?”81 Others suggested that the proposed legislation underlined how dominant national discourse on refugees linked race, mobility, and citizenship. Dan Heap, an opposition federal politician, attacked the government for choosing “a sneaky, administrative means to shut out refugees from most of the countries of the world where refugees are being created such as Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and the islands of the Pacific. The Government does not want these non-white refugees in Canada.”82 Initiating court action against the legislation, the Canadian Council of Churches alleged at least fifty Canadian Charter violations and reserved special criticism for the expanded detention powers, saying they led to a process that “allows the detention of people who have not done anything wrong but ‘might.’” The council also pointed to witness reports at Parliamentary Committee legislative reviews that alleged questionable detention decisions, notably officials categorizing people as flight risks because at the airport they had expressed a fear of being sent back to their country of origin.83

Taken together, these critiques formed an alternative idea of citizenship in 1980s Canada based on a more humane, open door refugee policy. The architects of this counter-discourse operated with signposts different from the dominant version by aligning the national imaginary with a more cosmopolitan idea of citizenship. They advocated new strategies for administering borders at a time when mass air travel had brought Canada and more displaced persons worldwide within the same geographical orbit. To put it another way, this nascent citizenship vision offered a national logic of belonging that recognized and endorsed—rather than contested—global aeromobility and the right of aerial refugee claimants to subvert sovereign border controls and claim asylum at national airports.

Conclusion: Governing Aeromobility to the Present

Although the Mulroney government tinkered with the proposed measures in Bill C-55 and Bill C-84, notably dropping the order on airlines to confiscate documents midflight, it still went on to enact them on 1 January 1989. These twin bills left Canada with a streamlined refugee appeals system and arbitrary detention policy that seriously disadvantaged air asylum seekers, like Chhinder Paul, who were already marginalized or excluded from the national imaginary. Generally speaking, these institutional changes were the culmination of a national pushback against global aeromobility and undesired non-nationals moving on their own terms. Over the course of the 1980s, Canada’s Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments recast the logic guiding how and where authorities determined who could become Canadian. More specifically, they erected an aerial enforcement regime to reassert sovereign monopoly over the means of movement and narrow access to citizenship for future refugee claimants arriving by air.

The Canadian state has rerouted aerial asylum seekers through narrower regulatory channels in the ensuing decades. On the one hand, travelers categorized as high risk now face greater scrutiny before boarding a plane because of stricter airport security measures introduced worldwide after 9/11.84 At the same time, despite a drop in annual landed asylum claims, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper aggressively targeted suspected bogus refugees entering the country during its nine years in power from 2006 to 2015.85 In early 2015 it also passed the Anti-Terror Act, which gives authorities the power to prevent citizens alleged to have terrorist links from boarding an outbound international flight.86 Canada’s current prime minister, Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal government defeated the Conservatives in October 2015, has promised to amend the act after holding public consultations. As of mid-2016, however, any amendments are still months away and it remains to be seen whether the Liberals will modify the parts of the act that pertain to aviation.87 This is all to say that Canada’s regulatory response to aeromobility has now evolved to contain different but overlapping risks, signaling the challenge that air travelers, as a large segment of the global flow of people, continue to pose to national efforts to manage mobile populations today.


I want to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.


“Deportation Order Is First to Be Issued under New Process,” Globe and Mail, 7 January 1989, A1.


For a detailed overview of aeromobility, see Saulo Cwerner, “Introducing Aeromobilities,” in Aeromobilities, ed. Saulo Cwener, Sven Kesselring, and John Urry (New York: Routledge, 2009), 1–22.


On the Jet Age, see Marc Dierikx, Clipping the Clouds: How Air Travel Changed the World (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008).


John Urry, “Flying Around,” in Urry, Mobilities (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), 135–156. On transport and distance in history, see Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).


Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, Pier 21: The Gateway That Changed Canada (Halifax, NS: Nimbus, 2011), 120.


Toronto processed 6.4 million travelers annually by 1970, an increase of more than 400 percent from 1960. T. M. McGrath, History of Canadian Airports, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Lugus, 1992), 231, 233.


Peter Lyth and Marc Dierikx, “From Privilege to Popularity: The Growth of Leisure Air Travel since 1945,” Journal of Transport History 15, no. 2 (1994): 97–116.


Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG76, Series B-1-c, Volume 1034, Part 1, File No. 5003-1-374, file “Immigration Administration—Ports and Posts—Vancouver International Airport (1967–1975),” letter from J. C. Best, Assistant Deputy Minister, Operations, to Deputy Minister, Transport, 29 May 1973.




Kim Rygiel, Globalizing Citizenship (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2010), 3.


Tim Cresswell, On The Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (New York: Routledge, 2006); Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities, and Moorings,” Mobilities 1, no. 1 (2006): 1–22.


Mark Salter, “When the Exception Becomes the Rule: Borders, Sovereignty and Citizenship,” Citizenship Studies 12, no. 4 (August 2008): 365–380; Simone Browne, “Getting Carded: Border Control and the Politics of Canada’s Permanent Resident Card,” Citizenship Studies 9, no. 4, 423–438.


