Evidence of meeting #39 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was refugee.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

4:45 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Okay.

Marie Adèle Davis is the executive director.

Each group has up to 10 minutes. One person can speak, or you can share the time.

Ms. Williams.

4:45 p.m.

Glynis Williams Executive Director, Action Réfugiés Montréal

Good afternoon. My name is Glynis Williams. I am the director of Action Réfugiés Montréal, and on behalf of that organization, I would like to thank you for allowing us to present our concerns about Bill C-31.

Action Réfugiés Montréal was founded in 1994 by the Anglican and Presbyterian churches in Montreal. Our mandate includes assisting refugee claimants who are detained in the Canada Border Services Agency holding centre in Laval, which my colleague Jenny will soon describe. In addition, we match women refugee claimants with volunteers, and our third program is sponsoring refugees from overseas. We believe that one of our strengths is that we work with both inland refugee claimants and refugees who are overseas. This is a somewhat unique situation in Canada.

Twenty-four years ago I started working with refugee claimants who were being detained in Montreal. As the founding director of this organization, we chose to make the detention program a priority. As mentioned in our brief, though, we are also concerned with clause 19, which allows the minister to initiate a process that would declare cessation of refugee protection resulting in a former refugee's removal from Canada. Furthermore, there is no remedy available to the individual or family once the decision has been made. This clause renders permanent residence an oxymoron for most resettled and accepted refugees.

A story illustrates this point. Sixteen years ago the Presbyterian Church in Montreal agreed to sponsor a young Iraqi woman, a victim of Saddam Hussein's regime. She had been interviewed in a Jordanian prison by a Canadian visa officer at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a rare situation that reveals the persecution refugees can face even in countries of first asylum. She lived with me for a short while using lots of sign language—I do not speak Arabic—and several volunteers became her good friends. We raised the required $8,000 to care for her in that first year. I just discovered recently that she's still only a permanent resident, not a citizen, even though she has three Canadian-born children, she owns a house, drives a car, and works in a day care. She speaks French very well.

This clause could definitely apply to her, and for what purpose? She and her husband both work, pay taxes, and their daughters are Canadians and they have very little knowledge of Iraq. In the language of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees seek a durable solution, something which too few manage to obtain. The humanitarian basis of Canada's refugee programs, whether it is government-assisted, privately sponsored refugees, or accepted refugee claimants within Canada is mocked by this proposed clause and must be withdrawn.

4:50 p.m.

Jenny Jeanes Program Coordinator, Action Réfugiés Montréal

Hello. My name is Jenny Jeanes and I am responsible for Action Réfugiés Montréal's detention program. Since joining Action Réfugiés Montréal in 2005, I have visited the Canada Border Services Agency holding centre in Laval, Quebec, on a weekly basis.

As our only staff person who visits the detention facility, I rely on the assistance of law student interns, who accompany me to the centre. Each week we meet newly arrived refugee claimants who, for the most part, have been detained in order to verify their identity. We try to help them understand complex immigration procedures, especially the requirements for their refugee claim.

We assist them in finding counsel. We supply phone cards to those who need to call their families and ask for their identity documents to be sent. We also identify the more vulnerable detainees, including pregnant women and families with young children, in order to provide them extra support.

Before leaving the office yesterday, I spoke to two young detainees who needed phone cards to call their families back home. These young men, one 17 years old and one 18 years old, are from Sierra Leone, a West African country that not long ago was torn apart by a decade-long civil war, and with upcoming elections, faces new unrest.

They travelled to Canada by boat and were detained upon arrival. Tomorrow they will have spent one month in detention. They have already made contact with their families, but a single phone card provides only nine minutes to call their country. They are still waiting for their documents to arrive, hoping family members will be able to help them.

One has already obtained from his family a faxed copy of the only official document he possesses, but his family has not been able to gather the funds to post the original. They know no one in Canada, so when they need help with cards, they phone our office and ask for “Auntie Jenny”.

They are just two of the hundreds of detainees we assist each year, but their situation brings to mind two of our main concerns with Bill C-31: the 12-month mandatory detention for designated irregular arrivals and the very fast processing times for refugee claims.

These two young men meet the criteria of claimants who could be designated as irregular arrivals and detained for one year without review. Although one is 17 and legally a child, he would not be exempt from mandatory detention.

Even if they were not designated as irregular arrivals, they are already halfway along the 60-day delay for a refugee hearing, as proposed by Bill C-31. They have yet to obtain identity documents, let alone meet the requirements for preparing a refugee claim. With the assistance of a lawyer, they have just begun to tell their stories. They speak limited English, relying on an interpreter to assist them. Their lawyer will have to tease out the complexities of their country's situation, distinguishing their personal fears from generalized violence and instability and examining the impact of regime change on their individual lives.

