House of Commons Hansard #29 of the 40th Parliament, 2nd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was justice.

Topics

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

All those in favour of the motion will please say yea.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Some hon. members

Yea.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

All those opposed will please say nay.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Some hon. members

Nay.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

In my opinion the yeas have it.

And five or more members having risen:

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Conservative

Gordon O'Connor Carleton—Mississippi Mills, ON

Mr. Speaker, I believe if you seek it you would find agreement to apply the vote on the previous motion to the motion currently before the House, with the Conservatives voting yes.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

Is there unanimous consent to proceed in this way?

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

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Some hon. members

Agreed.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

Rodger Cuzner Cape Breton—Canso, NS

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Party will be voting in favour.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Bloc

Claude DeBellefeuille Beauharnois—Salaberry, QC

Mr. Speaker, the members of the Bloc are in favour of the motion.

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

NDP

Yvon Godin Acadie—Bathurst, NB

Mr. Speaker, the NDP members are very pleased to vote against this motion.

(The House divided on the motion, which was agreed to on the following division:)

Vote #29

Canada-EFTA Free Trade Agreement Implementation Act
Government Orders

5:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Speaker Peter Milliken

I declare the motion carried.

It being 5:56 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
Private Members' Business

March 12th, 2009 / 5:55 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

moved that Bill C-291, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (coming into force of sections 110, 111 and 171) be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Mr. Speaker, it is an honour for me to begin this debate today on Bill C-291, which I tabled in this House a little earlier in this session and which proposes to establish the refugee appeal division. It would be useful to start with a short history to indicate the need for and the pertinence of this bill.

In 2002, this Parliament adopted the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA). Before this act was adopted, two board members examined refugee claims. Approval by one of the two members was sufficient to grant refugee status. When the IRPA was adopted, this Parliament decided to reduce the number of members examining refugee claims from two to one. However, in their wisdom, parliamentarians decided to provide for an appeal section. Although included in the legislation, it has never been implemented because the successive Liberal and Conservative governments have never issued the cabinet orders required to bring it into force.

The purpose of the bill before us today is simply to respect the will of Parliament and begin that process. It is important that this appeal section be established for three basic reasons: first, it will prevent arbitrary decisions in refugee status cases; second, it will ensure that decisions made by members are consistent; third, it will prevent decisions from being too costly and ensure that the cost of the system for handling these applications is not too high, as I will explain later in my presentation.

Let us start at the beginning, with the issue of arbitrary decisions. There are quite a few board members at the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB), many of whom are undoubtedly competent. However, the problem is that many of these people are not well-suited to this work.

I will give a very topical example, one that I revealed in the House this week and for which the minister had a chance to defend himself—the case of Pharès Pierre. This board member, appointed by the current minister, has a very questionable past. He was the chief of staff to former Prime Minister of Haiti, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That controversial regime committed atrocities and was complicit in major crimes.

Some people were only underlings within this regime. Police officers and civil servants have been refused the right to ask for asylum in Canada because they worked for the regime. Yet we learn that this board member was at the top of the pyramid. And, from now on, he will be the one to receive and study refugee requests coming from everywhere, including Haiti. We would all agree that there is an obvious ethical issue there. Some of the people claiming refugee status, who say they were persecuted by the Aristide regime, will find themselves being judged by a person who was at the top of this regime. That makes no sense.

This candidate managed to slip through all the cracks in security.

The IRB selected him. Then he underwent Privy Council security checks—the Privy Council being the Prime Minister's Office, which looked into the matter and declared that there was no security problem. These are, of course, the same people who investigated the Couillard affair. Then the minister appointed him. When I asked the minister in the House why he appointed that individual, he candidly admitted that the man was obviously not the right guy for the job. Yes, he has a B.A. in mathematics, and I have a lot of respect for people who have a B.A. in mathematics, but that does not mean they have the skills it takes to be commissioners any more than if they have a minor in administration or are on the board of the Lions Club of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

This appointment is glaringly partisan, because Pharès Pierre was the vice-president of the Conservative riding association in Saint-Jean and vice-president of the Quebec wing of the Conservative Party. This is clearly unacceptable. He managed to slip through the net and become a commissioner. Now he is the one who will be making extremely important decisions that could have life-or-death consequences for people. This is the person who will be making these decisions. It makes no sense.

And then there is Laurier Thibault, who handled Abdelkader Belaouni's case. Mr. Belaouni, who lives in my riding, is an Algerian refugee who, despite being blind, wants to get involved in the community. At the time Mr. Belaouni appeared before him, this judge, this commissioner, Laurier Thibault, was rejecting 98% of the cases he dealt with. Imagine appearing before a judge who finds 98% of the people he tries guilty. Would anyone think that justice was being done? Surely not.

