Bill C-31 Changing Laws for Refugees

Jun 26, 2012 – Debates of the Senate (Hansard) on Bill C-31: Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act

Third Reading

Hon. Jane Cordy: Honourable senators, I rise to speak at third reading of Bill C-31. I also want to thank Senator Jaffer for the work she has done as critic on the bill, bringing her background as an immigration lawyer and as a refugee to provide an excellent perspective to the bill.

Honourable senators, here we are with another Harper government ominous bill, Bill C-31, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act.

Bill C-31 sets out to make significant changes to many aspects of Canada’s refugee and immigration policies, policies that have evolved over decades to become some of the strongest, the fairest and most compassionate policies in the developed world.

Bill C-31 is an unfortunate step backwards. As one witness before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology commented, Bill C-31 makes things “fast, unfair and inefficient.”

The minister likes to use the 250,000-applicant backlog as his measuring stick of how inefficient the refugee processing system is. However, the minister conveniently omits the fact that this government left the Immigration and Refugee Board shortchanged by not filling vacancies on the IRB, essentially limiting the number of applicants they could process. Even the most efficient system needs people to work it.

Reforming the system so that processing times are fair and reasonable should be the goal, rather than arbitrarily denying groups of applicants, putting unrealistic time constraints on landed immigrants for claims, and returning thousands of unassessed applications as proposed in the budget bill, of all things.

Honourable senators, the new system for refugee claimants will change time limits. A new claimant will now have 15 days from arrival to file a written claim. Under these new rules, a claimant will have 15 days to find a competent lawyer or, in most cases, get legal aid approval, have their lawyer arrange for an interpreter in many cases, have the lawyer understand the case, and then draft and deliver a well-written account of the refugee claim. This process is no small task and can be quite intimidating for a refugee unfamiliar with our culture and how we do things.

The concern that many have expressed is that many claimants faced with this daunting task will instead represent themselves. This will only lead to a poor or improperly prepared claim before the IRB, resulting in deserving refugee claimants being denied because their case was not presented competently.

Honourable senators, again, we know that the current refugee system is too slow, but only allowing 15 days to file a written claim is not workable. It is not unreasonable to allow 30 days, an extra few weeks. Let the process begin on the right foot.

As you can imagine, many refugee claimants give up everything to seek asylum in another country. They sell their belongings. They spend their only savings and they may even borrow money to get to the safe haven of Canada. Let us be fair.

As Peter Showler, Director of the Refugee Forum in the Human Rights Research and Education Centre at the University of Ottawa, stated:

Any refugee advocate or anyone that understands the refugee business will tell you that 15 days is not enough time, you just walk out of the Pearson Airport, you don’t speak English or French, you’ve maybe got a cousin in town, you’ve got to find a place to stay for you and your family, you’ve then got to try to find some form of legal advice.

Honourable senators, Bill C-31 does not just drastically cut the time allowance for a refugee to file a claim; it will also allow only 15 working days to file an appeal for an unsuccessful claim to the Refugee Appeal Division. I have received many letters from people who are very concerned about this. The appeal involves reviewing all evidence presented at the IRB. By the way, honourable senators, the IRB has recently announced that it will no longer prepare transcripts of hearings, as a cost-cutting measure, so evidence from the IRB will have to be listened to. Documentation from the claimant will have to be read and the legal arguments will have to be prepared. The work involved in preparing an appeal is about the same as preparing an application for judicial review with the Federal Court, yet 45 days is allowed for that. Some people believe this change is designed to restrict access to the Refugee Appeal Division.

Chantal Desloges, an immigration lawyer who was a witness on the other side, in speaking about the 15 days to appeal, said:

Shortened timelines definitely are a good idea, but this kind of a shortened, accelerated timeline is too much. It cannot work.

Honourable senators, why would we bring in timelines that will not work? Why would we not make the appeal period 45 days to be in line with the judicial review at the Federal Court? The time frames set out in this bill for refugee claims are unrealistic for many claimants who arrive in Canada. Many do not speak French or English, do not have much money, do not have legal representation, do not have a place to live, and are unfamiliar with the culture and the complicated application process. They must overcome all these hurdles and present their case within 15 days of arrival in Canada.

