Madam Speaker, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, I am pleased to rise today to commence third reading of Bill C-35, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
This important piece of legislation would strengthen the rules governing those who charge a fee for immigration advice and representation. I hope at the end of the day that all hon. members will support the bill.
Over the past four years, this government has proposed and implemented initiatives and policies that clearly demonstrate a commitment to innovation and to improvement. Hon. members will recall that we modernized our immigration system by bringing flexibility to the way we select immigrants while tackling the backlog. We had to fix our immigration system or else the number of people waiting to come here would have swelled to over 1.5 million by 2012.
To improve Canada's asylum system, the minister introduced earlier this year the balanced refugee reform act. Its implementation will mean faster protection for those who genuinely need it and fast removals of bogus refugees who simply do not.
Now it is time to address the lack of public confidence in the regulation of immigration consultants. We all know that people anxious to immigrate to Canada can fall victim to unscrupulous immigration representatives who charge exorbitant fees and may promise would-be immigrants high-paying jobs or guaranteed, fast-tracked visas.
We have all heard or read about their unscrupulous and deceitful schemes such as encouraging prospective immigrants to lie on their applications, to concoct bogus stories about persecution while making refugee claims or to enter into sham marriages with Canadian citizens and permanent residents. In their quest for personal gain these unscrupulous representatives have displayed a wanton disregard for our immigration rules, bilked numerous people out of their hard-earned dollars and left countless lives in tatters along the way. These crooked immigration representatives are a menace, posing a costly threat not only to their victims but also to the integrity and fairness of our system.
Bill C-35 would amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act so that only members in good standing of a law society of a province, the Chambre des notaires du Québec or a body designated by the minister may represent or advise for a fee, or offer to do so at any stage of a proceeding or application.
Under the current legislation, the involvement of representatives in the pre-application or pre-submission period is beyond the scope of the law. Well, I am happy to say that Bill C-35 fixes that. By our casting a wider net, unauthorized individuals who provide paid advice or representation at any stage would be subject to a fine and/or imprisonment. This includes undeclared ghost consultants who operate in the shadows and conceal their involvement in an application or proceeding.
Further, there are currently no mechanisms in law that give the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism the authority to oversee the governing body regulating immigration consultants. The bill would provide the minister with the power by regulation to designate a body to govern immigration consultants and provide the Governor in Council the ability to establish measures to enhance the government's oversight of that designated body.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada is currently limited in its ability to disclose to the relevant governing body information on individuals providing unethical or unprofessional representation or advice. The bill would allow CIC to disclose such information to those responsible for governing or investigating that conduct, so we can work together to crack down on crooked consultants. An investigation could be undertaken more readily by the appropriate governing body and, where appropriate, disciplinary action pursued.
As we all know, governing bodies are responsible for taking disciplinary action against their members in cases of misconduct. This includes the revocation of membership. The governing body for immigration consultants can, like other bodies, investigate the conduct of its members where there is a concern that a member has breached a term of his or her membership. Provincial law societies use a similar process to look into complaints concerning their own members.
This bill is a comprehensive proposal to provide protection for vulnerable would-be immigrants by imposing serious criminal sanctions on unscrupulous representatives, enhancing oversight of the governing body for immigration consultants and improving information-sharing tools.
Since its introduction, Bill C-35 has received positive feedback from stakeholders, the media and Canadians, all of whom believe that this change was long overdue.
Throughout the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration study of Bill C-35, the minister and government committee members listened to the concerns raised and, accordingly, have adjusted the bill in a way that we believe can only strengthen it. That is what I said. We adjusted the bill accordingly during our consultations at committee.
For example, the government proposed the recognition of paralegals regulated by a law society. By recognizing the ability of law societies to govern their members in the public interest, such recognition could help protect would-be immigrants.
In response to concerns raised in good faith by parliamentarians, we also agreed to a number of amendments that reflect their input, resulting in language that, I believe, has strengthened this bill.
These amendments create a package that would realize our goal of cracking down on unscrupulous immigration representatives who exploit prospective would-be immigrants.
The offence provision found in Bill C-35 has been amended to capture both direct and indirect representation and advice. Penalties have been toughened by increasing the maximum fine for the offence of providing unauthorized immigration advice from $50,000 to $100,000; and summary convictions from $10,000 to $20,000.
The statute of limitations for summary conviction has also been increased to 10 years, offering investigators ample time to properly and fully investigate various offences committed under the act and lay charges before the time period passes.
In addition, for greater clarity, the government proposed a compromise amendment, which would respect Quebec's jurisdiction while maintaining federal authority over the regulation of immigration consultants.
The intention of this provision is to recognize that the province's act respecting immigration to Quebec applies to immigration consultants who, for consideration, advise or represent a person who files an application with the Quebec minister or government.
This amendment is not intended to capture immigration consultants who are advising or representing a person with regard to processes or requirements only under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, where these processes or requirements do not relate to Quebec legislation.
The proposed reforms follow the launch in 2009 of a public information campaign with information on the web in Canada, at missions abroad and through the media, explaining to Canadians how our immigration system works.
At the same time that Bill C-35 moves through the legislative process, a public selection process has been undertaken, under current authority, to identify a governing body for recognition as the regulator of immigration consultants.
In 2008 and 2009, reports of the standing committee pointed to a lack of public confidence in the body currently governing immigration consultants. This lack of public confidence poses a significant and immediate threat to the immigration program and its process.
Public comments on the selection process were solicited in June. This was followed by a call for submissions, as published in the Canada Gazette on August 28.
This open and transparent process is being undertaken in order to ensure that the body governing immigration consultants can effectively regulate its members, thus ensuring public confidence in the integrity of our immigration program.
