Slaw: On the Importance of Language

The post on the use of “irregular” versus “illegal” was originally published on slaw.ca:

If you are on this site, I can assume with reasonable confidence that you are already a wordsmith. I have always had an affinity for the label “wordsmith”, possibly because I am reminded of “blacksmith” and it conjures skills of which I have none. I do, perhaps, have some skills related to language, although I suppose this is also debatable. Notwithstanding, even from my humble position, I am both angered and ashamed by the comments of Ontario Minister of Social Services Lisa MacLeod and her dim view of the importance of language. In particular, her comments related to the Safe Third Country Agreement and the language used to describe those individuals who cross the border into Canada from the United States.

Language is important. The terms we use to describe how these individuals and families have crossed into Canada must be correct. And yes, there are correct terms to use and there are incorrect terms. In particular when we are dealing with a point of settled law within the Canadian immigration system. In my view, an elected official has the duty to learn and employ those correct terms so that she can understand the issues to deal with them.

In her words, as reported by CTV News:

“I just feel that it became more of a matter of rhetoric and who’s Canadian, who’s not; irregular, illegal,” MacLeod told reporters at a press conference in Ottawa. “The words around that became far more important than actually fixing the problem.”

The debate between irregular entry vs illegal entry is not new. I have published posts and given many interviews on CTV, CBC and other media outlets on issues related to the irregular crossings into Manitoba.

Typically, before I discuss the issues with reporters, we have a conversation to ensure that we are using the correct, legal terminology. Occasionally, the reporter will slip in an incorrect term and I find myself in an internal debate whether to interrupt and correct or to let it slide and try to inject the correct term in my answer so that acute listeners will catch the error.

I want to be clear on this point: refugee claimants entering Canada are not entering “illegally”. In an op-ed published in the Toronto Star by Osgoode Hall law students Jesse Beatson and Kylie Sier (who, no doubt, received good legal experience at PCLS):

“Irregular” is used by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada to describe border crossings “between ports of entry.” This is not about people trying to sneak across the border undetected, but about the right to seek asylum from persecution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects this right. Importantly, the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, to which Canada is a signatory and which are incorporated into Canadian law, both recognize that refugee claimants should not be penalized for irregular entry to seek refuge.

They go on to explain:

Applying the term “illegal border crossing” to refugees is based on a misconception. Irregular entry is not an offence in the Criminal Code, and should not be labelled as such. The language of illegality also tends to violate the presumption of innocence. This is a principle that should inform ethical journalism.

In my view, it is even more important that our elected representatives use the correct terms and they understand the power & importance of language. If she is so keen on “fixing the problem”, perhaps she should realize that using incorrect language is part of the problem.