In a surprise decision, the court recognized that the United States is not a safe country for refugees, because it deports people to countries that torture.
This means the refugee treaty between the US and Canada - the so-called Safe Third Country Agreement - has been nullified.
Canada will no longer have the right to turn back asylum seekers at the American border under a federal court ruling that deems the United States not a safe country for refugees – opening the door for a potential flood of northbound claimants.
In a surprise judgment yesterday, the court concluded that the three-year-old Safe Third Country Agreement – which denies refugees who have landed first in the U.S. the right to later seek protection in Canada, and vice versa – breaches the rights of asylum seekers under the United Nation Refugee Convention or the Convention Against Torture.
"The interest at stake is highly important to an individual's life, safety and dignity," wrote Justice Michael Phelan.
"I would therefore conclude that the designation of the U.S. as a safe third country leads to a discriminatory result, in that it has a much more severe impact on persons who fall into the areas where the U.S. is not compliant with the Refugee Convention or CAT (Convention Against Torture), as well as discriminating and exposing such people to risk based solely on the method of arrival in Canada."
Refugees arriving in Canada by air, rather than by land, have continued to have the right to remain in Canada while awaiting a ruling on their claim.
The reasoning issued yesterday, which will essentially nullify the agreement with a final court order expected early next year, is a huge victory for refugee advocates, including the Canadian Council for Refugees, Canadian Council of Churches, Amnesty International and John Doe, a failed Colombian refugee claimant in the U.S., who brought the declaration application to the court.
Activists have long complained that the agreement, which requires refugee claims in Canada and the U.S. to be processed in the country where asylum seekers first land, is unfair and unconstitutional.
"We are somewhat surprised but very pleased with the decision, which is basically everything that we've been looking for," said lawyer Andrew Brouwer, who, along with Barbara Jackman, Leigh Salsberg and Lorne Waldman, represented the applicants.
"This is a vindication of the rights of refugees that we haven't seen around the world in a while."
Ottawa is pondering its options, and says that the treaty remains in effect for now. But with rumours of a spring election, they don't have much to go on.
Canadian wingnuts will be fuming over activist judges and a potential influx of immigrants. But most Canadians will be proud their country is still a safe haven for those lucky enough to make their way north.
I can't help but wonder what this ruling might mean for our Campaign. It can't hurt.