Former Liberal foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy called on the Trudeau government to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement with the United States as people rallied and placed paper cutouts of children on the steps of the Manitoba legislature Wednesday night.
"The more they hear from people like this, the more they'll see that this is not just a political transaction, this is a real question of defending our rights," Axworthy said in an interview with CBC at the rally.
Axworthy, who is the current chair of the World Refugee Council, said while getting out of an agreement isn't easy, it's high time Canada did so.
"If the United States returns to a place where refugees can get a fair hearing, then fine, but right now, they are engaged in a total and complete reneging on all the fundamental commitments of refugee law and treaties and agreements and we should not be part of it."
The controversial Safe Third Country Agreement requires asylum seekers to claim refuge in the first "safe" country they arrive in and was created to prevent people from so-called asylum shopping.
Critics have argued since Trump took office in 2017 the United States is no longer a safe place for refugees and Canada should let asylum seekers show up at the border to make their case instead of sneaking into the country.
Risking lives to sneak into Canada
"Whether we like it or not refugees are coming through either way. Refugees such as our speakers tonight have been crossing the border in minus 40 and in the blazing hot of the summer," argued Micaela Crighton, a University of Winnipeg student who helped organize the rally.
Crighton was referring to people like Razak Iyal who made international headlines after he lost all his fingers while crossing into Canada in the dead of winter in 2016 in a bid for asylum.
"We were scared and we were afraid like when we go there [the Canadian border] they would turn us back and we might end up going to the prison or detention centre back in the State[s] again," explained Iyal who spent time behind bars in a U.S. detention centre while he waited for a judge to hear his case.
Iyal saw first-hand in 2013 how asylum seekers were treated under the then Obama administration — he had to wear an orange jumpsuit like convicted criminals and pay thousands of dollars to get released.
He doesn't like the recent separation of migrant children from their families in the U.S. and called on the Trudeau government to act.
"I think people have to know what is going on and we want Canadian government to put more pressure on that."
About 75 people including kids showed up at the rally. They placed toys on the steps on the legislature to represent migrant children who have been separated from their parents in the U.S. and filled out cutouts of children with mini petitions addressed to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen. Some held Amnesty International signs calling on the U.S. government to stop separating children and posters that read "Can you hear the children crying? #KeepFamiliesTogether."
"I wanted them to know that you know children like them and families like us are going through so much and because we are in Canada we got it going good here that it becomes our responsibility to actually stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves," said Humaira Jaleel who brought her four kids and husband to the rally.
The cutouts of children will be dropped off at MP Jim Carr's office with the hope he'll take the message back to his colleagues in Ottawa.
Hussen has said the government is working to determine the impact Trump's administration is having on migrants and has said the 14-year-old Safe Third Country Agreement is working in Canada's interests but should be modernized.