In the shadow of Trump


Source: Winnipeg Free Press

OTTAWA — It began with a steady trickle – asylum-seekers from faraway countries, crossing snow-swept fields under the cover of night near Emerson.

But as Donald Trump took over the presidency, that trickle soon became hundreds of people, overwhelming the town’s first responders.

It spoke to the unpredictable power of one man and the nervousness it created not only in his country, but its closest neighbour.

RM of Emerson-Franklin Reeve Greg Janzen knows first-hand how uncomfortable life became for residents in Emerson over the past year in the shadow of Trump.

“We all don’t know what he’s actually going to do, what he’s going to go through with, in a lot of these threats,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what’s going on.”

In an end-of-year survey, Free Press readers voted the top national news story for 2017 was living next to Trump’s America.

Trump’s turbulent first year in office has sparked anxiety around NAFTA talks and an awakening of U.S. activists that has reverberated in Winnipeg, as well as concerns about an onslaught of refugee claims.

It has touched so many issues for Manitobans that readers selected Trump as Canada’s top story this year, over British Columbia’s uncontrollable wildfires, the Quebec City mosque shooting that killed six, the death of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie and the spike in asylum-seekers.

Janzen said that for decades, a handful of people would cross into Emerson each year. That number crept up to a dozen in the last years of the Obama administration, which quietly deported more people than under any previous president.

But the monthly count jumped to over 100 when after Trump was inaugurated in January.

Janzen said he’s not sure whether the uptick has been due to the president’s loud pledges to kick out undocumented residents, or because of the media’s fixation on the controversial U.S. leader.

“You can tell by the tone of Donald Trump’s voice, that he is not a seasoned politician, that’s for sure,” Janzen said. “He’s very harsh. I hate to use the word, but he almost sounds like a dictator, and I think that’s what scares the people.”

Janzen said residents naturally offer rides and even meals to border-crossers. But the warm welcome grew thin in early February, when 50 asylum-seekers appeared during a single weekend. By March, he’d gone public with complaints about asylum-seekers ringing doorbells in the middle of the night.

That month, the number of crossings peaked at 170.

“There’s only been a few incidences where people were a little aggressive, because they were cold and they wanted in. But there’s been no assaults, no thefts; nothing related to this. So we’re very fortunate,” he said.

Officials are still tabulating numbers, but know that at least 1,000 people made what they call “irregular” crossings into Manitoba. The number was down to just 38 last month.

Manitoba’s numbers pale in comparison to Quebec, which has seen some 17,000 people make “irregular” crossings in 2017. But Janzen says the vast, rural area around Emerson has felt the strain of endless calls for paramedics and strangers taking in people from the cold.

“We’re the only town in Canada that got directly affected,” he said.

Coun. Doug Johnston said emergency officials on both sides of the border have grappled with their response to distress calls. Cellphone calls to 911 can be routed to either side of the border.

Some of the migrants lack enough English to convey their situation is an emergency, and some have had phones freeze, leaving them without GPS or the ability to call for help.

In Winnipeg, anxiety over ties with the United States has grown in executive suites.

Mariette Mulaire, president of World Trade Centre Winnipeg, said Manitoba businesses started the year by hoping Trump’s promises to “Buy America” were just bluster.

But by November, when the fifth round of NAFTA negotiations ended with little in the way of progress, businesses were pushing hard for their U.S. partners to speak out in favour of free trade.

“All of a sudden the discourse is a bit different, and we really have to work hard at making sure that Canada’s not going to lose here,” Mulaire said.

“Not that it’s panic, but it’s kind of like, ‘Oh, this is for real.’ And people are starting to realize what that means, and it will definitely change things.”

She said businesses have “major hesitations” to enter the American market, while those with existing ties to the U.S. are “trying to deal with it,” including consideration of the need to transfer more jobs south.

Mulaire said businesses are eyeing Canada’s recent trade deal with the European Union, but that transferring customer bases overseas will take years.

Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce CEO Loren Remillard said his group has also co-ordinated talks with similar organizations in the U.S. and Mexico. They’re urging Americans to let their representatives in Congress know how the U.S. benefits from NAFTA.

Remillard said Winnipeg companies are in “a bit of a holding pattern, pending the future of NAFTA,” whether it comes to planning their supply chains, or budgeting without knowing whether their customer base will change.

“Business operates best in an environment of certainty, when you not only know the rules, but can have a sense of clarity of what the future holds,” he said. “This relationship is so very vital to our economic growth in this province.”

Remillard said 80 per cent of Manitoba’s exports go to the United States, which also accounts for 70 per cent of the province’s imports. Those figures are cause for optimism, he said.

“It is more of a family relationship. As such, it shouldn’t be surprising that from time to time, we’re going to have disagreements,” he said. “History shows that we get through those, and we move forward.”

Trump has revealed what visible minorities have long known about life in North America, said Alexa Joy Potashnik of Black Space Winnipeg, a grassroots organization focused on black life in the city.

“There’s still a lot of learning to be done if people are shocked that someone like that can be elected,” said Potashnik, who emceed Winnipeg’s Women’s March last January.

The president’s comments about most Mexicans being criminals and his drive for a ban on Muslim travellers to the U.S. have distracted Canadians from confronting their own issues, like missing and murdered Indigenous women, she said.

“People look at the States and see, OK there is a blatantly, openly racist, sexist person who’s in charge. And there’s kind of this Canadian superiority, like, ‘Thank God we’re not them.’ And we’re exactly like the States, we just present our discrimination a different way; we’re more subtle, we’re more polite.”

But she said U.S. activists have started to slowly build alliances across different groups — white feminists calling out police forces that disproportionately kill black men, for example. Budding efforts that echo such trends are appearing from Winnipeg groups, albeit at a slower pace.

There are Trumpian tendencies among local politicians, she said, pointing to “Manitoban Trump” Premier Brian Pallister’s radical overhaul of the health-care system and a significant cut to its funding contribution for public transit in Winnipeg.

She cited his comments last January, that tensions over hunting between white and Indigenous Manitobans were “becoming a race war,” and a remark earlier this month about a female speaker’s heels (Pallister has since apologized for both incidents).

Trump is a bellwether for a growing crisis of legitimacy for the political establishment, including Manitoba’s, she said.

“Change never happens from within the system; it’s externally, from the people who apply pressure onto the system.”

Back in Emerson, officials quietly worry about a Quebec-sized onslaught of refugees as Trump winds down temporary residency permits for thousands of people, Janzen said, adding the RCMP has set up a contingency plan for a similar influx in Manitoba.

But Johnston said it’s best to take things as they come.

“It’s not out of control by any means,” he said.

If anything, the biggest concern if numbers were to jump drastically would be safety — for both residents and the people crossing the border. He’s still haunted by the May discovery in Minnesota of the body of a Ghanaian woman who was likely going to seek asylum in Canada.

Regardless, the middle-aged man expects little will change along the border itself, which has remained pourous since his childhood. Fire trucks regularly cross the border to help with emergencies and sports teams draw talent from communities on both sides.

“I don’t blame my neighbours across the line for this at all,” he said. “This is a federal issue on both sides; we’re just caught in the middle. And that happens sometimes, right?”