This bill was last introduced in the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session, which ended in March 2011.

Status

Not active
(This bill did not become law.)

October 18th, 2011 / 11:50 a.m.
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Committee Researcher

Michel Bédard

Bill C-291 would amend the Employment Insurance Act with respect to the two-week waiting period as well as special benefits for illness, injury or quarantine.

This bill does not concern questions that are outside federal jurisdiction and does not clearly violate the Constitution; it does not concern questions that are substantially the same as ones already voted on by the House of Commons in the current session or which are already before the House; and, it does not concern questions that are currently before the House as items of government business.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

June 15th, 2010 / 4:05 p.m.
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Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, since we are talking about smiles, I would like to start off on a lighter note. Over these past weeks and months, the most frequent method used to discredit adversaries was to accuse them of forming a coalition. This is the popular thing to do right now. Earlier, I calculated that there are 10 possible combinations. There is the possibility of a Liberal-Conservative coalition, a Bloc-Liberal coalition and so on. If we do the math, we can see that there are 10 possible coalitions. Based on what has been said during question period over the past few months, there is always one party that is not in the coalition and that will insult its adversary by saying that there is a new coalition. That is what has often happened and what is happening again today.

In fact, we have formed an 11th coalition, one that is perhaps surprising because it involves all four parties. This bill was passed unanimously. It is in front of us for a third and final reading. In all likelihood, it will be passed a bit later.

The people who are watching at home and who are seeing the minister and the critics from the other parties smile, laugh and converse might wonder what is happening in the House today. Anyone who watches question period expects the opposition to say that the government's actions make no sense and that it is not doing things the way it ought to. Then the government says that the opposition knows nothing. But this is different because, frankly, our committee work was infused with this same spirit of co-operation, which I believe is necessary and in line with the behaviour expected of us by the citizens who elect and choose us.

The committee worked very hard. We had long evenings of consultation. We had consultations during the day but also at night because we wanted the changes to be implemented quickly. However, we wanted to do our job properly and take the time to hear everyone's comments.

I believe we did everything we could. We did as much as humanly possible. I remember sessions on Thursday evenings when members were a bit tired and would start joking around a bit. I made a point of apologizing to certain witnesses who were wondering whether MPs took things seriously. With all due respect, I think we did good and necessary work.

At the same time, following lengthy consultations, there were exchanges between people from the different parties. Contrary to what people often think, we talk to our Liberal, New Democratic and Conservative colleagues. We had discussions that led to a rather interesting and effective situation in which we could proceed with a clause-by-clause review, in other words, that time in committee when we vote on the clauses of the bill and make amendments.

We managed it in just a few hours without any drama. I believe that the majority of the votes were unanimous and a few were on division. There was no animosity in the discussions. We finished relatively early that evening and we would have finished earlier still if we did not have to go back and forth between Parliament Hill and downtown Ottawa three times to vote in the House. Maybe the fact that we got some air and walked around a bit got our minds in gear and allowed us to come up with this solution.

As those who spoke before me have pointed out, there is a general sense of satisfaction with the result of the committee report.

This is not the sort of compromise where you go home saying you had to give up this, you got that, you had no choice and you have to live with the end result. We are pleased with what we accomplished. Of course, it is not the bill that I would have written or that the members for Trinity—Spadina or Vaughan would have written, and it is not the bill the minister had drafted. It is something else, the result of everyone's contributions, but it is not an awkward compromise, an agreement we are forced to accept with resignation because we have no choice. It is good work.

We want to thank everyone who had a hand in amending the bill. Needless to say, we want to thank the minister, who was open and wise enough to come and talk with the critics from the various parties and who was open to new ideas. He did not reject them out of hand, just because they came from party x or y or a separatist party, which unfortunately sometimes happens in the House. We had good discussions. In some cases, the minister also convinced us that some amendments might not be appropriate. We worked hard, and as the member for Vaughan said, I hope many other ministers will take a page from this minister's book.

We would obviously also like to thank the parliamentary secretary, who worked hard as well. He was always very respectful and very open to the proposals made by the other committee members and the witnesses who appeared. I want to thank the Liberal and NDP critics, with whom I worked closely in many ways. Together, we achieved something very worthwhile.

We also want to thank the people who were our raw material, the people who appeared before the committee to tell us what they knew about the reality of refugees. We heard from lawyers, representatives of the Quebec and Canadian bars, refugee advocacy groups, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Fédération des femmes du Québec and all sorts of groups that work with these people every day and have an intimate knowledge of what they go through. We even heard from refugees who had gone through the process and who came to testify.

