Evidence of meeting #58 for Citizenship and Immigration in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was refugees.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

David Manicom  Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic and Program Policy, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Donald Cochrane  Senior Director, International Region, Department of Citizenship and Immigration
Lisa Hébert  Coordinator, Capital Rainbow Refuge
Shahina Perveen  Program Participant, Canadian Citizen, Capital Rainbow Refuge
Eka Nasution  Director, Rainbow Foundation of Hope
Chad Wilkinson  Director, Rainbow Foundation of Hope
Sharalyn Jordan  Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee
Soubhi M.  Member, Rainbow Refugee

4:25 p.m.

Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic and Program Policy, Department of Citizenship and Immigration

David Manicom

I don't think there's a plan to do a formal evaluation at this time. It's a fairly small program. A formal evaluation might cost more than the dollar value of the program. What we're looking at over the coming year, given the decision to renew the funding to the program, is to talk with the Rainbow Refugee Society and some of their partners to determine the best way forward to make permanent Canada's programming to assist the successful identification and integration of these refugees. It's more about what is most effective in the long term, and I think that at this point it's a very open-ended discussion that we want to have.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

This pilot has been renewed twice. It's been ongoing for six and a half years.

Can we take it as an indicator of the success of this program? At what point, and after how many renewals, does the pilot become a permanent program?

4:25 p.m.

Associate Assistant Deputy Minister, Strategic and Program Policy, Department of Citizenship and Immigration

David Manicom

That's an extremely interesting question. We have some pilots out there in all government departments that have been going on for many, many years.

The numbers we settled on in the program are very modest but very important. The partnerships that have been developed by the Rainbow Refugee Society facilitated those.

I think it probably is time to decide on a more permanent platform for providing the sorts of assistance that this pilot has put in place. Whether this is the right mechanism, or whether there are other organizations out there that serve the same community that may wish to be involved, is something that I think we need to take a good hard look at, and provide recommendations to our minister.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you.

I'd like to thank the department officials for appearing before the committee and starting off this particular study.

With that, we'll suspend for a couple of minutes to allow the assembly of the next panel.

Thank you.

4:25 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

I'd like to call the meeting to order.

With Capital Rainbow Refuge, we have Lisa Hébert, coordinator; and Shahina Perveen. With the Rainbow Foundation of Hope, we have Chad Wilkinson, director; and Eka Nasution, director. With Rainbow Refugee Vancouver, we have Sharalyn Jordan, board chair; and Soubhi M., a member.

I'd like to welcome all the witnesses before us, and we'll begin with seven minutes for the Capital Rainbow Refuge.

4:25 p.m.

Lisa Hébert Coordinator, Capital Rainbow Refuge

Thank you for taking the time to hear our issue.

Capital Rainbow Refuge is a private sponsorship group that supports sexual minority refugees. We're proud to have been the first in Canada to have sponsored under the program that you're studying, the rainbow refugee assistance program, or the rainbow RAP.

That was six years ago, when we began the settlement of a lesbian couple from Asia, and without further ado, let me introduce Shahina Perveen.

4:25 p.m.

Shahina Perveen Program Participant, Canadian Citizen, Capital Rainbow Refuge

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak and share my journey as a refugee who settled under the rainbow refugee assistance program.

I'm Shahina Perveen, an LGBT sponsored refugee who came to Canada in 2012 with my partner. We both were sponsored by Capital Rainbow Refuge and I understand that we were the first to come to Canada under this program in 2012.

In 2010, I met my partner through an online dating site in Thailand. It was not an awkward feeling for me to meet a lesbian who was married to a man with three children. Lesbians often have to live a secret life. Being from a country where homosexuality is a punishable crime, women do not have any other choice but to meet other women in hiding. My partner was 14 years old when her mother found out that she was interested in other women. To cure her so-called homosexual inclination, her mother forced her to marry a man at 14 years of age. She conceived her first child when she was merely 15 years old.

We started exchanging emails and text messages, only to realize that it was a mistake and her family found out about us. She escaped her home at midnight to protect herself from her husband's anger. We both went into hiding, as her husband threatened to prosecute us under the current anti-LGBT law in our home country. Her children were ready to testify. They were too young to understand what was happening.