Another concern raised is the increased powers provided for by Bill C-31 to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. Many feel that the decision to designate a safe country of origin should not be left to the sole discretion of the minister. There will be no accountability, no recourse, and it politicizes the refugee system. There should be an advisory committee that the minister must consult in order to determine designated countries of origin. This committee should include at least two non-government human rights experts.

With the removal of the expert panel when designating countries, the minister will now have broad discretionary powers to deem which countries are to be designated safe countries and which countries are not. This gives one person the power to choose who can claim refugee status and who cannot.

The inclusion of the expert panel was part of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act passed by Mr. Harper’s government in 2010 after amendments in the other place. Regarding those amendments to Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which were encouraged and supported by immigration and refugee stakeholder groups, experts and opposition parties, the minister made these comments on June 15, 2010 in the other place:

We have, in good faith, agreed to significant amendments that reflect their input, resulting in a stronger piece of legislation that is a monumental achievement for all involved.

These amendments, I am happy to say, create a reform package that is both faster and fairer than the bill as it was originally tabled.

There is a remarkable spirit of co-operation around this bill. It is amazing to see that consensus could be reached on such a sensitive issue by all the parties in the house with their divergent views.

Here we are two years later and the Harper government has put a stop to the Balanced Refugee Reform Act to keep it from being implemented and the government has reneged on its promises, which Mr. Kenney at the time admitted made Bill C-11 “a stronger piece of legislation” and “faster and fairer.” Whatever happened to that “good faith” Minister Kenney spoke of?

A country might be considered safe for a majority, honourable senators, but not safe for a minority group within that country. Such is the case for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community in many nations around the world.

In 1992, Canada was one of the first countries to extend refugee protection for those facing sexual orientation or gender-based persecution. Twenty-one countries now do the same.

As I stated earlier, now with Bill C-31, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration has sole discretion of which countries to designate a safe country. A country can be designated safe if it has a democratically elected Parliament, independent judiciary and civil society organizations. A country’s record on human rights is not part of the criteria. South Africa, for example, recognizes same-sex marriage and yet human rights organizations there report 10 cases a week in which lesbians have been targeted for what is called “corrective rape” and police do not investigate. Brazil has the largest gay pride parade and yet has the highest rate of homophobic and transphobic murders in the world.

What is written in law can often be far different than what is happening on the ground in many so-called “safe countries.” Indeed, it is when a country is deemed safe that those facing persecution often face the greatest challenges.

It is also unfair that Bill C-31 prohibits claimants from a designated safe country to an appeal. Applying a blanket designation to an entire country, labeling it a safe country based on the criteria that it is democratic, has an independent judiciary and civil society organization ignores the fact that many countries with these attributes still persecute minority groups within their borders.

An example of a minority group persecuted in such a manner is the Roma community in Hungary. Hungary is a democratic European country with an independent judiciary that openly targets the Roma community with threats and discrimination at an institutional and governmental level. However, as Minister Kenney pointed out before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, Canada would not accept refugee claims from Hungary, and in fact his department has already begun discouraging the Roma in Hungary from making a refugee claim through a literature campaign. We know that Amnesty International, Human Rights First and the Helsinki Commission have all extensively documented the discrimination and violence against Roma people in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. We know that Hillary Clinton has recently spoken of her concern about the discrimination and persecution of the Roma in Europe.

Honourable senators, we also know that there is a strong rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary. In articles on June 4 and June 11 of this year in The Canadian Jewish News, a concern was raised about this surge in Hungary. Under Bill C-31, the “Designated Country of Origin” classification would restrict refugee claimants in Canada from Hungary, including Jewish claimants. Human rights for the assessment of designated countries of origin should be included as part of the criteria. This would be reasonable and fair to those who are being persecuted in designated countries of origin.