These people provided the material that helped us achieve this result. I honestly do not think we can simply say that we did a good job as parliamentarians. It is true that we did, but it was only possible because of those who got involved, participated in these consultations and provided us with the material we needed to get results.

I find it interesting that, although the public is unfortunately too often cynical and disillusioned, this refugee protection reform will perhaps be a positive example for all those who hesitate to get involved in politics or to appear before this type of committee, who hesitate to take the time to draft briefs, thinking that nothing will change, since everything is already decided in advance. These people will perhaps realize that they can contribute and help make changes to legislation.

Personally, I would also like to thank all those within my party who worked to help me, particularly my researcher, Marie-Eve Therriault, as well as Annie Desnoyers, from the office of the House leader, who is a formidable resource on House procedure. I am sure that many parties in the House would love to have her work for them, but her heart is obviously with the Bloc Québécois; she is already taken.

Let us talk about the bill, because that is what we are discussing today.

First of all, I would like to point out the major improvements that appear in the version before us today, things that were not present at first reading or second reading. The Bloc Québécois will support this bill, albeit with some reservations, because we still have some concerns. We want to ensure that it will be implemented. It is a good bill and it is far better than the status quo. No one will be surprised to hear that I am especially pleased that there is now a refugee appeal division that is accessible to everyone.

I thank the minister for pointing out that the Bloc Québécois has been fighting for this for quite some time. I personally took up this fight and brought it to this Parliament with my private member's Bill C-291, which was introduced in the House in my name. It reached second reading and report stage in committee, but it was unfortunately defeated in the House by a single vote.

I could certainly make some sort of political statement, but in the spirit of co-operation that abounds today, I will refrain from doing so, for I am very pleased that we now have an appeal division. It is very important to have such an appeal division in order to be fair. All justice systems that are administered by human beings, who are not perfect and can be wrong and make mistakes, must have a mechanism to correct those mistakes. This is quite obvious, since all of our natural justice systems—our tribunals and courts—always provide the opportunity to appeal, even in matters that are far less serious. People go to court for a squabble between neighbours over a fence and if they are not satisfied with the verdict, they can appeal it to a higher court, explaining why they feel the decision was wrong.

It is obvious to me that in a matter that, quite frankly, is much more serious—whether or not a person will be sent back to a country where they risk persecution, torture, or even death—we must be absolutely sure that we do not make a mistake. In fence disputes, even a judge may be mistaken five or six times out of all the cases in a year, which is not very serious. However, in an application for refugee status, a mistake has serious consequences.

By establishing a refugee appeal division, we are assured that a mistake made at the first level can be corrected at the second level. I believe that the system will be more efficient with the appeal division. It will ensure that real jurisprudence, a body of jurisprudence, is established, and that decisions will be much more consistent.

For example, two brothers from the same country and with the same experiences were brought before two different board members. One application was accepted by one board member whereas the other was refused. I do not know which board member made a mistake but one thing is certain: one of the two board members made a mistake. The same case was presented but the outcome was different. I have often pointed this out. Lawyers have told me that they cannot tell their clients whether or not they will be accepted because it depends on which board member hears their case.

With an appeal division to which rejected claimants will be able to apply, or if the minister finds a decision maker to have been too lax in his decision, it will be possible to validate the decisions and to determine, after a period of time, which cases are accepted or not according to case law.

I also commend the fact that the committee has decided to maintain the possibility for refugee claimants to apply on humanitarian grounds. This is the safety net of our process.

In many cases, a person may be in situations of extreme difficulty and grave concern, and yet not meet the strict definition of refugee and be inadmissible. The definition of a Convention refugee is quite narrow. A person must not simply be seeking refuge and require assistance, but be truly persecuted and unable to find a place in the country where he would be protected. The hope is that, with a claim on humanitarian grounds, persons in this situation would be accepted.

There remain certain concerns, such as country designation. At first, I was not convinced. I was always concerned about whether diplomatic or political issues would interfere in the process.

I am relatively satisfied with the final text and the way it is drafted. Unlike some, I did not want the word “safe” to appear in the enactment, because in my opinion it would have introduced a value judgment. Countries could have brought diplomatic pressure to bear to obtain this label of safe country, whereas the more neutral term “designated country” does not pose this problem. I think that the two tools are balanced.

We also considered whether an interview is better or not as good as the previous form. Each method has its advantages and its disadvantages; time will tell. I think it is reasonable to trust in the professionalism of our public servants to conduct interviews properly in the best interest of the system.