Having no safety by law and an expired visa, we decided to go to UNHCR and request protection. I remember a lady from a non-profit organization that supports asylum seekers. She was flabbergasted that UNHCR registered us, as we did not come from a war-torn country.

While we were waiting to get a decision from UNHCR about our status, we were under constant threat from the country where we both were living illegally, with no right to work and no legal existence. We were fortunate that the rainbow refugee assistance program happened to roll out in 2011. I doubt we would have made it here, if no such supporting effort was made by government and CRR to help LGBTQ refugees.

It took us about one year, where in most cases it takes about four years. We received tremendous support from day one with all emotional and financial assistance with CRR and partial settlement funds from rainbow RAP. We were under sponsorship for a year and since then we both are working and pursuing higher education. We have contributed our share to the economy and workforce and we are proud to say that we recently received our citizenship.

I would like to thank rainbow refugee assistance program for helping, not only me, but many other LGBT refugees who were persecuted, harassed, and at times, went through unspeakable tragedies by their people and governments. The rainbow refugee program creates families—and this is from my personal experience—where people choose to be a part of trials and tribulations and emotionally support each other. This is the support I got from CRR.

The rainbow refugee assistance program encouraged people to come together, share responsibilities of reaching out globally, and to champion the value of Canada in protecting the most vulnerable people.

Thank you for letting me share my experience.

4:35 p.m.

Coordinator, Capital Rainbow Refuge

Lisa Hébert

The rainbow RAP has been vital to our sector, and we believe that it should become a regular program with an ongoing multi-year funding commitment—notice the word “regular”. I think that one would work.

As you see in our brief, we have some lower-income groups we mentor that appreciate the seed monies attached to the program, but there are other aspects that are essential. We fear that, without this program, we would not be able to sponsor in this important sector. The rainbow RAP allows us to partner with sponsorship agreement holders, or SAHs, which are primarily churches, without taking away from their work with their congregations. It allows us to sponsor individuals who are afraid to or unable to register with the UNHCR, which has to partner with states that often kill or jail LGBTQ people. We know that all it takes is one person to threaten or ruin their lives.

Canadians are proud that our country has recognized LGBTQ human rights, and it makes sense that our country has a regular program to support this sponsorship. There is a need for a specialized program because LGBTQ refugees tend to be among the most vulnerable. They face potential persecution from multiple sources, including the state, militarized groups, their own community, and for many, their own families. This sector has a very high instance of family violence.

When they flee, they go to nearby countries that also criminalize. There they face the same threats. Unlike other refugees, they can't turn to the state, or their community, or family for support, so they tend to be very alone. Unspeakable tragedies happen. Cases we've sponsored have dealt with terrible attacks while on the run like stabbing, kidnapping, torture, death threats, jail, assault, sexual assault, and motherhood from rape. This is why we desperately need to improve processing times.

For everywhere outside the Middle East, Canada's processing times have shot up to four to seven years. We're currently trying to sponsor a case with a family stuck in a processing time of seven years. It's hard to imagine that anyone living that long in desperate conditions would not be severely harmed. By expediting processing, Canada can reduce post-traumatic stress and basically save lives.

The rainbow RAP makes settlement of LGBTQ refugees humane and welcoming. We know that, for even Canadian-born LGBTQ minorities, challenges persist. Resettlement in a new country is hard for anyone, but when you add identity discrimination and high rates of HIV in Canadian cities, there are extra barriers. This program works because it brings together caring Canadians to help navigate our society. In our experience, settlements led by private groups like ours are among the most successful. For newcomers, there's nothing better than having their own support group. That's why Canada's private sponsorship programs have been lauded as a success around the world. In what's actually a public-private partnership, the Government of Canada facilitates, and the community settles. We work together very effectively. Both government and our community have benefited from this collaboration. It engages our communities and sponsorship.

It makes sense to formalize this work on an ongoing basis. In summary, let's position our country as a place where we value the lives of everyone. Every person we've sponsored sends a signal back that we value their humanity. Together, we can work to show the world that LGBTQ are people too.

4:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Ms. Hébert.

Now the Rainbow Foundation of Hope has seven minutes.

4:40 p.m.

Eka Nasution Director, Rainbow Foundation of Hope

Good afternoon, honourable members of Parliament. Thank you immensely for the opportunity to allow Chad and me to attend this special hearing on the rainbow refugee assistance program.