Radhika Viyas Mongia, “Race, Nationality, Mobility: A History of the Passport,” in After the Imperial Turn: Thinking with and through the Nation, ed. Antoinette Burton (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), 207–225.


On “Britishness” in early twentieth-century Canada, see Kurt Korneski, “Britishness, Canadianness, Class, and Race: Winnipeg and the British World, 1880s–1910s,” Journal of Canadian Studies 41, no. 2: 161–184; Paula Hastings, “Fellow British Subjects or Colonial ‘Others’? Race, Empire, and Ambivalence in Canadian Representations of India in the Early Twentieth Century,” American Review of Canadian Studies 38, no. 1 (Spring 2008): 3–26. On whiteness, mobility, and borders in early twentieth-century North America, see Kornel S. Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.–Canadian Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).


Urry, “Flying Around.”


Manfred Steger, Globalization: A Very Short Introduction, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1–32.


Ninette Kelley and Michael Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic: A History of Canadian Immigration Policy (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010), 381.


For an overview, see James C. Simeon, ed., The UNHCR and the Supervision of International Refugee Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013).


Canadian officials selected thousands of refugees fleeing Communist regimes in Czechoslovakia and Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. See Howard Adelman, “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Period,” in Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, ed. Adelman (Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies of New York, 1991), 172–218, here: 200–201; Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977), 225–258.


The government terminated the landed immigration option in 1973 and granted legal status to thirty-nine thousand applicants who had arrived between 1967 and 1972 and were awaiting appeals. See Adelman, “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Era,” 202–203; Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 372–373.


In 1985, Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that refugee claimants were protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and entitled to an oral hearing. See Adelman, “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Era,” 204–207.


LAC, RG76, Series D-7, Volume 1415, File No. 209–1-2, Part 1, file “Mirabel International Airport, Toronto International Airport,” memo from Gaetan Lussier to John Roberts, Minister of Employment and Immigration, 24 August 1983. I will refer to this source as “memo from Gaetan Lussier to John Roberts, 24 August 1983” in subsequent notes.


Victor Malarek, Haven’s Gate: Canada’s Immigration Fiasco (Toronto: Macmillan, 1987), 104.


Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 354.


Jack Jedwab, ed., The Multiculturalism Question: Debating Identity in 21st Century Canada (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014).


David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).


On neoliberal risk management in 1980s and 1990s Canada, see Anna Pratt, Securing Borders: Detention and Deportation in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2005), 20, 92–93.


Mark Salter, “The Global Visa Regime and the Political Technologies of the International Self: Borders, Bodies, and Biopolitics,” Alternatives 31, no. 2 (2006): 167–189.


Memo from Gaetan Lussier to John Roberts, 24 August 1983.


Harry Hiller, “Airports as borderlands: American preclearance and transitional spaces in Canada,” Journal of Borderlands Studies, 25, no. 3, March 2010, 19–36.


Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 403; Adelman, “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Period,” 208; “Monitoring the ‘Illegals,’” Maclean’s, 26 March 1984, 44.


The United States had imposed similarly restrictive measures several years earlier. See Nicholas Laham, Ronald Reagan and the Politics of Immigration Reform (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2000).


Maclean’s, 19 August 1985, 50.


“Ottawa Acts to Stop Torrent of Refugees,” Globe and Mail, 20 February 1987, A1–2.


LAC, RG76, Series D-7, Volume 1415, File No. 209–1-2, part 2, file “Mirabel International Airport, Toronto International Airport,” memo from Gaetan Lussier to John Roberts, 16 August 1983.


Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (London: Verso, 1988).


“Proposals for Dealing with ‘Illegals,’” Maclean’s, 11 July 1983, 40.


David Matas, “Canada as a Country of First Asylum,” Refuge, Vol. 3, no. 4 (June 1984), 22–24, here: 23.


“2,600 Foreigners Landed in 7 Months Minus the Right Papers,” Globe and Mail, 5 September 1986, A1. During the 1980s, Canada had only three immigration officers on the entire African continent and selected fewer than one thousand African refugees abroad annually. See Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 401.


City of Toronto Archives (COTA), Urban Alliance on Race Relations (UARR) fonds, Series 39, File 228, file “Refugee and Immigration Committee, 1989,” UARR Talking Points.


“Jamaican Visitor Is Locked Up Despite Having Visa,” Toronto Star, 31 March 1984, A3.


Barbara Roberts, Whence They Came: Deportation from Canada, 1900–1935 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1988); Donald Avery, “Dangerous Foreigners”: European Immigrant Workers and Labour Radicalism in Canada, 1896–1932 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1979).


This is not to say that airports cannot be nonplaces, but that some travelers can form concrete meanings from their experiences there, particularly if the state restricts their freedom of movement. On nonplaces, see Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso, 1995), 77–103. For other theories of modern airports, see Mark Salter, “Introduction,” in Politics at the Airport, ed. Salter (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), ix–xiv.


On airport hotel detentions in successive decades, see Pratt, Securing Borders, 33–60.


“Centre to Hold Illegal Immigrants Moves out of Avion Hotel in June,” Toronto Star, 3 May 1985, A6.


