Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
As you said, my name is Robert Orr. I am the assistant deputy minister for operations at Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
I am here today with David Manicom, director general of the immigration branch; Angela Gawel, director general for international region; and Ryhan Mansour who, as you heard, was manager of policy integration branch.
My colleagues and I are pleased to appear before your committee this afternoon.
We hope that our testimony today will be helpful to you as you undertake your study on strengthening the protection of vulnerable women in Canada's immigration system.
This is a serious societal issue, the scope of which extends well beyond CIC's jurisdiction and beyond even the realm of immigration. It is a broader and complex issue encompassing many aspects and facets.
Having said that, let me say that CIC takes the protection of immigrant women's rights very seriously. The department has taken several measures, regulatory and otherwise, to address family violence in the context of immigration.
First and foremost, regulatory amendments have made it much harder for people convicted of crimes that result in bodily harm against members of their family or other particularly violent offences to sponsor any family class member to come to Canada.
Family violence is not tolerated in Canada, and individuals who do not respect Canadian law and commit a serious crime, regardless of who the victim was, should not benefit from the privilege of sponsorship.
Previously, a sponsorship application would not have been approved if the sponsor had been convicted of a crime resulting in bodily harm against a specific list of family members or relatives.
That list has now been expanded to ensure that prospective sponsors convicted of such crimes against an expanded list of individuals, or particularly violent offences against any person, are generally not allowed to sponsor family to come to Canada for five years following the completion of their sentence.
While these changes took effect in 2011, the story dates back to a 2008 Federal Court decision that highlighted a gap in the immigration and refugee regulations.
In that decision, a man convicted of killing his brother's wife was allowed to sponsor his own wife because his sister-in-law did not meet the definition of relative or family member in the regulations.
The regulatory changes now in force fix the gap highlighted in the Federal Court decision and assist in the protection of sponsored individuals from family violence.
CIC has also brought in new measures in recent years to deter foreign nationals from entering into marriages of convenience to gain permanent resident status in Canada—including two-year conditional permanent resident status for certain sponsored spouses.
CIC is aware of concerns that conditional status could increase the vulnerability of sponsored spouses who are in abusive relationships. Because of this, there is an exemption to this measure in instances where there is evidence of abuse, whether that abuse is of a physical, sexual, psychological or financial nature. The exemption also applies in situations where there is evidence of neglect, such as a failure to provide the necessaries of life.
In consultation with several groups, including women's organizations, CIC has developed a process to allow newly sponsored spouses, who are affected by the conditional permanent residence measure and who are victims of abuse or neglect, to come forward without having to worry that they might face enforcement action.
Meanwhile, guidelines and training have been developed to assist CIC officers in processing requests for exemptions based on abuse or neglect, and in handling sensitive information, including evidence of abuse from a third party, related to situations of abuse.
CIC also publishes a brochure with important information for sponsored spouses or partners. It explains what conditional permanent residence means for them, and where they can turn to for help if they are being abused or neglected by their sponsor or their family.
The brochure states in no uncertain terms that abuse is not tolerated in Canada, that sponsored spouses don't have to remain in an abusive situation, that getting help is not shameful and that confidential help is available by phone, in person and online.
Mr. Chair, I understand that the main focus of this committee's study is on women who immigrate to Canada through the spousal sponsorship program, but it's important to remember that immigrant women also come to Canada through other avenues.
In fact, in 2012 more than twice as many women came to Canada as economic immigrants than through the family class. While most arrived as spouses and dependants, more than 27,500 were principal applicants, including 15,559 skilled workers. In comparison, just over 23,400 women came to Canada in 2012 as spouses and partners.
Immigration is a powerful positive force for women, empowering them to succeed through access to educational, employment, and economic opportunities in Canada, opportunities that could have been limited or non-existent in their country of origin.
Having said that, the immigration system is not foolproof. CIC officers are trained to assess the legitimacy of relationships at the visa application stage, but they are not omniscient. Despite our best efforts and intentions, the reality is that some immigrant women can and do face violence or abuse after they arrive, just as native-born Canadian women do. This can happen whether women come to Canada under the spousal sponsorship program or as economic immigrants.
Under our settlement program, CIC provides funding to a variety of organizations that offer programs and services that respond to the specific needs of permanent residents, including immigrant women and their families who may find themselves in vulnerable situations.
Service-providing organizations often represent newcomers' first contact after arrival and provide culturally-sensitive supports as well as important linkages to community and social services.
CIC is committed to promoting the quick and successful integration of all newcomers—both into the labour market and into their new communities. That is why CIC's settlement services are flexible and designed to meet the diverse needs of newcomers, including women, who may be facing multiple barriers such as low literacy skills, lack of child-minding and limited transportation.
In 2012-13, more than 200,000 people used CIC's settlement services. Women made up approximately 60% of that number and close to 70% of those accessing CIC-funded language training classes.
Overseas, newcomers can access programs that help them understand their rights and responsibilities in Canada, and that provide detailed labour market information so they can make informed decisions prior to arrival.
Once in Canada, women also have access to a range of employment-related supports that help them build their skills to enter the workforce and/or to advance their career.
Many CIC-funded organizations provide targeted programming designed for specific groups, including women. For example, women's-only language classes for immigrant and refugee women cover issues such as family violence, spousal abuse, women's rights, legal rights and responsibilities, and health care, and include bridging or referral to other available services in the community.
Support services also exist in the area of crisis counselling, in which organizations assist women through short-term, non-clinical counselling, and then refer them to a variety of local resources including police, shelters, and clinical counsellors in order to provide immediate assistance to individuals in violent situations.
Finally, in line with the “Discover Canada” citizenship study guide, the latest version of the “Welcome to Canada” guide informs newcomers of what is not acceptable in Canada. For the first time, “Welcome to Canada” states that female genital mutilation, honour-based crimes, and forced marriages will not be tolerated in this country.
Mr. Chair, strengthening and improving the protection of immigrant women is a serious issue that warrants everyone's attention. I want to thank the committee for choosing to study this topic, and for its work in this area.
While CIC has taken important measures in recent years, we are open to exploring other ways to address family violence and to protect the rights of vulnerable immigrant women. We look forward to receiving the findings of this committee's study, which will further inform our efforts in this area.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.
My colleagues and I would be happy to discuss further any aspect of our opening remarks, or anything else that committee members would like to ask us about this topic.
Thank you very much.