My name is Eka. My husband and I were married discreetly in Canada without any friends or family present. It broke my heart, but having him next to me at the Nepean Point here in Ottawa with our officiant, I told myself that it was perfect. We had no celebration afterwards.

We went back Indonesia. Only our best friends knew about our marriage; however, things changed. The Government of Indonesia issued a new criminal code article 292 stating that adults who conduct sexual intercourse with others of the same sex will be put in prison for five years. The Islamic Defenders Front and the police worked together to legally ban the education seminar on LGBT in Jakarta on February 3, 2016. They came into the meeting savagely and hit several participants who were all transgender. However, the government has succeeded in concealing this act of persecution from the international community.

My husband and I were victims of cyber-bullying on Twitter in Indonesia with #dieyoufaggot. Our photos were everywhere, and they wrote on Twitter that we should both rot in hell. We couldn't report this to the police, or things would turn the other way around.

One day while I was substitute teaching at the French institute of Indonesia, my students and I talked about what we liked and did not like in life. One of my students said that she really did not like homosexuals. I was stunned and confused. I then listened to why she hated us. After listening to her, I decided not to say anything more. I was afraid of the consequences.

In the end, my husband and I decided to leave Indonesia with the sole purpose of starting our own family here. To save our lives, we looked for information on the IRCC website. I have to say honestly that I found all the information on the site rather complicated. Through a Canadian organization located in Ottawa, Rainbow Railroad, which supports the LGBTQ+ community, we got help with the steps involved in making a refugee claim. We were even put in touch with a lawyer in Vancouver.

For that reason, I would like to thank the Canadian government for the support it provides to organizations devoted to supporting the LGBT community in this country, which I now call home. I would like therefore for the government to continue providing support to Rainbow Refugee's assistance programs in the years to come.

Thank you kindly, ladies and gentlemen.

4:40 p.m.

Chad Wilkinson Director, Rainbow Foundation of Hope

Thank you, Mr. Nasution, for sharing your experience.

The reach of our organization has truly become international owing to the many people who have suffered injustices because they are part of the LGBTQ+ community.

Foundation of Hope trusts that our briefings provide ample evidence for recommendation of the continuance of the rainbow RAP. We are here today to offer perspective. As a former private sponsor and co-founder of Foundation of Hope, I am here today as a human being and as a Canadian citizen.

Our organization has worked over three years through the generosity of the LGBT+ community and our allies. On June 11, 2016, we raised over $45,000 in our premier fundraising event through grassroots efforts. Less than 12 hours later, 50 human beings were killed in what President Obama came to call the single largest mass shooting in American history. This is a nation that prides itself on being the epicentre of the free world. Two days later, this government voted against a motion to recognize such atrocities on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and sexuality as a form of genocide.

Protecting transgender rights and the commitment by the Prime Minister to fight homophobia are important milestones, but Canada has a ways to go. His own father sat in this very House and declared famously, "There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation." His historic bill decriminalizing homosexuality achieved royal assent on June 27, 1969. Again, less than 12 hours later, ironically, four New York policemen busted into the Stonewall Inn, where violence erupted and started the modern LGBT rights movement in the U.S.

It has been less than a year since Orlando, and almost 50 years since the Stonewall riots, but gay men are being thrown off buildings in Syria and Iraq. Lesbian women are being raped and murdered all across the African continent. In a city in northern Brazil earlier this year, a transwoman was dragged into the street, beaten, and brutally murdered while onlookers filmed it and posted it on Facebook. As I speak, a hundred men are being detained in a concentration camp in the southern republic of Chechnya.

Detainment and murder of millions of individuals occurred in World War II on the basis of ethnicity, religion, and sexuality. Considering the motion voted down last June, does this Parliament not equate terms like “ethnic cleansing” and “Holocaust” with “genocide”?

This is a moral issue. It must rise above partisan camps. This is the worst humanitarian crisis in our history. To sit in a political camp and ignore injustices beyond our borders is a choice. It sits in stark contrast to working across party lines to do what's morally right as a nation so revered in its respect for human rights across the world. I guess the real question is, in which camp does the government choose to sit?