Finally, I remain concerned by the complete absence of any possibility of reopening a case between the time someone receives a final decision from the refugee appeal division and the time he or she is actually deported. There might be personal events in his country: for example, his family might be massacred, with the result that when the final decision was made he was not a refugee, but he subsequently became one.

I hope that the system will be able to deal with this sort of case and that the Immigration minister of the day will take the proper action if such cases should arise.

I will close on what is perhaps a lighter note. In the end we decided to keep the title of the bill, since it can now be said to be truly balanced. However I can assure the minister that the committee will return to the charge on these next two bills, whose titles are frankly ridiculous. We will see to it that the titles contain objective criteria only, and not political opinions.

Personally, I emerge from this experience very satisfied: it is very rewarding. There are often difficult moments in our work as members. Sometimes, I stop at my desk, listen to question period, and ask myself what I am doing here, what is going on. But a moment like today is a good moment, and whatever happens to me in the years ahead, the day I leave politics I will be able to say that at least I did something important which had an impact on people’s lives, and possibly for many decades.

May 31st, 2010 / 7:55 p.m.
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Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

When people will ask the Federal Court to intervene because they will not have been given a right of appeal given their country of origin, the Federal Court might be inclined to conduct more regular checks of how the process is working. In fact, it will not have the impression that due process was followed, and that everyone has the same opportunities and rights.

Furthermore, you spoke about conducting interviews, thus adding another step. That to me appears to be unproductive. When I introduced Bill C-291, I remember your saying that we had to stop adding extra steps. Up until now, people filled out a form, which was dealt with directly during the hearing stage. Now, you want to add an interview stage earlier in the process.

Do you not think that the interviews will further slow down the process rather than expedite matters?

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 29th, 2010 / 12:30 p.m.
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Bloc

Pierre Paquette Joliette, QC

We can only hope he will come back, although I doubt the hon. member for Outremont feels the same. My point is that we have been waiting for this measure for nearly eight years. This also explains, in large part, the injustice of the current system, which was never completed. I will come back to this later.

We believe that this notion of safe country is discriminatory, because it means that the refugee claims of individuals from so-called safe countries will not have the right to appeal their cases before this appeal division and will have to take their cases to the Federal Court, as is the case right now. We have already seen all the problems and concerns associated with such a situation. We saw the example this week of the pregnant woman from Guinea who, just a few minutes before she was supposed to board a plane for her deportation, was granted a four-month stay of deportation by the Federal Court.

Since the Appeal Division has not been instituted, they will have to keep going to the Federal Court to make sure that the new evidence her lawyer has uncovered is taken into account and she can get refugee status. In this instance, the lady was more or less fooled by a consultant, who did a poor job of preparing her case. She cannot appeal because the Appeal Division will not come into force until two years after the bill passes.

I want to remind the House that a real appeal procedure for refugee claimants should have been instituted as soon as the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act took effect in June 2002. The Bloc Québécois also had a unanimous motion adopted by the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration on December 14, 2004 asking the Liberal government of the time to immediately institute the Appeal Division.

Despite the adoption of this unanimous motion, the Liberal government did not budge, no more than the ensuing Conservative government. We therefore introduced private member’s bills, including Bill C-280 instituting the Refugee Appeal Division, which was introduced in October 2006.

We were back at it in February 2009 with Bill C-291. It is very sad that the bill was defeated by a single vote, 142 to 143. If it had not been for the notable absence of several Liberals, the bill would have passed easily. I hope they are asking themselves some serious questions in the Liberal Party. Is there really any difference between the Conservative government and the opposition? For my part, I do not think so. I like to say they are like two peas in a pod, but it is not very funny.

If not for the cowardice of certain Liberal members, the Bloc bill would have passed. We are glad all the same to see in Bill C-11 that the Refugee Appeal Division is finally being implemented. Once again, though, we think it is appalling that some refugee claimants will be precluded from the Appeal Division because of the distinction the bill draws between safe and unsafe countries. I think this is discrimination. We will ensure, therefore, that the witnesses who appear before the committee do what they can to enlighten the government and the members of all parties so that this regrettable situation is corrected.

In addition, the minister is playing with words when he says that the claims from people from safe countries will be expedited. The procedure will certainly be accelerated, but only because these claimants will be precluded from any recourse to the Appeal Division. As soon as the immigration official makes his decision, these claimants will be accepted as refugees or will have to leave, unless they take their case to the Federal Court. We will certainly take issue with this.

What concerns me the most is the fact that the bill gives the minister the legal authority to designate safe countries of origin. According to the government, safe countries of origin generally do not produce refugees, have a good human rights record, and protect their citizens well.

Sometimes, even in countries that are relatively democratic, people can be harassed or have their lives threatened because of their sexual orientation, gender or religion.

For all these reasons, we will vote in favour of Bill C-11 at second reading in order to study it in committee. I remind the House once again that we want to see the regulations before proceeding to clause by clause study of the bill.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 27th, 2010 / 5:15 p.m.
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Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I believe the appeal division must apply to everyone, whether they come from a safe country or not.

I believe that was the spirit of Bill C-291, which was supported by the NDP, adopted at second reading, but defeated at third reading because of the absence of the Liberal members. Hon. members will recall that 12 Liberal members were absent at the time of the vote.

That being said, we were had by the government when it decided to go from having two commission members to just one and promised us a real refugee appeal division. We were had by the Liberal Party of Canada. The government is trying to redeem itself today by creating this appeal division and by excluding a portion of claimants. In the meantime, it will amend federal legislation to increase the number of judges from 32 to 36 at the Federal Court for cases to be heard there.

However, let us be clear to the public. Only 12% of cases succeed when there is an application to the Federal Court for review after an unfavourable ruling at the Immigration and Refugee Board. We want a real refugee appeal division and not just a half measure.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 27th, 2010 / 4:45 p.m.
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Bloc

Bernard Bigras Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this debate on Bill C-11. I know we are not supposed to do this, but I would like to thank the minister for being here in the House to listen to the debates. I think it is important for the minister to hear these debates in the House, because many people are affected and often experience human tragedies with the immigration and refugee system in Canada.

I am in a good position to talk about this, because I represent the riding of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, one of those urban ridings that struggles with these human tragedies every day. I have a been a member in this House for 13 years, and 80% of my interactions with constituents are related to problems with immigration and refugee claims.

Members can imagine the kind of pressure our staff is under as they deal with these situations every day. I would like to take this opportunity to mention some of my constituents and staff from my riding. I am thinking of Louise Bellemare, at my constituency office, and Michel Blouin and René Champagne, who work hard every day to help constituents who are struggling to understand the system.

I used the word “understand” because few people truly understand the mechanisms and workings of the Canadian system because it is complex and because—we must not forget—the government has added to that complexity in recent years. Each year 25,000 people seek asylum in Canada. That is roughly equal to the backlog. That is a serious problem. Quite often, when someone seeking refugee status arrives in Canada, it takes nearly 28 days for them to meet with a government official to explain their situation.

It generally takes close to 19 months to have a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB. During these 19 months, the person belongs to a community; they share common values, have conversations and slowly integrate themselves. Those 19 months are filled with insecurity. And 19 months later they get a hearing with the IRB. But only 45% of these claimants will actually get refugee status at the end of the IRB process. And so, 55% of the claimants are denied by the IRB.

The individual can then start the process of asking the Federal Court for a judicial review. But only 13% of such cases will be heard by the Federal Court. That is truly unfair because very few of these people will have their cases heard by the Federal Court.

Even if they are not heard there, they can always apply for a pre-removal risk assessment, a PRRA, but again, there is roughly a three-year waiting period. Everyone knows that at this stage of the process, the chance of getting a positive ruling is roughly 2%.

The chances are very low. Despite this refusal, the person has not reached the end of the road because he can still go to the Federal Court and request a review of the PRRA ruling. During this process, nothing is stopping the person from applying for permanent resident status on humanitarian grounds. The entire process takes approximately four to six years.

Very few people in Canada really know the process, but many people are in this situation. I am thinking of Ms. Camara, among others, who arrived here in 2006 and waited 10 months for a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Some may say that she is lucky since the average wait for a hearing is 19 months and she waited nine months less than the average to get a hearing.

We are in this situation because, between 2006 and 2009, the government and the minister refused to appoint any so-called new decision makers. There were only 50 decision makers out of a possible 164. That is what has caused the backlog. The backlog grew from 20,000 claims in 2005 to 60,000 claims in 2009. The government created these delays despite the harm done to persons seeking status under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Introduced on March 30, 2010, this bill seeks to reduce processing times and to provide $540 million over five years. This money will not go directly to help settle refugees but will be allocated for the most part to border officers. Thus, there will be more investigations and screening. These changes are designed to increase the restrictions on people who wish to be recognized under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

There must be no misunderstanding. We are not opposed to some of the government's proposals because we recognize that waiting times must be shortened. We must ensure that decisions are made as quickly as possible.

I remember that when I arrived in the House in 1997 it took approximately six to eight months, on average, to obtain a first hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board. It now takes 19 months. This is a real problem that leads to human tragedies, as I was saying, and also creates interminable procedures: application for refugee status, federal court proceedings, PRRA, applications for permanent residence on humanitarian grounds, and I have surely forgotten others.

Reform is necessary. We support part of this reform. As members know, we would have preferred that this bill be sent directly to committee, but that was not possible. Therefore, we are starting this process today in the hope that, at the committee stage, we will be able to study the changes we are seeking more thoroughly.

We are pleased to see the creation of the refugee appeal division in the bill before us today, because we have been asking for it for a long time, since 2001 in fact. I remind members that we have been working on this bill since 2001 and that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act included the possibility of the government actually establishing this appeal division.

I remember the Liberals telling us that they would reduce the number of board members hearing refugee claims from two to one. At the same time, they promised to establish this appeal division.

The Liberals did not keep their word. We gave them the chance to make up for it when we introduced Bill C-291 in the House. This bill proposed the creation of the refugee appeal division. It was passed at second reading, but was defeated by one vote at third reading.

We must remember that when the time came to create this appeal division at third reading, the Liberals were nowhere to be found in the House. I will not name them because I know that it is unparliamentary to mention colleagues who are absent from the House, but there were 12 of them missing. We know who they were; we took note and we will remember them during the next election campaign. These 12 Liberals prevented us from implementing a real appeal division, as we have been proposing since 2001.

This proposal was defeated, but an appeal division is still necessary, because mistakes can be made in our legal system. Citizens must be able to appeal a decision, whether it is from a quasi-judicial tribunal or a court of justice. When the Liberals proposed the refugee appeal division in 2001, they proposed having one member make decisions instead of two. There could have been arbitrary decisions. The proof is that some IRB members reject 98% of refugee claims. So even among the members' decisions, there does not appear to be balance.

I am not here to question IRB member decisions. I know that it is a quasi-judicial tribunal, and I do not plan on looking at each and every one of these decisions. However, there does not seem to be balance among the decisions of some judges.

The decisions can sometimes be arbitrary and things should be more fair. That is why the government has created the refugee appeal division. However, the problem is that not everyone can take advantage of it. I cannot emphasize enough that there will be exceptions. Anyone coming from countries designated as safe would not be able to appeal the decisions made by government officials acting as decision makers—not board members—who have been given more power. I will say more about that later. This appeal division would not be available to everyone.

We, on this side of the House, would like to know what is meant by safe country. The government is telling us that the criteria for designating safe countries will be set by regulation a little later on. But we do not know what the regulations will be. The government is asking for a blank cheque and our trust. Citizens who do not come from a safe country will be able to appeal, but those who come from a safe country will not. But what is a safe country? We do not know. According to the government in one of its balanced refugee reform documents:

Safe countries of origin would include countries that do not normally produce refugees, have a robust human rights record and offer strong state protection.

That is the government's definition, but at the same time, it is saying that the criteria will be set out later in regulations. The government is most likely looking at three countries: Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Naturally, it will not say anything today because everything will be set out later in regulations.

The government wants us to trust it and says that the process will be balanced and fair. I understand the government will leave it to an advisory committee. However, in the name of transparency, it would have been better to have these regulations.

I have a suggestion for the minister. If he really wants to consult the opposition, I invite him to submit these regulations to the parliamentary committee when the time comes to study the criteria used to determine whether a country is safe.

This bill considerably reduces the role of judges and increases that of public servants, particularly concerning the initial refugee claim. We have never criticized the role of board members. We have always felt that they are appointed based on partisan ideology, but we have never questioned their work. We must seriously consider the fact that public servants will become the decision makers. This is a new approach. I understand that the government wants to ease the workload of judges and leave it up to the public service to assess claims, but this needs to be clarified. I am sure my colleague, the immigration critic, will have many questions in that regard.

This is where things get a little more complicated. The government wants to reduce wait times for interviews. Under the current act, once a person claims refugee status, the average wait time for an initial interview with a government official is about 28 days. Now the minister is saying that will go down to eight days.

As I said earlier, wait times must be reduced. However, we have to look at which wait times to reduce and how to balance the procedures.

We have to remember that, in many cases, people from other countries who arrive in Canada have issues. We need to make sure that an eight-day timeline is not too short. People who claim refugee status have experienced personal traumas. Might the eight-day timeline result in certain injustices and put those people in uncomfortable situations? We will have to look at that.

I would also like to talk about hearings. The government wants to reduce wait times for hearings from 19 months to 60 days. In other words, after the first interview, the government official would schedule a hearing within 60 days. That is not much time for people from countries with unstable governments. People have to submit documentation, and it takes time to send correspondence and receive the required documents. It is important to consider this because if the case goes to the appeal division, all of these processes will be taken into account.

We are in favour of reforming the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and we believe that wait times should be reduced. In my opinion, hearings should be held sooner following a claimant's arrival because a 19-month wait does not make sense and has made things very difficult for people in the past. We have to make some adjustments. I believe that my colleague, the immigration critic, will invite witnesses to appear before the committee so that we can achieve balanced reforms for people seeking asylum in Canada.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 26th, 2010 / 6 p.m.
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Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I never miss an opportunity to ask a Liberal member this question, because I want to make sure that we can really count on the Liberals when the time comes to amend this bill.

My colleague must know that I introduced Bill C-291 on the refugee appeal division. The Liberals said they supported that bill, which was a very popular thing to say. But when it came time to vote in the House, the Liberals had twice as many members absent as all the other parties combined. The opposition still had three more members present in the House than the government, but as luck would have it, four Liberals remained seated. The bill was defeated by a single vote, as if by magic.

No one is fooled. With that vote, the Liberals turned their backs on refugees. It suited them to say publicly that they were in favour of the refugee appeal division, but they did everything they could to engineer the defeat of my bill in the House.

This time around, can we count on the solid support of the full Liberal caucus?

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 26th, 2010 / 4:35 p.m.
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Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Madam Speaker, I listened to my colleague's remarks.

I know that he is motivated by strong principles. That being said, I would like to take this opportunity to ask him about his colleagues' behaviour during the vote on Bill C-291. I talked about this earlier today. I know that the past is the past, but if we want to move forward, we have to figure out what happened.

When I introduced a bill that was voted on here in the House to implement the refugee appeal division, 12 Liberal members were absent. Four Liberal members were present, but abstained knowing full well that the opposition had won the previous vote by three votes. Their strategy seems to suggest that, on the one hand, they were in favour of the refugee appeal division, but on the other, they did not want the bill to pass in the House.

We will have to work with the Liberals to improve this bill, enhance it and change a few of the principles in it.

Will we be able to count on their sincere support this time? Can we be sure that they will always act in accordance with what they say in public and with their values?

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 26th, 2010 / 3:40 p.m.
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Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to be here to speak to Bill C-11, which provides for equitable reforms with respect to refugees. It is about time we looked at this because the process for dealing with refugee claims submitted by people who show up at our border crossings has been a big problem for a long time now. These people come to Canada claiming to have been persecuted in their home countries. Because they get no protection there, they come here to ask Canada for protection.

The number of claims awaiting processing has skyrocketed over the past few years. Processing delays are far too long for all cases, particularly those based on the Geneva convention, which defines a refugee claimant. People who submit claims live in limbo for years, but they deserve a faster response.

This also happens to other persecuted individuals in extremely difficult circumstances around the world. These people submit their refugee claims in good faith because in many cases, they believe the legal definition applies to them, but their cases are dismissed after they have spent several years in Canada. They may have jobs, friends, families, houses. The wait times are also far too long for some unscrupulous opportunists who take advantage of the situation to try to stay in Canada as long as possible or even permanently.

This problem is due in large part to negligence on the part of the current and former governments, which hired too few members. This has been the norm at the Immigration and Refugee Board for a long time now. When there are not enough board members to process claims, when staffing levels are only two-thirds what they should be, fewer claims are processed and wait times go up.

I have a very hard time understanding this situation. Why did the government not take action sooner? Why did it not take steps to shorten wait times?

The committee often studies what is going on in immigration. I have become deeply convinced that, unfortunately, wait times are being used as a tool to manage the arrival of immigrants or, in this case, refugees. Allow me to explain.

Normally, in the health care system, wait times are due to an insufficient allocation of resources, which is involuntary because resources are scarce. Because more people need services than there are resources allocated, wait times increase over time. That is why only a certain number of people can be treated every year.

Where immigration is concerned, it is somewhat the reverse situation. Insufficient resources are voluntarily allocated to processing claims so as to not exceed the quotas and objectives that have been set. This is never acknowledged officially or publicly, but almost everyone agrees that only a certain number of people can be admitted to Canada every year.

Society has the ability to absorb a number of people from all over the world. Means are therefore sought to try and control the influx. For many years, it suited governments to have prolonged processing times. It helped slow down the influx of refugees, who figured it would be complicated to get into Canada and that it would take a few years. This acted as a disincentive.

It became a problem when the government lost control and found itself with long wait periods and a process so complicated that it almost acts as an incentive for people to come to Canada. They figure that their claims will take years to process and, during that time, they will be in a safe country and will not have to fear for their safety.

So previous governments and the current government are to blame for part of the problem, but at least we have a bill before us that is aimed at tackling the problem.

I recognize that there is a problem and that it is good to have a bill to deal with that problem. I believe that this bill contains some interesting principles. The Bloc Québécois will support it at second reading to send it to committee.

We asked that this bill be sent to committee even before second reading so that we would have complete latitude to study it and suggest constructive improvements. But the government did not opt to go that route. I hope that if we work together in committee to make the bill better, we will not get bogged down in “proceduritis”.

Let us look at the main elements of the bill. No one will be surprised that I am going to start with the refugee appeal division. This bill finally provides for implementing this division, even though it has been in the act for quite some time. In fact, the 2001 Immigration and Refugee Protection Act provided for an appeal division. At the time, two board members considered a refugee claim at the same time, and all it took was for one member to approve the claim for the claimant to be accepted. In 2001, the previous Liberal government told Parliament that it would reduce the number of board members from two to one, but that it would create a refugee appeal division to make up for the change and avoid arbitrary decisions. This Parliament voted for that. But the Liberal government unfortunately never implemented its own act and the refugee appeal division, and the Conservatives have not done so either.

That is why the Bloc Québécois has repeatedly tried to force the government to implement the division, the last time being when it introduced Bill C-291, which was passed at second reading but unfortunately defeated by a single vote at third reading because of a rather pathetic Liberal tactic.

I do not agree with the Conservatives' positions, but at least they were honest about the fact that they were opposed to the refugee appeal division and would vote against it. The NDP and the Bloc said they were in favour of the refugee appeal division and said they would vote to support it. The Liberals, on the other hand, said they supported it, but curiously, during the vote, 12 members were absent, that is, double the number of absent members of all the other parties combined.

The vote before and the vote after the vote in question were won by the three opposition parties by three votes, but when the time came to vote on Bill C-291, four Liberal members mysteriously remained seated and coincidentally, the bill was defeated by a single vote. That is a lot of coincidences at once. As we all know, that was the Liberals' strategy to try to appease their electoral base while still defeating the bill in the House.

I do not mean to dwell on the past, but I thought it was important to remind the House of what happened.

Let us now look forward. Why is the refugee appeal division necessary? Contrary to what is indicated in the bill before us, why should it apply to everyone?

All of our legal systems include the opportunity to appeal. The reason is very simple: because justice is administered by humans and humans can make mistakes, the system recognizes that the justice system can make mistakes.

Opportunities for appeal will therefore be included everywhere to correct potential errors.

The bill also proposes appeal mechanisms in our legal systems to ensure uniformity. The goal is to ensure a reasonable expectation that a certain type of case, say x, will produce a certain outcome and that every case like case x will produce that same outcome. That is not how it works at the moment.

Here is an example of how similar claims were treated differently by IRB members. This happened to twins, brothers from the same country. Their claims were reviewed by two different board members, and each one made a completely different decision. The cases were alike, they were brothers who had been through the same thing together, yet the board members did not make the same decision. Clearly, there is a lack of coherence. An appeal division would have made it possible to determine which board member was wrong or mistaken.

Appeal mechanisms seek to eliminate arbitrary treatment by giving our legal systems oversight over lower-level rulings. Some board members have rejected as many as 98% of the claims they have dealt with, while others have allowed nearly every claim that has gone before them.

If I were in court one day and someone told me before the hearing that the judge convicted in 98% of his or her cases, I would know that justice was not being served and that it was a farce. I would know the dice were loaded. But in a typical legal system with an appeal division, if every decision made by a board member or judge was overturned on appeal, the chief justice would eventually tell the judge that his or her rulings were a problem.

The same applies to the IRB. An appeal process ensures that those making the decisions in the first place really think them through. Decision makers have to remember that their decisions can be appealed. They have to really think about their decisions and consider whether they are likely to be upheld or systematically appealed.