There is an obvious problem here: some commissioners do not have what it takes to do the job. We need an appeals division to overturn these decisions. Even if they were all very competent, we would still have a natural justice issue on our hands. Even though we have very competent judges in our other courts, we still have an appeals division. Why do citizens and permanent residents have access to appeals in the regular system, but refugees do not?

In the past, the Liberals have often told us that appeals to superior courts and judicial reviews were possible. However, these are not appeals on the merits; they are simply appeals based on technicalities or for procedural reasons. However, if the IRB member followed all procedures, but simply does not believe the refugee claimant's version, the claimant has no opportunity to appeal.

The second reason I gave was the lack of consistency in the decisions. When there is no appeal division, each IRB member can decide one way or the other. As all immigration lawyers will agree, this makes it impossible to tell someone whether they are eligible or not by simply looking at their file. In the end, the decision will depend on which member of the IRB gets assigned to the file. We sometimes refer to this as “the board member lottery” and it is inconceivable that people's lives are being decided on so arbitrarily. With a real appeal division in place, board members will have case law that they can refer to when deciding a case, in order to ensure greater consistency.

Lastly, I think we could even save money in our justice system, since the appeal division, as it is defined in the legislation, is an administrative tribunal. But since this administrative tribunal does not yet exist, claimants who have been refused by the board tend to avail themselves of all kinds of procedures before superior courts to try to obtain justice. In the end, this is more expensive for the system, since those proceedings tend to be much more costly.

In my opinion, it is important to move forward on this. In committee this week, the minister told me he was afraid that, among other things, the possibility of appeal would snowball and the appeals would drag on forever.

I invite the Conservatives to support the principle of my bill and to send it to a committee that will determine if measures can be implemented to prevent this from happening. We cannot wait for the entire system to be reformed before taking action. Critical decisions are being made about people. I therefore invite all members to support this bill.

It is a matter of respect for the Parliament that voted for a law. Although seven years have passed, this measure should be implemented. It is a matter of natural justice. It is the way things are done in all western democracies. Every judicial system provides for appeals in order to eliminate arbitrary decisions, which do occur at present, and also to preserve the honour of Quebeckers and Canadians by respecting the dignity of those human beings who seek refuge in our country.

I would like to close on a more poetic note in this House by quoting Gilles Vigneault, a great Quebec singer. I am sorry, but I will not be singing. I would just like to read his lyrics for all my colleagues:

About my solitary country
I cry out before I am silenced
To everyone on earth
My house is your house
Inside my four walls of ice
I take my time and my space
To prepare the fire, the place
For the people of the horizon
And the people are of my race

Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
Private Members' Business

6:10 p.m.

St. Catharines
Ontario

Conservative

Rick Dykstra Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my hon. colleague for his speech and certainly the work that he is doing on the immigration and citizenship committee. Regardless of political stripe, we on occasion have been able to find some common ground and have been working quite well in the early days of this 40th Parliament.

I do want to thank the hon. member for not singing in the House of Commons. I certainly do not mind him speaking once in awhile, but the last thing I would really want is to hear him sing a tune here in the House of Commons.

Off the top, I want to state that our government's position on Bill C-291 has not changed from that in the 39th Parliament. In fact, we will be opposing the bill, because this bill seeks to establish the refugee appeal division.

There is no question that we strongly support an effective refugee status determination system, but as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration said yesterday, he was delighted to hear the interest of the member who asked a question on this topic and was hopeful that we could all work together to create a more efficient and effective refugee determination system.

The government opposes this legislation because it is neither necessary in the current system nor is it efficient. It would add considerable delays and costs, both in the start-up and operating costs as well as the prolonged costs for services provided to failed refugees waiting for their fourth level of appeal, which would be this appeal division.

The cost of implementing the refugee appeal division would be in the range of $15 million to $25 million annually in new operating costs, about the same amount in social services costs paid by both the provincial and federal governments for refugees, not to mention start-up costs of approximately $10 million.

It would also add five months to the decision-making process. Provinces such as Ontario, British Columbia and even Quebec would be disproportionately affected by this.

Canadians have a right to be proud of our humanitarian tradition, no question, and as the member for Eglinton—Lawrence, a former Liberal minister of citizenship and immigration, said last June before the human rights committee in the other place:

--[T]he people that I consulted, those from the United Nations responsible for refugees, liked to think of Canada as the premier example of a system for refugee determination that underscored fairness and product.

The member concluded that the current system is fair, that there is no need for another appeal process, as four steps already exist in this decision-making process.

As the member for Eglinton—Lawrence put in his own words:

--I said I would not implement it. Of course, we got into an election so I could not change my mind. When Bill C-280 came forward, I did not see any compelling arguments to make me change my mind.