Private sponsorship of queer refugees takes donors, volunteers, and government support. Applications to IRCC are challenging, especially around regions like Chechnya, where processing times can exceed four years, as Ms. Hébert has pointed out. If the Government of Canada is serious about the LGBT private sponsorship programs, or LGBT rights in general, the rainbow RAP is essential to this work.

Thank you for giving us this opportunity to express our feelings.

4:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Mr. Wilkinson.

The floor goes to Rainbow Refugee, for seven minutes, please.

4:45 p.m.

Sharalyn Jordan Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee

Thank you.

On behalf of all Refugee Rainbow members, thank you for this opportunity to present the work we do.

Rainbow Refugee is honoured to steward the rainbow refugee assistance program, and we are proud to partner with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada. Together we have encouraged Canadian LGBTQ communities in 15 municipalities across Canada, from Halifax to Winnipeg to Salt Spring Island, to sponsor refugees fleeing homophobic, transphobic, or HIV-related persecution. These communities have welcomed 75 LGBTQ newcomers from every region of the globe, and together we have raised over $1.4 million to more than match federal funds.

These numbers tell only some of the success of this program. For a more personal perspective, I'd like to introduce Soubhi.

4:45 p.m.

Soubhi M. Member, Rainbow Refugee

Hi.

I chose to take this chance today to be here for the thousands or maybe millions of people out there who have walked my path and probably much more difficult paths, with no hope of light at the end of that tunnel. I am facing one of my fears, which may not be speaking in public but speaking about a taboo, or maybe just speaking in general. Where I come from, speaking out loud and expressing one's self is absolutely forbidden.

I'm a Syrian citizen and I grew up in Damascus, where I have never been my true self. I always lived the lie with family, friends, and a tight-knit community. I graduated in 2013 as an architect, and I left for Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to start my career, after Syria was besieged by war. In the UAE, it was no better than Syria, and maybe worse. I always lived in fear, never my true self, spending each and every day expecting deportation for being myself and for numerous other inhuman laws. After more than three years there, my partner and I started searching, for months, to learn about resettlement in Canada. We were connected to Rainbow Refugee.

Our application was under process in June 2013 when I was trapped by government officials and put in detention in Dubai. I was kept there for five days without seeing my home or anyone else. My residency permit was cancelled, and I was taken directly to the airport to be deported. Usually that would be to my home country, but I was deported to Beirut, Lebanon, with no expectation of how long I was going to be there.

Members of my circle in Vancouver, Get Syrious, contacted other LGBTQ organization members in Lebanon, who did their best to help me get my life together when I had no place to stay, and no job or income. After six months in Lebanon, our papers were ready and we flew to Vancouver, Canada.

My first month in Vancouver was a relief, yet challenging. I went through very frequent ups and downs, and I'm still recovering from the impacts of trauma. One of the biggest challenges that I realized after five months in Canada was that for a person coming from the Middle East who grew up with a lot of beliefs about sins and impurities, a lot of stigmas, shedding all the taboos and insecurities takes a lot of time.

My life had been a roller coaster, and arriving in Canada felt like the last slope, a sudden fall, a jolt, and then gradually coming to rest. Arriving in Canada has changed the entire direction of my life. Today I'm able to talk in front of all of you about who I am and where I come from. Today I get to be the only author of my own book and write the beginning I want for my new chapter. Today I'm not afraid of being deported for who I am, for being homosexual. Because of this program, I'm not in Syria, fighting in Syria; I'm not in Lebanon in a camp, and I'm not threatened to be killed.

I'm here today as so many people who have arrived here are, and who have yet to arrive. I'm here today to talk about this and to talk about my experience, safe.

4:50 p.m.

Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee

Sharalyn Jordan

Witnessing acts of courage like this is one of the rewards that keep us going.

The targeted backlashes against sexual- and gender-diverse people in Chechnya, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Uganda in just the past five years make it clear that homophobic and transphobic persecution persists and may be on the rise. Criminal sanctions in 73 countries mean it impacts every region of the globe. The RRAP is a critical initiative and we urge the IRCC to make it a regular program with an ongoing multi-year funding commitment.