That is not in the legislation. I know that there have been some intense discussions with the minister about the current potential for appeals in the legislation. There is none. I have been saying it all along, and I will say it again today. There are ways of getting around it, such as the judicial review process at the Federal Court. Very few applications are accepted. In all cases, only the procedural aspect of the application is examined. No one can request a judicial review on the basis of the facts. For example, if a member says that he does not believe a person's story and does not think he is credible, the Federal Court would never say that his story was credible and approve his application.

There is the issue of pre-removal risk assessments. This procedure is very rarely applied. In fact, only 2% of the applications involving new facts since the initial hearing are accepted. It is not truly an appeal mechanism. Neither is a permanent resident application on humanitarian grounds. Some people use it as a second attempt if they think there was an error with their case at the initial hearing. It does not fall under the definition of refugee status as adopted by the conventions supported by Canada.

I have spent a lot of time talking about the appeal division. I think that natural justice is something really fundamental, and we cannot ignore it. The problem with the bill before us is the exemption for so-called safe countries. The minister said that he would create a list, but we have no details about that yet, and people who come from these so-called safe countries will not have access to the refugee appeal division.

Finally, the bill takes a positive step by implementing the refugee appeal division and—let us be frank—by improving it in certain ways, for instance, with the possibility of presenting new evidence and testifying again. Nevertheless, a certain proportion of asylum seekers will not have this opportunity. In my opinion, that is a mistake. When it comes to equality of the most basic rights, we must not treat people differently based on their country of origin. That seems obvious to me.

When a person appears before a tribunal that will make a decision far less significant than one where the person could potentially be sent back to be tortured, killed or persecuted, the tribunal does not take the person's country of origin into account. When neighbours are in a dispute over a fence, neither party would ever be denied the right to appeal based on their country of origin. Everyone is treated equally, regardless of where they are from.

I do not see why this distinction would be made in the case of refugees. It is not necessary. The bill already provides for an expedited process, namely by suspending for one year the possibility of applying for a pre-removal risk assessment, a temporary resident permit or permanent residency on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. These options that were once available to refugees no longer appear in the legislation. We do not think it is necessary to go so far as to prevent people from safe countries from using the appeal division.

I will now say a few words on the issue of deadlines, which are of particular concern to me. Deadlines do not figure in the bill, but I imagine they will be included in the regulations. It seems that the minister intends to give refugees eight days from the time refugee status is claimed to the time they meet with an IRB officer for help with the application. As I was saying earlier, although generally speaking it is a good idea to expedite the process, in some cases this can be problematic.

When a refugee from another country who has been persecuted and perhaps raped several times arrives in Canada, they are told that they have one week to tell their whole story. Many psychologists would say that you can work with a rape victim, for example, for months before they start talking about their experience. Perhaps we should include mechanisms to correct this. In addition, the interview will be used later, during the hearing and possibly the appeal, to discredit the person. They will be asked why they did not report certain things during the initial interview. We must ensure that the person's psychological state during the interview makes it possible to truly tell their story.

I also have concerns about the timeframe for the hearing, which is 60 days. It is a good thing if applicants who are ready do not have a long wait for their hearing. In some cases, however, it may be extremely difficult to obtain the evidence and documents that might be very far away. In some parts of the world, it can take two weeks for a document to arrive and another two weeks to send it back. That adds up to a month, leaving only 30 days for the lawyer to prepare the case.

Finally, I am very worried by the fact that, by and large, these reforms will be made by regulation, thus sidestepping Parliament. In addition, there is the matter of the timeframes I spoke about, the designation of safe countries, the assisted voluntary returns program that I did not have time to talk about, and so forth.

Yesterday's news reported on the case of a sick, pregnant woman, locked in prison and waiting to be deported. The government sometimes lacks compassion. Therefore, we are very reluctant to give it carte blanche. For that reason, we are asking the minister to submit the regulations in full before proceeding with a clause-by-clause analysis in committee. Thus, when we vote on the bill, we will at least be familiar with the proposed regulations.

I will be pleased to answer my colleagues' questions.

Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Government Orders

April 26th, 2010 / 3:40 p.m.
See context

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Madam Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her speech. It was not so long ago that she sat with us on the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. We miss her.

She is familiar with Bill C-291 that I introduced. The purpose of the bill was to implement a refugee appeal division, which is being partially presented in the bill before us today. My colleague worked on promoting this appeal division. Unfortunately, this bill was defeated in the House because of the Liberals. During the vote, 12 MPs were absent. They had won the previous vote by three votes and then had the nerve to keep four members seated and have them abstain from voting. The bill was defeated by only one vote.

Considering all the effort she made in promoting this bill, is she not a little disappointed in the behaviour of her colleagues who have abandoned refugees?