For an older example, see Government of Canada, An Act Respecting Chinese Immigration (Ottawa: F.A. Accland, 1923).


Arthur C. Helton, “The Detention of Asylum Seekers in the United States and Canada,” in Adelman, Refugee Policy: Canada and the United States, 253–267, here: 260–261.


“Illegal Immigrants to Be Jailed in Hotel,” Toronto Star, 25 April 1974, A6.


“When Canada Is a Hotel Room,” Globe and Mail, 10 May 1984, L5.


“Guard Shot as Woman Escapes from Immigration,” Toronto Star, 14 February 1982, A1.


Pratt, Securing Borders, 38–40.


“Visitors with Something to Hide Find Immigration a Tough Hurdle,” Toronto Star, 9 August 1982, A15.


“Refugee Centre Breaks UN Rules: Report,” Globe and Mail, 15 February 1985, 1–2.


“When Canada Is a Hotel Room,” Globe and Mail.


“Airlines Seek Relief from Cost of Detaining Immigrants,” Toronto Star, 14 October 1983, E4.


“Detained Sikhs Cry Persecution,” Toronto Star, 13 August 1981, A18. More attention should be paid to the gender of detainees and deportees, particularly since refugee advocate groups did not explicitly raise the issue of women detainees in overcrowded single rooms during the 1980s.


“Refugee Centre Breaks UN Rules,” Globe and Mail.


“CSIS Confirms Questioning of Detainees,” Globe and Mail, 6 March 1985, M1.


“RCMP’s Questioning of Detainees Draws Ire,” Globe and Mail, 20 February 1985, M2.


On this idea, see Alison Kesby, The Right to Have Rights: Citizenship, Humanity, and International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).


Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005); Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1998).


“When Canada Is a Hotel Room,” Globe and Mail. The Franz Kafka reference pertains to The Trial’s observations on the opacity of state power. See Kafka, The Trial (New York: Knopf, 1937).


David Lyon, “Filtering Flows, Friends, and Foes,” in Salter, Politics at the Airport, 34–42.


Adelman, “Canadian Refugee Policy in the Postwar Period,” 209.


“Arrivals Face 3-year Struggle through Choked System,” Globe and Mail, 19 December 1984, M1.


National Film Board of Canada, Who Gets In? dir. Barry Greenwald, 1989.


Malarek, Haven’s Gate, 74.


José Eduardo Igartua, The Other Quiet Revolution: National Identities in English Canada, 1945–71 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006).


“Canada and the Issue of Racism,” Maclean’s, 14 May 14, 1984, 17.


“First deportee to leave Friday,” Globe and Mail, January 10, 1989, A4.


Malarek, Haven’s Gate, 74.


“Canadians Fear Asian Flux, Minister Says,” Globe and Mail, 31 December 1986, A3.


Although the federal government proposed new legislation soon after the arrival of refugees from Sri Lanka and India aboard two freight vessels several months apart in 1987, there were nevertheless strong preexisting concerns about systemic abuse and false refugees, the vast majority of whom were arriving by air. Pratt, Securing Borders, 97–102.


Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 404.


COTA, UARR fonds, Series 39, File 228, file “Refugee and Immigration Committee, 1989,” Detention and Deterrents Act, Backgrounders C and D, Government of Canada; Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 411–413.


“Ottawa May Construct Giant Refugee Centre,” Globe and Mail, 17 August 1987, A1–A2.


COTA, UAAR fonds, Series 39, File 228, file “Refugee and Immigration Committee, 1989,” Detention and Deterrents Act, Backgrounder C, Government of Canada.


“Airlines Balk at Controls on Passengers,” Globe and Mail, 19 August 1987, A8.


“Genuine Refugees to Be Penalized under New System, Lawyer Says,” Globe and Mail, 12 December 1988, A9.


“Right of Refugees to Seek Asylum Is Being Eroded, Conference Told,” Globe and Mail, 26 October 1987, A14.


Kelley and Trebilcock, The Making of the Mosaic, 406.


COTA, UARR fonds, Series 39, File 228, file “Refugee and Immigration Committee, 1989,” UARR Refugee Update, Issue 2, March 1989, 5.


David Lyon, “Airport Screening, Surveillance, and Social Sorting: Canadian Responses to 9/11 in Context,” Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice 48, no. 3 (2006): 397–411.


For a recent example, see “Tories Unveil Bill to Thwart “Bogus” Refugees,” Globe and Mail, 16 February 2012, (accessed 3 October 2015).


On the 2015 Anti-Terror Act, see “Conservatives Pass Anti-terror Bill with Liberal Support,” Globe and Mail, 6 May 2015, (accessed 3 October 2015).


On the Liberal response to the Anti-Terror Act, see “Trudeau Tracker: Promised Changes to Anti-Terrorism Law C-51 Still Months Away,” CBC News, 17 May 2016, (accessed 24 June 2016).

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Contributor Notes

Bret Edwards is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Toronto. He is currently finishing his dissertation on mass air travel and the making of modern airports in late twentieth-century Canada. He has published on airports and aeromobility in Mobility in History, Toronto Review of Books, and with Active History. E-mail: