Photo: flickr/ Day Donaldson

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On Tuesday, the Trudeau government announced Canada’s new immigration levels for the current year, and they are up by about 20,000 over the previous government’s.

The new target is 300,000 compared to fewer than 280,000 for the Conservatives’ last year in power. 

In particular, the government touts its increase to the family reunification class of immigrants, which it has hiked to 80,000 from 68,000.

Immigration and Refugees Minister John McCallum says the Liberals want to reduce the big backlog of parents and grandparents who seek to rejoin children and grandchildren in Canada.

The Harper Conservatives were almost hostile to those older, would-be immigrants.

Conservative operatives would sometimes be brutally frank with families. They would tell them the Harper government did not want to permanently admit elderly immigrants who might become a burden on Canada’s health system.

Instead of allowing true family reunifications, the Conservatives implemented the seemingly generous, but in fact cruel policy of annually renewable visitors’ visas for aging parents and grandparents.

Woe betides the elderly relatives on those visas who got sick.

They and their families would be on the hook for all their medical care, which could add up to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Liberals are taking a more humane approach, although their stated target of 20,000 parents and grandparents is deceptive, says the NDP. In fact, the government is only fast tracking a total of 10,000 such would-be immigrants.

Be that as it may, the biggest increase over Conservative targets is not in family class immigrants.

It is in refugees.

A PM who seems to truly care about refugees — quite a change

The new government has set a target of more than 55,000 refugees, which is quite a bit more than double the Conservatives’ number for 2015.

This is consistent with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s clear interest in this question.

In opposition, Trudeau was the Liberal immigration critic for a while, and he seems to have learned a lot from that experience.

He forcefully raised the issue of refugee health — which the Conservatives had ostentatiously cut — during the election campaign, and quickly followed through once in power.

That program has been restored — to the great relief of the thousands of Canadians who have sponsored (mostly) Syrian refugees.

Without the refugee health program, sponsoring groups would have to fork over huge sums to treat the many and often very serious health problems that afflict these new arrivals.

Now, there is another poisonous Harper government legacy on refugees that the Trudeau government should tackle — and soon.

That is the so-called refugee reform legislation Harper’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney shepherded through Parliament in 2012.

That legislative package created two classes of refugees, those from so-called safe countries, and others.

It also created a new category it called “illegal arrivals.”

That nasty phrase describes the scared and desperate people who resort to leaky boats, often owned by unscrupulous operators, to get themselves to Canada.

No other refugee-receiving country makes that sort of legal distinction.

During hearings on the Kenney refugee reform package, a European Union (EU) spokesperson told the Harper government that the EU assumes most refugees must flee for their lives, and thus, almost as a matter of course, arrive “irregularly.” The regular option is not open to them.

A great many Syrian refugees who have made it to Europe in recent months are, in this sense, irregular.

The Harper government legislation (which is still in force) discriminates against these “irregular arrivals.”

It states that these refugee claimants could be subject to mandatory detention, have no right of appeal, and, even if accepted as refugees, have no right to permanent residency in Canada for five years.

The consequence of the last restriction is to make it impossible for such people to reunite with spouses and family members. 

A new appeal process; but it is closed to many asylum seekers

There is, perhaps surprisingly, one positive achievement in Kenney’s reform package: the creation of a Refugee Appeal Division (RAD) in the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB).

The new RAD allows refugee claimants who are turned down on their first try to have a full, fact-based appeal of their case.

Previously, the only appeals possible were to the Federal Court, and such appeals could only be based on points of law, not fact.

But the Conservative reform package then turned around and barred many refugee claimants from access to the new appeal process, notably all of those from the so-called safe countries list.

An earlier reform bill, passed during a time of Conservative minority and with all party support, set up rigorous rules for determining safe countries, and took the process out of the hands of politicians.

Independent experts from non-partisan groups such as Amnesty International were to determine what countries could be considered safe and which not.

The Kenney reform gave that unfettered power to the Minister of Immigration and Conservative Ministers used that power with alacrity and often with scant concern for the actual human rights records of countries they deemed “safe.”

Asylum seekers from those designated safe countries are not the only ones without access to the new fact-based appeal.

The Conservatives also  denied the right of appeal to the so-called irregular arrivals, most of whom fled some of the most dangerous places on earth.

Both categories of refugee claimants are also banned from the option of seeking to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Department of Immigration officials run the humanitarian and compassionate process, and the grounds for acceptance are less restrictive than those for convention refugee status.

All in all, the Harper government sought to demonize refugees as a group.

The Conservatives thought they could make political hay of what they believed was Canadians’ hostility to undeserving strangers who seek to take advantage of our generosity.

Judging from the election results, the Harper folks miscalculated.

They underestimated Canadians. They believed we are more resentful and bigoted than we are in fact.

The Trudeau government has been true to its promises, so far, on refugees.

Now it must move quickly to re-write and fix an abusive piece of legislation, passed by the previous government, that is still the law of the land.

Unlike the case of the Harper government’s anti-terror law, C-51, there was no ambivalence on the part of the Liberals when it came to Kenney’s refugee reform package.

They vigorously opposed and voted against it.

None were more vigorous in their opposition than the current Liberal leader and prime minister. 


Photo: flickr/ Day Donaldson

Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...