Over the years, I have met refugee claimants detained at late stages of pregnancy, and even some who have given birth while detained, returning to the detention centre with a newborn baby. I have met elderly claimants in detention and those sick with diabetes or other illnesses. I have met claimants who have been raped or tortured or who have seen family members killed and have ongoing nightmares.

I have met many young children under the age of five who accompanied their parents in detention, sometimes for over a month. One very young woman, herself an unaccompanied minor, spent almost a month in detention with her own baby until she was able to satisfy authorities as to her identity. She spoke no English or French, and was separated from her own family members in Canada, who were released before her due to their identity documents.

I have learned that refugee stories are often complicated and that it takes time for a claimant to be able to share their experiences. In our brief, I mention the case of a young gay man from Algeria who spent three months in detention until his identity was verified. He was scared and ashamed of disclosing his sexual orientation and was uncomfortable around other detainees during his three months in the centre. He was so psychologically fragile that he was unable to testify at his eventual refugee hearing, even after several months in Canada. Only with the help of a therapist was he finally able to clearly explain his need for protection, and he was accepted as a refugee. I would just like to add that this therapy was not available while he was in the centre.

I'd also like to tell you about a woman from Nigeria who we first met in detention in 2008. She has since been accepted as a refugee and is now a permanent resident in Canada, but it was a difficult road to where she is now. She arrived in Canada eight months pregnant and spent most of the last of her pregnancy locked up in the holding centre, where rules dictate when and what to eat, when to sleep, and whether one can go outside for some air. It took her 40 days to obtain identity documents and be released, and she gave birth less than two weeks after leaving detention.

Being in detention is a difficult experience for most of the claimants we meet. We hear repeatedly about the shame of being handcuffed and under constant surveillance; the fear of deportation exacerbated by the regular removals of other detainees; and chronic physical discomfort, such as constipation and fatigue. We regularly meet detainees who speak no English or French, and are extremely isolated by language barriers. Claimants express distress at having to prepare written documents to start their claims while detained, where they have no privacy, there are obstacles to communicating with their families, and there is little contact with their legal counsel. As mentioned in our brief, there is no privacy for phone calls, and even when lawyers can visit the centre there's limited time and space for consultation.

We have a unique perspective, being able to meet individual detainees week after week and hear their experiences. Detained refugee claimants tell us of the significant challenges they face during days, weeks, or months of detention. It is hard to imagine 12 months of mandatory detention. Having seen how many obstacles refugee claimants face when detained at the beginning of the refugee process, we worry that the short delay of only 60 days or less will result in refusals for people genuinely in need of protection. Many of these individuals would not even have access to appeal under Bill C-31 provisions, eliminating the chance of having errors corrected.

Thank you.

4:55 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you.

Mr. Stanwick.

4:55 p.m.

President Elect, Canadian Paediatric Society

Dr. Richard Stanwick

Good day, Mr. Chair and members of the committee.

I'm Dr. Richard Stanwick, a pediatrician and public health specialist. I also probably have a unique qualification in that I was dockside on August 13, 2010 with the RCMP and the Canada Border Services Agency for the arrival and processing of 492 refugees from the Sun Sea. I participated in the organization of the health response as well as the provision of on-site public health and pediatric advice.

I am here this afternoon representing the Canadian Paediatric Society, a professional organization representing over 3,000 health professionals dedicated to child and youth health.

My opening remarks today are going to be focused specifically on the health of children and youth, and what we can all do through public policy to ensure they have the potential to become active contributing members of Canadian society.

As pediatricians, we are committed to working with all levels of government to make decisions and develop programs, programs—and I want to emphasize this—that are based on emerging science that clearly shows how young people develop and what should be in place within their communities to ensure their optimal long-term health and development.

Child health experts now have a truer understanding of the importance of family in ensuring and supporting the development of children than was previously the case. We know that good preventive health care, early education, physical activity, and a balanced diet set the foundation for a productive and healthier adulthood, and that protective aspects of a good childhood experience inoculate individuals for improvements in all aspects of their life, be that mental health, physical health, high school completion, and even employability. Conversely, we know that higher than normal levels of stress contribute to ill health.

Former Japanese internees in World War II experienced a twofold increase in cardiovascular disease and premature mortality than did individuals who were not interned. One epidemiologic study suggested that internees die 1.6 years earlier than a comparison non-interned group. So-called “toxic stress” is particularly harmful when it occurs during childhood and when it's not mitigated by nurturing relationships with significant adults.

On the basis of this evidence—the importance of family and a positive childhood experience—we respectfully ask the government to reconsider and withdraw Bill C-31. If the bill is not withdrawn, then we strongly advocate that it be amended in specifically those sections that could lead to refugee children under the age of 16 being either detained with their parents or separated from them for a period of a year. If the legislation must be passed into law, we would ask and encourage you to ensure that it has provisions to keep families together. These provisions should really integrate them into communities as quickly as possible, and ensure immediate and ongoing access to health services and care, including preventive care such as with immunizations and—I think we would want to emphasize as almost equally important—ongoing access to education and other social and community values and associations.

