Thank you, Mr. Chair.
I'm a professor at the graduate school of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.
My comments today are based on my work on Canada's immigration system and its effect on women in general, and vulnerable women in particular.
The remit of the committee as formulated in the invitation I received is to, “Look at ways to ensure sponsored spouses have the skills they need to succeed in Canada; and to examine how to better prevent vulnerable women from being victimized by an abusive sponsor in Canada”.
When looking at the situation of sponsored women in Canada, in particular those who fall under the provisions of the amendment to the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act that stipulates conditional permanent residency for certain relationships, we have to distinguish three types of vulnerability to be able to articulate the measures necessary to protect women effectively.
The first kind of vulnerability is that of some women's lives in Canada. Many of your witnesses, including those who preceded me, so far have commented on the isolation and lack of integration many immigrant women experience, in particular those who lack language skills when coming to Canada. This vulnerability applies to women in forced marriages as much as it does to those women whose relationship status may be in question.
I believe it is fair to say that the NGOs invited so far, and no doubt those still come, have made a convincing case for the immediate measures that should be taken to address this specific kind of vulnerability. Such measures include access to immigration information in the language of origin, and ideally in the country of origin. They also include access to integration resources and skill development in Canada.
The second kind of vulnerability is that of women in general toward their sponsors. Here the fear is, as you have discussed before, that an abusive sponsor can exercise undue influence and power over a sponsored woman by threatening to cancel the sponsorship agreement. This situation is unrelated to the woman's language or professional skill level.
As one of your witnesses stated, educated women face this danger as much as those lacking in skills. The difference is, of course, that educated women will more likely have access to the kinds of resources that NGOs and the government provide to get out of abusive relationships. They will be able to report the abuse to the police, or find a network of support. Again, I refer here simply to the recommendations made so far to address this vulnerability.
The third kind of vulnerability is related to a woman's status as a permanent resident. This status may be put in jeopardy if the sponsor cancels the sponsorship agreement. This particular vulnerability is heightened by the fact that the onus lies on the woman to prove that, contrary to the sponsor's statement, the relationship was a bona fide one, or that the woman has been abused by the sponsor. If she's able to provide such proof, she will be entitled to the protection of the abuse clause in the conditional permanent residence amendment. She will be protected from being deported.
My concern is with this last kind of vulnerability. So far, many of your witnesses have underlined the difficulty of providing evidence of abuse, particularly, of course, if it is a case of psychological or financial abuse. Also, your witnesses from CIC and CBSA have testified that a lot of weight lies with the immigration officers who have to make a judgment call about whether or not abuse is actually taking place. I certainly believe that the officers in question will most often be sympathetic to the woman making the allegation of abuse; however, it remains that the burden of proof is on the individual woman.
Contrast this with the principles that have been adopted by the British forced marriage unit, FMU. This unit was put in place in 2005 to provide “practical support, information and advice to anyone who has been through or is at risk of a forced marriage.”
It's worth noting that the FMU is a joint initiative between the foreign and Commonwealth office and the home office. The FMU relies on a network of civil society organizations in its work, much as is the case with CIC when dealing with cases of forced marriage here.
When interacting with a potential victim, the FMU follows three principles: first, the victim has the right to be believed; second, show empathy and give confidence; and third, place the victim at the heart of the process. These three principles are worth emulating in the Canadian context, not only for suspected victims of forced marriages but also for suspected victims of sponsor abuse.
There are three reasons that the burden of proof on the individual woman needs to be lightened, or ideally, abolished.
First, as a society we accept the principle that a suspect is innocent until found guilty. Yet the suggestion in cases of suspected abuse is that the sponsored woman has to prove her innocence, which is to say she has to prove she has been abused in order not to be penalized for leaving the sponsorship relationship, which is to say in order not to be deported.
Second, we need to enable women to apply for permanent resident status independently, if need be. I support the suggestion made by your earlier witness, Heather Neufeld. This is necessary to avoid the risk of women falling through the cracks of the system, since the humanitarian and compassionate route to access independent resident status is not likely to be successful for lack of evidence that the woman in question is well established and socially integrated in Canada. Again, recall here the accounts that you have received of the isolation many women experience.
In this instance, Canada should adopt a policy akin to the U.S. self-petition procedure under the Violence Against Women Act. This procedure allows immigrant women access to the labour market. I've provided a fact sheet to the clerk, in case there's a need for further information. Instead of making such headway into integrating women into Canada, we embroil women in lengthy procedures to prove that they have been abused and that they're innocent of violating Canadian immigration law and therefore should not be deported.
Finally, I believe that any immigration policy needs to keep in mind the issue of civic integration and social cohesion over time. What signal are we sending as a community if we demand of an immigrant woman who aims to become a citizen of Canada that she has to prove her innocence to us to be allowed to join the social fabric? One of your earlier witnesses has warned of alienation of young people from immigrant backgrounds, but this is not the only alienation an undue burden of proof may generate.
Suspected victims of spousal abuse need to be given the benefit of the doubt of their innocence, and they need to be integrated into laws and policies that apply to Canadians, rather than being made to feel second class. The burden of proof that there was an attempt to circumvent Canadian immigration law needs to lie with CIC and CBSA.