Canada's asylum fiasco

Canadians are rolling their eyes at the latest oddity to emerge from their confused, clogged immigration system: a white South African admitted as a refugee because he claimed he was being persecuted by black people.

His lawyer says the case sets a precedent, which it well might, although it's difficult to pin down exactly what it is. Brandon Huntley, a 31-year-old lawn sprinkler salesman who came to Canada on a work visa in 2006 and stayed illegally, told the Immigration and Refugee Board that he had been mugged and stabbed seven times by black people in his home country. He didn't report the attacks to the "untrustworthy" police.

A Canadian refugee board member agreed that Huntley deserved asylum, saying he would "stand out like a sore thumb" in South Africa because of his skin colour and would be unable to find a job because of affirmative action favouring black people. (The official unemployment rate for South African white people is in fact 4.6% compared to 27.9% for black people.)

South Africa's 4 million white people make up 10% of its population. For all that they are unlikely to pack up and move to Vancouver this week, the South African government, in particular its human rights commission, is furious at Canada, once a bastion of the fight against apartheid.

But the case says as much about the paralysed state of Canadian politics as it does about what South Africa is calling a "preposterous and laughable" refugee claim.

Canada is stuck in a political fix. Our prime minister, the awkward and personally unpopular Stephen Harper from the extreme right, may face another election this fall. It would be the fourth in six years, and he would be up against the new and rather personable Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff (yes, that Ignatieff, the writer well-known to Brits. Here, we call him "Iggy".)

Harper has never been able to win a majority, partly because of his party's perceived attitudes to race in a country that is emphatically multicultural. Several heart-rending cases of Canadians stranded abroad without passports have made headlines recently, but the perception is that only the white ones got a cup of coffee at the embassy, a handshake and a flight home.

The Huntley ruling comes at a truly awkward moment for a PM who recently deplored "Canadian refugee law which encourages bogus claims". He then slapped instant entry restrictions on Mexicans and Czechs, which struck people as strange and also annoyed a lot of tourists.

In a country of nearly 34 million people, the immigration system has a backlog of a million cases. The backlog in refugee claims alone has tripled to 62,300 since Harper took office in 2006, and the refugee board remains heavily understaffed in what critics say is an effort to kill it altogether.

Refugee rulings are always painful and always make news – women fleeing circumcision, families fearing China's one-child policy, racism against the Roma in eastern Europe – but times have changed.

Unemployment has been soaring in Canada, and Harper's refusal to relax strict rules on unemployment insurance benefits may well be the campaign issue that finishes him off. There are plenty of unemployed Canadians who would be happy to sell lawn sprinklers – sorry, snow shovels – this winter. That Huntley gets that opportunity is the kind of thing that makes some Canadians reveal their mean side, as website comments are making explicit, with the decision being seen by some of those preparing to vote as bitingly unfair. This poorly reasoned ruling could not have come at a worse time for Harper. It crystallises the injustice of hard times, and it may cost him dear.

Heather Mallick, a Canadian journalist.