Honourable senators, we have heard a recent announcement that will transform our refugee system by making cuts to the refugee health care services. This change is going to have a drastic impact on the refugees who are coming to Canada.

Since the 1950s, the federal government has provided temporary help to pay for medical care, prescription drugs and other health care needs for refugees. Its purpose was, according to the Interim Federal Health Plan, “. . . to reduce risks to public health, ensure care and assist with successful integration into Canadian Society.”

Beginning on June 30 of this year, the “basic medical care” currently being offered will be replaced with “urgent and essential care.” The problem is that no one is quite sure what the definition of “urgent and essential care” is. My understanding is that diagnosing a cough or fever would be covered, while checkups and preventative care are not covered. Mental health treatment and medication would not be covered, but psychotic episodes would be covered. Perhaps we could avoid the psychotic episodes if we allowed mental health treatment and medication. Insulin will not be covered. Delivering a baby would be covered, but prenatal care would not be covered.

Physicians are rightly concerned that this could result in a serious illness, greater health complications and even higher costs to our health care system down the road with these increased costs downloaded onto the provinces and territories.

We have heard the minister and Mr. Thomas from the Canadian Taxpayers Association saying that refugees should have the same playing field as Canadians. Honourable senators, refugees do not have the same playing field as Canadians. Many have spent everything they have to come to Canada. Many have no money and they cannot work when they first arrive. However, we expect them to pay for their health care. This playing Canadians against refugees, this playing “us against them” by this government, is mean-spirited.

I would like to quote Chris Morrissey, who appeared before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology last week on the issue of health services for refugees and said:

. . . what bothers me about this is that many of these people have spent years in refugee camps. They have not had access to health care.

I am one of those Canadians. I am retired. I have no eyeglass care. I have no prescription coverage, and I know that many of my friends do not resent people who have experienced real persecution in their lives having the possibility, at least, of being able to see a doctor and have their teeth taken care of. I have to pay for all of that, and I would pay again to make sure that others had the same right.

Honourable senators, reform of our immigration and refugee system requires analysis and consultation with stakeholders and knowledgeable experts conducted in good faith. However, yet again, Bill C-31 is a prime example of this government’s ideologically driven agenda and reneging of prior commitments. Lawyers, scientists, doctors and anyone with expert working knowledge who presents evidence contrary to this government’s plans are shrugged off or attacked by this divisive Harper government.

Honourable senators, I would like to close my speech with a quote from an article in The Globe and Mail on June 15, 2012, written by Philip Berger, Bernie Faber and Clayton Ruby:

As Canadian Jews, we grew up hearing stories about how our families came to this country as refugees. We also heard about the relatives who never arrived because of the Canadian government’s closed-door policy for Jews.

The article continues:

Historians Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s book ‘None is Too Many’ told of this sad and ultimately deadly policy.

In the early 1900s, Jews fled persecution in European countries where anti-Semitism was rampant. They were not alone; the Roma and Sinti people were caught in the same web of hate.

The article goes on to say:

While Designated Countries of Origin have yet to be named, Hungary will assuredly be on the list. If these policy changes come into effect, Roma refugee claimants will lose access to health care on June 30. We are also likely to see many more deportations of Roma back to Hungary.

Judaism teaches the concept of “tikkun olam,” an exhortation to repair the world. If passed, Bill C-31 would be antithetical to these values. It is our hope that as Canadians hear more about the dangers of this legislation, they too will not stand by as refugees lose basic health care and persecuted groups or individuals are sent back to face violence in their home countries.

Today, we go on record as Jews and descendants of immigrants to say that we oppose cuts to refugee health care and the designation of so-called “safe” countries. Denying other human beings health care and a haven based on their country of origin is simply wrong. As Jews and human rights activists, we know well that countries deemed safe for the majority can be deadly for some minorities.

Pressure must continue. It’s never too late to ask for changes or amendments to the regulations. Ironically, we also understand that, were our families to arrive today under the Federal Government’s new rules, they would be denied health care and, ultimately, citizenship. Returning to the retrograde policies that inspired ‘None is Too Many’ must be rejected.