Mr. Speaker, I stand today to participate in the debate on Bill C-4, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Marine Transportation Security Act.
Coming from a riding with a large number of immigrants and refugees, I certainly concur that there are many reforms that need to be made to our immigration and refugee system. I will give a few examples.
We need to increase resources to reduce the backlog in immigration applications, establish targets for on-time completion of family-class and spousal sponsorships, implement the NDP's once in a lifetime bill to expedite sponsorship of one family member, eliminate landing fees for new immigrants and processing fees for refugees, develop appeal processes for potential visitors to Canada, establish a refugee appeal division and streamline and accelerate the recognition of foreign credentials.
However, sadly, none of those essential reforms are found in the bill that is before us today. In fact, the bill would not even achieve what it purports it would, according to its short title, which is, “preventing human smugglers from abusing Canada's immigration system”.
I am certain that no one in this House, or indeed in this country, would be opposed to preventing human smuggling and human trafficking. I certainly would not be. However, the bill would target the people who pay money to human smugglers to gain entry into Canada and would be completely ineffective in dealing with the smugglers themselves. It is not the smugglers who make the voyage by boat. They simply collect the money and put those who pay on the ship.
The same is true for human traffickers and others involved in organized crime. The bill barely mentions them. Why is that? It is because the bill has nothing to do with its stated intent of preventing human smuggling and everything to do with covering up for the government's mishandling of some recent high profile cases where a large number of people arrived in Canada by boat to claim refugee status. One example was the arrival of the Ocean Lady in 2009, and the more recent example was the arrival of the Sun Sea in August 2010. In both cases, the government was caught completely flat-footed. It simply failed to marshal the necessary resources to deal appropriately with the arrival of an influx of refugee claimants.
What was the government's response? Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand and instead of implementing evidence-based policies to deal fairly and responsibly with refugee claimants, the Conservatives have introduced legislation that would simply throw everyone in jail, and I do mean everyone. The bill clearly spells out that even children would be jailed for a year with no chance of being reunified with their families in the interim.
This is unconscionable. Detaining children, many of whom have escaped horrific conditions in their countries, is nothing short of immoral.
Studies from the U.K. show us what happens to incarcerated children. After just a few weeks of detention, profound behavioural changes are evident. Children begin to wet their beds, some become mute and many stop learning. They become withdrawn, undernourished and they lose weight. The psychological scars are real, lasting and well-documented.
However, the bill before us ignores all of that and would impose mandatory detention for an entire year and, perhaps most shamefully, the government has the gall to suggest that the bill is necessary to “protect” children. Nothing could be further from the truth. This legislation would further victimize children who have already suffered more dreadfully than most of us could even imagine.
Once again, it is clear that this is a government that thinks “evidence” is a dirty word. In fact, the government's dogged determination to renounce facts and evidence in favour of ideological posturing and wedge politics has become its hallmark. We saw it with the elimination of the long form census and we saw it again with the omnibus crime legislation that clearly flies in the face of all evidence and basic common sense.
The legislation before us today, too, underlines the government's complete disregard for reasoned, sensible, fact-based policy making.
The government is cynically playing to Canadians' fears, instead of acknowledging that the vast majority of Canadians are fair-minded people who want Canada to live up to its international obligations.
When Canadians see television coverage of United Nations' refugee camps around the world, they open up their hearts and often their wallets to assist children who are victims of civil wars, women who are raped and beaten in war-torn countries, and men who are escaping death threats and political persecution.
We are a compassionate society and we want to reach out to provide humanitarian assistance to the best of our abilities. We expect our government to do the same. In fact, the government is bound to do so, not just a representative of its citizenry, but because Canada is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees.
Article 31 of that convention states:
The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.
Instead of living up to the letter or the spirit of that convention, the Conservative government is now proposing to do the exact opposite. It imposes penalties on refugees who are fleeing persecution. What is worse, it is doing so simply on the basis of the mode of transportation with which they arrive in Canada. Specifically targeted are people who arrive by boat. Why? Are people who arrive by boat any more dangerous to our national security than people who arrive by plane? Of course not. However, the government is not interested in creating well thought-out, evidence-based public policy. It is simply looking for a band-aid to paper over a public relations disaster of its own making when 478 people arrived by boat in Vancouver last summer to seek refuge from the civil war in Sri Lanka. Refugees will pay the price.
I am not saying that the government does not need to do due diligence, of course it does, but let us not demonize everyone who arrives in Canada by boat. In fact, we need to remind ourselves of the outpouring of support in our country for the 50,000-60,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s. We called them “the boat people”. Support for them crossed all party lines and, yes, in an economic downturn. Here in Ottawa, it was Marion Dewar, the former mayor, member of Parliament and mother of the current member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, who took a leadership role in assisting Vietnamese refugees to settle in our country. In my hometown of Hamilton, it was the former Conservative MPP and cabinet minister, John Smith, who championed their cause.
Studies have since been done to track the success of those members of the Vietnamese community who arrived in 1979. The studies found that within 10 years the unemployment rate among the Vietnamese boat people was 2.3% lower than the average unemployment rate in Canada. One in five had started businesses and 99% of them had successfully applied to become Canadian citizens. This is the kind of success that compassion brings. This is the kind of success on which our nation is built.
We also know what happens when we fail to act with compassion. An event from our less distinguished past is the Canadian government's refusal to admit a boat carrying Jewish people fleeing Hitler's Germany, a refusal that forced the MS St. Louis back to Europe where many of its passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism himself has expressed a sense of our country's responsibility for those passengers and spoke of a fundamental ethical obligation to help people in desperate situations fleeing for their lives. In the minister's words at the unveiling of the monument to commemorate the MS St. Louis, the monument was described as a “concrete perpetual expression of regret”. The minister concluded by saying that “Canada will never close its doors to legitimate refugees who need our protection and who are fleeing persecution”.
That is precisely the position that I wish were reflected in the bill that is before us today. The definition of a refugee is clear. Refugees must demonstrate that there is a well-founded fear of persecution, that there is a risk of death, injury, torture or some other unacceptable conduct or treatment that violates the common norms of civilized society. Such people need our help and we must establish fair rules to adjudicate such claims.
However, fairness is not what we find in the bill that is before us today. On the contrary, Bill C-4 very likely violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and both the UN's refugee convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It discriminates by creating two classes of refugees based on their mode of arrival. It imposes arbitrary detention without review. It denies the right to equal access to justice and it denies consideration of the best interests of a child.
The bill would not crack down on human smugglers. Rather, it would target legitimate refugees and the people who try to help them. It would punish vulnerable women, men and children. It would establish processes that are unclear, arbitrary, discriminatory and inhumane.
This legislation is neither fair nor balanced. Therefore, it is legislation that I simply cannot support.