Rarely has a novice cabinet minister faced a more dramatic first real foray onto political centre stage than the opportunity pressed upon Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister Ahmed Hussen by U.S. president Donald Trump’s travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Hussen, who was born in Somalia, one of the countries on Trump’s 90-day travel-ban list, stepped into the National Press Theatre, just off Parliament Hill, on Sunday afternoon to discuss the Canadian government’s response. Promoted to cabinet from back-bench obscurity by Justin Trudeau only earlier this month, the rookie Toronto MP handled the moment with understated aplomb.
Along with senior federal officials, he explained that Canada had no advance notice of Trump’s extraordinary move, and said Canada would extend temporary residency to anyone travelling to the U.S. from the listed countries who ends up stranded in Canada. He also said that U.S. officials had confirmed that Canadian citizens who hold dual citizenship with one of the countries affected by the ban would not be prevented from entering the U.S.
But, of course, what the assembled reporters really wanted to hear was Hussen’s personal reaction. It’s a more than natural curiosity. Born in Somalia, Ahmed immigrated to Toronto as a teenager in 1993. He worked in community development in a struggling urban neighbourhood, and later as a political aide in the provincial Liberal government. A lawyer, he also served as the Canadian Somali Congress’s president, and it was in that role that he testified in Washington in 2011 before a congressional committee looking into radicalization of American Muslims.
So his biography and background, before he jumped into federal politics in the 2015 election, strongly suggests that Hussen’s candid perspective on Trump’s harsh edict would be more than interesting to hear. Instead of airing it, however, he maintained an almost icy composure during the news conference. Here of some of his key comments, in the context of the reporters’ questions that prompted them:
Asked about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s widely reported tweet, after Trump imposed the ban, declaring, “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith”:
“I think it was very important for the Prime Minister to issue that tweet to communicate our strong tradition, our long history, of providing sanctuary and protection to those who are fleeing war and persecution regardless of their faith.”
Asked about his own situation and whether he worried that he might be blocked from travelling to the U.S. because of his birthplace:
“Yes, I was born in Somalia, but I took my oath of citizenshship to this country 15 years ago. And I’m a Canadian. I’ve spent most of my life here and I continue to be proud of our country our ability to be generous and to view those who seek protection.”
Asked if he regards Trump’s policy as racist:
“I can tell you what our principles are. Our principles are of openness, open to ideas, open to people, open to those who want to come here and make a better life for themselves, contribute to our economy [with] their high skills, and to also to continue to have compassion for those who seek sanctuary in our country, and I think we’ve been a better country as a result.”
Asked why he doesn’t bluntly denounce Trump’s move:
“Every country has the right to determine their policies. I can only tell you that we will continue our longstanding tradition of being open to those who seek sanctuary. And also to view immigration as a great, great way to boost our economic growth and the prosperity of all Canadians. And we’ve always had that balance and our immigration levels try to reflect that.”