If a former Liberal citizenship and immigration minister is willing to publicly speak against the bill, which has not been substantively changed since its previous incarnation as Bill C-280, then I have to ask all of my Liberal colleagues across the floor why they would not listen to one of their colleagues and also oppose this bill.

There is a full range of recourses offered by the refugee determination system as a whole. Our refugee determination system is based on a strong, independent, first level decision-making process at the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Rejected applicants can then seek leave for a judicial review at the Federal Court, another form of appeal, if you will. If both the IRB and the Federal Court turn down the applicant's claim, he or she is still entitled to a pre-removal risk assessment before leaving and can also apply for permanent residence on humanitarian or compassionate grounds.

The addition of the refugee appeal division would only add a further level of review to an already comprehensive refugee determination system. Successful refugee applications can take an average of two and a half years to reach permanent residence status. Negative applications can take over five years, and in some cases much longer than that, before an individual has exhausted all avenues of appeal.

We changed the selection process to make it more open and more accountable. This is a great improvement over the years of Liberal patronage to their political friends, appointments such as Mr. Mouammar, who had an acceptance rate double that of the IRB average at that time, which rose to virtually 100% in some cases if one was from the Middle East.

Last year there were 40 Governor in Council appointments and 24 reappointments. With the minister's announcement on March 10, 2009, of two appointments and five reappointments, and his previous announcement of 25 appointments and 3 reappointments in 2009, the board now stands at close to 90% of its full complement. With fewer vacancies on the IRB, genuine refugee claims will be processed and finalized faster, while frivolous asylum applications will be dismissed much more quickly.

Canadians expect their refugee system to help and protect legitimate refugees. As the minister said yesterday in the House, “last year we received 38,000 inland refugee claimants, about 60% of whose applications were rejected by the IRB”.

There are individuals taking advantage of our compassionate nature and seeking refugee status on dishonest grounds. They know the significant length of time that this process affords them. We must fix this.

It is not an uncommon tactic to make a false refugee claim to allow the individual to attempt to make enough connections within the community so that they are able to bolster their humanitarian and compassionate grounds case. This is a fundamental problem that this bill simply does not address. In fact, it would legitimately add to the incentive to make fraudulent applications, as the time before deportation would be extended by at least five months.

In 2008, 34,800 refugee claims were referred to the Immigration and Refugee Board, as compared to 27,912 claims in 2007. This represents an almost 25% increase in refugee claims.

Last year, the former minister of citizenship and immigration, the member for Haldimand—Norfolk, shared her concerns at the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights. She noted the number of refugee claims in Canada was increasing at a rate higher than in almost every other country. She reported that a majority of claimants were found not to be in need of protection. Only 43% of claims finalized by the Immigration and Refugee Board were accepted in 2007 and the acceptance rate dropped to 42% last year.

There are those who would like to take advantage of our generosity in this country and take a place away from those who are genuinely in need of our protection and their own. There are those who come to Canada from countries, such as Mexico, that are not typically seen to produce refugees. Mexico is the largest source country of refugees, with approximately 8,000 individual claims in 2008. Only 10% are successful in their application for status. Very valuable resources are being increasingly diverted from those who need our help to those who are found not to be genuine refugees.

If this bill is implemented, failed refugee claimants will be the ones filing for secondary appeals. It is impossible to predict the number of appeals that could be made every year because each refugee claim is assessed individually. On average, it takes three days to determine an eligibility claim but it takes about 17 months from the date a claim is referred to the IRB to an initial decision rendered by the IRB.

Leave applications for judicial review of the IRB decision can take about four months. If that leave is granted, it can take approximately a year or more to decide the appeal. A pre-removal risk assessment takes about nine months. An application made on humanitarian and compassionate grounds can take an additional 21 months.

A claimant has a right to seek judicial review of negative pre-removal risk assessment and decisions made on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. It adds up. It can take up to five years for almost all of these cases to be handled through the process and up to ten years in some cases. The hon. member's bill would extend that by at least another five months.

We need to consider that almost 35,000 refugee claims were made to the IRB last year. Adding another layer to the current refugee status determination process would not only further paralyze our system, it would erode its very integrity. The Refugee Appeal Division would conduct only a paper review of the evidence presented at the original hearing, it would not allow for the introduction of new evidence or an in-person hearing.

We have monitored the impact of delaying implementation of the Refugee Appeal Division. We have consistently found that even without this fourth layer of review, the current system already provides protection to those who need it.

The implementation of an appeal would be possibly only if the current system could be streamlined to avoid access to multiple and overlapping recourses. Therefore, I urge all hon. members to not support Bill C-291.