More broadly, we seek a commitment from the federal government to work with LGBTQ civil society organizations, like those of us here today, to ensure that Canada takes a proactive stance in promoting the human rights and protecting the lives of all sexual- and gender-diverse people internationally. The RRAP extends refugee protection and resettlement to some of the world's most at-risk refugees escaping threats of violence from their own families, communities, and states. They arrive in nearby countries that are often just as dangerous. Afghans try to lay low in Pakistan, and Ugandans are struggling in Kenya.

For many reasons, LGBTQ refugees do not know or trust that the UNHCR would protect them. The rainbow RAP uses networks of trusted NGOs to identify people for possible resettlement. RRAP sponsorship groups form a community of care that connects pre-arrivals, offering hope and practical support. On arrival, RRAP circles immediately support newcomers. Sharing our social networks opens up LGBTQ-affirming job contacts, health care, and friendships. Settlement presents distinct challenges for LGBTQ refugees, and RRAP circles offer open conversations about the daily realities of living LGBTQ in the often confusing diversity of Canadian cities.

Partnerships and collaborations are key to rainbow RAP's success. The federal government contributes three months of income support plus start-up funds for each sponsored person. Circles fundraise the remaining nine months. Canadians get great value for a small investment of public funds. Holders of sponsorship agreements are willing partners because their allocations are not impacted. The SAHs ensure fiduciary responsibilities are met and contribute decades of sponsorship know-how. RRAP circles bring passion, sweat equity, and lived LGBTQ know-how. We all become better at welcoming LGBTQ refugees in the process.

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

You have twenty seconds.

4:55 p.m.

Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee

Sharalyn Jordan

Leadership in the minister's office and the IRCC support is crucial. IRCC staff have been willing and able to troubleshoot when life-threatening emergencies arise. So we applaud all the parties around this table who are enthusiastic about ensuring the safety and rights of LGBTQ refugees. Making the RRAP a regular program will enable us to build and grow it sustainably, promote it more robustly, and allow more confident sponsorship of people in regions with long processing times.

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you.

4:55 p.m.

Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee

Sharalyn Jordan

Spikes in homophobic and transphobic violence will continue to occur. People fleeing this violence need safer pathways to protection. The RRAP is a small example of how this can be accomplished through deep community engagement and a public-private partnership. With longer-term federal government commitment, this program can be a shining star, a made-in-Canada innovation addressing a lethal and grave human rights abuse.

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Ms. Jordan.

4:55 p.m.

Board Chair, Rainbow Refugee

Sharalyn Jordan

Canadian LGBTQ communities are passionate about doing this work. They've stood up in solidarity and want to do more and we hope you'll give us this opportunity.

Thank you.

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Ms. Jordan.

Mr. Anandasangaree.

4:55 p.m.

Liberal

Gary Anandasangaree Liberal Scarborough—Rouge Park, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

I want to start, Shahina, Eka, and Soubhi, to welcome you to your new country. I came to this country as a refugee when I was 10, and I've worked with refugees for a very long time. I understand many of the anxieties and also the excitement that comes about as a result of settling in Canada.

I have two sets of questions. The first is for the three of you. Very briefly, what are some of the challenges you faced in coming to Canada?

Then to the agencies, how many potential sponsors do you have in your list, and what are some of the challenges you face—other than processing time, which we hear about consistently—in resettlement? It's more of an open-ended question. Maybe we can start with Shahina.

4:55 p.m.

Program Participant, Canadian Citizen, Capital Rainbow Refuge

Shahina Perveen

One of the most important challenges we had was to prove we were a couple. We had to go through a rigorous process with UNHCR. Another important challenge was to get the knowledge of how to go about it. There is no documentation, no research paper available for somebody who fears for her life and does not know what to do. I was fortunate to have a bit of English, and I searched what to do, how to make my life and my partner's life safe. I eventually found the track through the help of other third-party organizations working with UNHCR. This process itself is difficult and the emotional struggle as you go through the process is horrendous.

4:55 p.m.

Coordinator, Capital Rainbow Refuge

Lisa Hébert

For me one of the hardest things is all the emails I get regularly from people who are in a desperate place, fleeing a desperate situation, and then they are in a country where it's terrible. I feel as though I don't have options. The program we work under takes a lot of time and money. Each one takes so much work. It takes about two months to do each application. I wish we could do more. I feel as though Canada could do more. We could. You know, we have a great country and we have space and we have a welcoming community. We could do more. If we could just have some help, then we could.