An open letter to Jason Kenney, Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism

Dear Minister:

Canadians are proud of their country’s tradition of providing protection for those in need. Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration System Act, however, contradicts this tradition.

The Bill protects no one and threatens many. It treats asylum seekers as criminals rather than people who need our protection. It is discriminatory, conflicts with Canadians’ sense of fairness, and violates the fundamental rights guaranteed to all people by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In particular, Bill C-31 would give the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism the power to “designate” a group of refugees – including women and youths – who can be jailed for up to 12 months without any judicial review. These individuals can be released only at the Minister’s pleasure or when their refugee status is determined. This type of discrimination is an obvious violation of the Charter protection against arbitrary detention and creates a “second class” of refugees.

Other changes proposed are equally worrisome: The Minister would be able to create a list of “safe countries”, assuming that the residents of these countries cannot possibly suffer persecution, therefore denying refugees from these countries refugee status without appeal. One can easily imagine how economic or political objectives might influence the Minister’s determination of whether a country is safe or not. For very good reasons, international law requires an individualized process for refugee determination and not a group assessment based on second-hand knowledge.

Furthermore, the Bill would impose a tight timeline (15 days) for filing claims, rendering it unlikely that refugees will get legal advice or assemble the evidence needed to support their claims. This process will increase the likelihood that genuine refugees will be turned away and sent back to danger.

Moreover the Bill would impose a one year ban on unsuccessful claimant to apply for permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. Yet, the Bill would not stop the government from deporting the person in the meantime.

The Bill would even give the Minister the right to revoke the permanent resident status of genuine refugees, simply because the Minister believes that the conditions have changed for the better in their country of origin. This practice would defeat the purpose of permanent residency, which should be – well – permanent. Rather than encouraging refugees to make a claim, the Bill would instead encourage them to move underground.

These circumstances are worrying signs that Canada is rolling back the rights of refugees. In recent years, we have seen other regressive measures, including the increase of temporary migration, the erosion of family class immigration, and the treatment of immigration as a mere economic utility. Bill C-31 is another step towards creating an immigration and refugee system that divides immigrants into desirables and undesirables, and that puts the rights of some above others.

The Bill would also end up hurting vulnerable and marginalized people the most, including women fleeing gender-based persecution, refugees fleeing discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and anyone who has linguistic barriers and little knowledge of the Canadian legal system. The Bill would make these claimants easy prey for unscrupulous immigration consultants.

When putting forward the Bill, you have said that there are bogus refugees in Canada and that harsh measures are necessary since other countries have them too. However, incarceration policies have proven to be counterproductive, cause further trauma to people, delay the integration of refugees into society, and are particularly costly. Furthermore, the Bill will not stop human smuggling. Refugee claimants leave their country because they are desperate. And desperate people take desperate measures. Smugglers will find other ways of circumventing the law, while refugees will be the ones being punished.

What this Bill does accomplish, however, is to give you and your successors more powers without the necessary judicial oversight.

Rather than addressing problems of abuse and human smuggling, the Bill would politicize refugee and immigration decisions.

Despite Canada’s proud tradition of protecting refugees, the country has not always been generous with those in need of protection. Canada imposed a Head Tax and an Exclusion Act on the Chinese immigrants, turned away the Komagata Maru ship in 1914 (376 Indians died), refused immigration to African American farmers, incarcerated Ukrainians and later Italian and Japanese Canadians, and denied entry to the Saint Louis in 1939 (900 Jewish people were returned to Europe and concentration camps). Your government has seen fit to redress these historical wrongs and, in doing so, pledged to never again commit the same error. Yet, by passing this Bill, it would seem that we have yet to learn the painful lessons of our history.

A plaque in 2050, commemorating the victims of Bill C-31, will not suffice.

We therefore ask you, respectfully, to immediately withdraw Bill C-31.

Harald Bauder, Director, Ryerson Centre for Immigration and Settlement
Nathalie Des Rosiers, General Counsel, Canadian Civil Liberties Association
Avvy Go, Clinic Director, Metro Toronto and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic
Winnie Ng, CAW Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice & Democracy, Ryerson University