Both options in the current version of C-31 cause great concerns to pediatricians because essentially we're forcing a Sophie's Choice on the parents. Should children under 16 go into detention with their parents, there is no assurance that they will have access to the education or health services they need. It's also vital that children have the benefit of safe recreation and we have concerns that detention facilities will not have age-appropriate facilities that will allow them to play and exercise—all critical in normal development.

A peer-reviewed article by Rachel Kronick and Cécile Rousseau, published last October in Paediatrics & Child Health clearly documented the serious effects of detention on claimant refugee children in both Australia and England. Here's what they found. Almost all the children suffered a mental health problem. Some of them had sleep disturbances and separation anxiety. The range of problems went to even more serious post-traumatic stress disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation. Developmental delays were common. There were reports of mutism and behavioural issues. Infants wouldn't breastfeed properly and older children were engaged in food refusal. Many children lost previously attained developmental milestones, which shows that detention itself had negative effects on their development, and the problems could not be solely attributed to the experiences before arriving in this country or their country of refuge.

The other choice that parents have would be to give up their children to a child welfare system that is already overtaxed and struggling to meet the needs of children and youth currently living in Canada.

Consider what it would be like to be separated from family just after arriving in a new country, perhaps after experiencing conflict or separation, war or starvation. You'd consider that traumatic for an adult. For a child, it's unimaginable. This kind of separation would create the type of stress and trauma for both the child and adult, making future integration into Canada far more difficult—and this is the concern.

Apart from separation from the family, in many cases the child welfare system would be hard pressed to find a foster family that understands the culture from which the child comes, or perhaps even to find one where the adults speak the same language. It is likely the demands on the health care system will be more taxed if refugee children are put into detention or in foster care while awaiting their parents' release from detention, as opposed to the family being settled into Canadian life with access to health care, community services, and schools.

In British Columbia, our representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, and our provincial health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, studied over 50,000 children born in 1986 who were attending school in our province 10 years later. In the largest study—to the best of our knowledge—or at least one of the largest studies in Canada, they found of the children living under ministry supervision in foster homes or with relatives, 41% were involved with the criminal justice system by age 21. The rate of legal problems was much lower, only 6.6%, among children living with parents.

The Canadian Paediatric Society urges that Bill C-31 be amended specifically to ensure families with children, and families that are expecting children, be kept together on arrival in Canada, and that they are not placed in detention centres. We ask that families have immediate and ongoing access to needed health, community, and education services. This will help children integrate smoothly into Canadian life and support them in achieving good health quickly.

In recent years this government has recognized and apologized to groups of individuals who were detained or separated from families simply because of who they were—most notably, aboriginal Canadians who were forced into residential schools. There was an understanding and recognition in Prime Minister Harper's apologies to generations of first nation and Inuit people that great harm had been done to individuals, especially children, by separating them from their families and cultures. Sadly, in many cases, this harm proved insurmountable for the victims. Even now, many years after the residential school system has been dismantled, the negative results persist, in some cases, generations later.

I think there is a little irony in that at this time the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada is crossing Canada as these hearings are held in this committee room.

During World War II, Canada undertook forced removal and detention of the Japanese population on the west coast, separating Japanese men from their families, and relocating them to war camps. Women and children were sent to inland towns. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologized to Japanese Canadians in 1988 and provided compensation to survivors of wartime detention. Ottawa marked the 20th anniversary of this recognition under the leadership of Prime Minister Stephen Harper. If we, as a country, have recognized the ill effects on health of such schemes, then why would we consider instituting detention again?

These are examples of repeated failure to deal with other cultures. We, as Canadians, should be recognized as a nation by our ability to do things right, not for being ready to apologize for getting it wrong again and again.

Thank you.

5:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you, Dr. Stanwick. I apologize for not addressing you correctly.

Mr. Menegakis has up to seven minutes.

May 3rd, 2012 / 5:05 p.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair. Thank you to all of you for appearing before us today and for sharing your views and for, quite frankly, the very passionate way in which you explained some cases you're familiar with.

I want to go through a couple of points first. I really think we're all trying to accomplish the same thing here. Our goal is to try to get legitimate refugees, people who need our assistance, into the country as fast as possible. We need a mechanism in order to accomplish that in the fastest possible way. Clearly the system today is broken. It is not working.

I think Canadians take pride in the generosity and compassion of our immigration and refugee programs. They have no tolerance for those who abuse our generosity and seek to take unfair advantage of our country. Canada remains one of the top countries in the world to welcome refugees. In fact, we welcome more refugees per capita than any other G-20 country. Canada welcomes one in 10 of the world's resettled refugees. That is more per capita than almost any other country. In fact our Conservative government has increased the number of refugees resettling each year by 2,500 people.