A selection committee, composed of officials from the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, other federal government organizations and external experts, will examine all of the completed submissions against the criteria listed in the call for submissions that I spoke of earlier.
The selection committee will provide the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism with a recommendation as to which organizations, if any, has or have demonstrated the necessary organizational competencies.
Any and all potential and interested candidates are welcome to apply, including the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants.
This ongoing public selection process, together with the legislative changes proposed in Bill C-35, ensure the most efficient and the most effective approach to strengthening the regulation of immigration consultants, immediately and in the future. However, as we know all too well, there are large numbers of immigration consultants who operate beyond our borders.
The problem we are trying to address is large in scale and it is international in scope. The value of coming to Canada is so great in the minds of so many that they are often willing to pay their life savings in cash, and beyond, to unscrupulous representatives with the false promise of obtaining visas to visit or to move to Canada. That is why, when the minister met in September with some of our international partners, he underscored the need for combined action to thwart fraud and various forms of exploitation by unscrupulous immigration representatives.
The commission of fraud under Canada's immigration program is a crime that threatens the integrity of our immigration system, raises security concerns, wastes tax dollars, is unfair to those who do follow the rules and adds to the processing time for legitimate applications. We are fortunate that Canada's visa officers are extremely vigilant in preventing the exploitation of victims, but every fake document and false story we find slows down the entire system and diverts our resources away from legitimate applications. That is because our fraud deterrents and verification efforts, while effective, require much more time and resources than routine processing of applications.
Members can see why we are determined to crack down on immigration fraud or misrepresentation by unscrupulous immigration representatives. These unscrupulous representatives victimize people who dream of immigrating to this country. With no motive but greed, these profiteers take advantage of would-be immigrants and tempt them with a bogus bill of goods.
Needless to say, the underhanded schemes of unscrupulous representatives undermine the integrity and the fairness of Canada's immigration system. It is imperative that we tackle the threat they pose and this bill would allow us to do just that. The changes we propose would strengthen the rules governing those who provide immigration advice and representation for a fee, or offer to do so, and it would improve the way in which immigration consultants are regulated.
These changes are also in line with amendments we have proposed to the Citizenship Act to regulate citizenship consultants, which is Bill C-37 and will be coming to this House for second reading very shortly.
For far too long, unscrupulous immigration representatives have preyed upon the hopes and the dreams of would-be immigrants to our country. This disreputable conduct has brought shame to their profession and has abused our immigration system.
As was the case with Bill C-11, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the spirit of compromise and co-operation surrounding this bill has again been remarkable. I should speak to that briefly.
The fact is that one of the things Canadians have asked this government to do, and have asked all parties in this House to do, is to do our best to work together, to not be seen as always opposing the position of each other for political gain or to embarrass each other, because at the end of the day, legislation that passes through this House must be good for Canadians. It must be effective and efficient in terms of the new law that it sets, the new standard that it sets, in legislation.
I have to say, having been a member, as a parliamentary secretary, of the citizenship and immigration committee since the 40th general election, it is in fact a testament to the group of people who have sat on that committee and the group of people who sit on the committee now that indeed, while we do have our political flare-ups and we do have our disagreements, we have in fact, with Bill C-11 and Bill C-35, found a way to work together.
I certainly want to credit my critic who, while being on the job for a little less than a year, has in fact taken up the challenge that his predecessor put in front of him in terms of ensuring that, if we are going to work on issues of citizenship, on issues of immigration and on issues of multiculturalism and because the laws of the country sit before that committee, we must work together on behalf of Canadians to move that legislation forward.
The citizenship and immigration committee certainly has set an example of the spirit of compromise. It is a testament that legislation requires the support not just of the government but of a number of individuals in order to get it through the House.
Bill C-35 is a testament to the compromise the government is prepared to make without surrendering its values or the importance of the legislation the government puts before the House. The government recognizes that in the spirit of compromise, in some cases, the amendments actually strengthen the legislation. Bill C-35 is stronger now than it was before it went to committee. I compliment the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration who understands the need to listen, respond and act when legislation is moving forward.
I think the vote on third reading of Bill C-35 will show the support throughout the House for this piece of legislation. This legislation stands for those people who come to this country to become Canadians because of the history and traditions that make Canada a great country. Many people want to become Canadian citizens.
It is important to note that this legislation is for prospective Canadians. It is not just for those who are already Canadian citizens. That speaks volumes to where we are going as a country in terms of the immigrants coming here to build better lives for themselves and to contribute to the Canadian way of life. This bill does a great job in terms of representing that direction.
It is my hope that the spirit of compromise and co-operation as seen during the committee's study of Bill C-35 will ensure the bill's passage in the House.
I want to note the tireless efforts of the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism. Many in the House know of his hard work.
I also want to compliment all of the members of the committee, in particular my colleagues who sit on the government side. All five of them put in hours and hours of effort to ensure that this bill would move forward and carry.
I want to thank the chairman of the committee who at times had to rule with an iron fist. At times, he had to ensure that even the parliamentary secretary kept his cool during the hearings. In fact, I moved a motion to challenge the chair. I lost that vote as the opposition members actually sided with the chairman, but I certainly respected his decision in that regard.
Despite the workings of some of the issues that arose, the chairman did an excellent job in guiding the committee through some difficult negotiations and discussions on the bill. He ensured that witnesses, members of the public from across the country, who wanted the opportunity to participate and speak to the bill in terms of what was good or in need of change were allowed to do so.
At the end of the day, we have a piece of legislation before this House of which all of us regardless of political stripe can be proud. The government will do its best to ensure that Bill C-35 is implemented quickly once it receives royal assent.
To conclude, I wish to thank the people who work at Citizenship and Immigration Canada. They did an amazing job in ensuring that this bill met all of the standards this government wanted it to meet.