Bill C-31 proposes changes that build on reforms to the asylum system passed in June 2010 as part of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, as you well know. The proposed measures would provide faster protection to those who genuinely need refuge and faster removal of those who don't. Currently the time to finalize a refugee decision, if you will, takes 1,038 days, on average. With these new measures in Bill C-31, that could be as low as 45 days for people coming from designated countries and certainly 216 days for all other claimants, surely the very people who need that assistance.

Let's talk about family reunification. People are coming here from countries where they were facing persecution, torture, death in many cases. Surely the amount of time they have to be in a holding pattern when they come to our shores so they can be properly identified and processed.... That's the key. We want to identify people before we allow them into Canadian society for obvious reasons.

Forty-one people who came on the Sun Sea and Ocean Lady were found to be security risks or had perpetrated war crimes in their country. We can't allow just everybody. I know we want to be compassionate, but we have a responsibility to the Canadian people and I'm sure you understand that. You wouldn't want them in your neighbourhood. You wouldn't want them going to school with your children. You wouldn't want them around your families. Nobody would.

Would you agree that this is a problem that needs to be fixed? That's my question to you. Please, any and all....

5:10 p.m.

Program Coordinator, Action Réfugiés Montréal

Jenny Jeanes

Thank you very much for your comments. They raise a few things to my mind.

Yes, we agree that many people need to be processed faster. As my colleague mentioned, one of our programs matches women refugee claimants with women volunteers to facilitate integration. Some of the women in our program have waited two-and-a-half to three years before having their claims heard and have suffered as a result.

I recently told one woman who waited two-and-a-half years about some of the proposed changes and she felt that had she had her hearing in 60 days, there is no way she would have been ready psychologically or physically. She had a lot of pain from previous torture while imprisoned in her country. She had to see a physical therapist to help her deal with that psychologically.

Then in terms of the complicated evidence one has to acquire, it's.... Refugee claims, as I'm sure you know, are not simple. People do have to sometimes get very specific documents, death certificates, proof of membership in political parties, and things from home. They rely on people back home to get those documents. It takes time.

In many ways 60 days would be too short for many of the people we see.

In terms of your concerns you raise about identifying security risks, identifying who people are, I'm not a lawyer, but one of the regular activities in our program is to accompany people to detention review hearings. In the existing law, the review is on detention—for example for identity grounds or for security grounds. Some of the cases I've illustrated, these are people who had their detention reviewed and were held because their identity wasn't yet established and the current law does provide for that.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

But you would agree that the current system needs to be fixed, wouldn't you? The cases you're stating are cases that have happened already, under the current system.

5:10 p.m.

Program Coordinator, Action Réfugiés Montréal

Jenny Jeanes

These are cases that the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, passed in 2010, probably would have helped.

We have concerns about some of the new changes in Bill C-31.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

Mr. Stanwick.

5:10 p.m.

President Elect, Canadian Paediatric Society

Dr. Richard Stanwick

In responding to your question, I think what we want to do is bring a recognition that if you place children in settings that are essentially detention centres, you will traumatize them. They will not achieve their full potential as future Canadian citizens.

In the sense that you're right, perhaps 10% of those individuals justifiably should be removed. The other 90% that came off a ship, honestly, if you walked past them in a Walmart today, you would not recognize them as being refugees. They would blend in with Canadian society.

It's the children who are so profoundly influenced. A year for you and me is simply a year. For a child, it's part of a lifetime. What we're saying is that if you are going ahead with Bill C-31, recognize the downsides of the detention centres and take the steps to mitigate the impact on children's health so that you have really healthy, productive citizens from the ones you allow in.

5:10 p.m.

Conservative

Costas Menegakis Richmond Hill, ON

I'm hearing what you're saying.

I don't know about anybody else in this room, but I was separated from my parents for four years, from the age of three to seven. So I understand, I understand what you're saying. However, we do have to identify people before we allow them into the country. That is a clear thing that we need to do.

One of the key elements in Bill C-31 is the issue of biometrics, a 21st century identification tool, as it has been presented to us from law enforcement agencies in this country, supported by the RCMP, CSIS, and CBSA. We are implementing that type of a tool, if you will, in Bill C-31 to ensure that we can process people faster.

5:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair David Tilson

Thank you.

Mr. Giguère.

5:15 p.m.

NDP

Alain Giguère Marc-Aurèle-Fortin, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I'd like to thank our witnesses for coming to provide us with information.

A number of you have had the opportunity to visit the Laval detention centre. It's a pleasure that we, the members, have unfortunately been denied. So we are going to ask you for some information about that. We've been told that it is like a hotel and that refugees have better lodging there than a lot of Canadians have. Can you tell us a little bit about what this detention centre is like? Is it a prison?