Evidence of meeting #61 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 individuals.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Janet Altshool  Representative, LEGIT Vancouver
Kimahli Powell  Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad
Michael Tutthill  Executive Director, Rainbow Resource Centre
Maurice Tomlinson  Senior Policy Analyst, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Arsham Parsi  Executive Director, Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Pursuant to Standing Order 108(2) and the motions adopted by the committee on October 4, 2016, the committee will resume its study on the 2011 pilot project for LGBTQ refugees.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

I have a point of order, Mr. Chair.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Mr. Tilson.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

The supplementary estimates (A) for 2017-18 were referred to the committee this past Thursday. When do you intend to call a meeting so we can question the minister on the expenditures of the department?

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Mr. Tilson, technically that is not a point of order. It's a matter for the committee to debate.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

When do you intend to do that, Mr. Chair?

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

We have some time scheduled for committee business later today, and that would be an appropriate time to raise the issue.

3:40 p.m.

Conservative

David Tilson Conservative Dufferin—Caledon, ON

Thank you.

3:40 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

We have before us today from the Rainbow Railroad, Mr. Kimahli Powell, the executive director. Welcome. We have from the Rainbow Resource Centre, Mr. Michael Tutthill, the executive director by video conference from Winnipeg. From LEGIT Vancouver we have Ms. Janet Altshool, who is a representative.

Our technicians have told us there are some technical challenges with the video conference from Vancouver, so perhaps we could begin with Ms. Altshool just in case for some reason we lose our connection.

Ms. Altshool, the floor is yours.

3:40 p.m.

Janet Altshool Representative, LEGIT Vancouver

Thank you very much.

Hello, my name is Janet Altshool. I'm a founding member of LEGIT, Canadian immigration for same-sex partners.

LEGIT was the first organization in Canada to focus on same-sex immigration. Over the past 25 years we've assisted thousands of people and helped to establish the immigration process for Canadians sponsoring their same-sex partners. Today, as you know, same-sex partners are included in the family class. LEGIT is proud of this work and of the leadership of the Canadian government in being one of the first countries in the world to recognize our relationships.

I am an immigrant to Canada. I applied on humanitarian and compassionate grounds based on my same-sex relationship with a Canadian who could not sponsor me because the law did not allow it at the time. I'm now a Canadian citizen, and my partner and I celebrated our 30th anniversary last summer.

When the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was enacted in 2002, same-sex partners were finally recognized as part of the family class. With that recognition, we thought that the work of LEGIT was done, because applications from same-sex partners were a regular part of the Canadian immigration system. What we found instead was that LGBTQ people still needed a community-based organization to assure them that the government process was legitimate and that they were included within that process.

Even after 15 years there is still a need for an organization such as LEGIT to help people with their applications and to challenge the bureaucracy when it makes seemingly innocuous changes that have an enormous impact on LGBTQ people—for example, the new requirement that those not living together provide joint utility bills, or the not-updated operations manual that says only opposite-sex marriages will be recognized for trans people.

That is why LEGIT supports an ongoing rainbow refugee assistance program. For refugees, there is a tremendous need for a regular program supported by those who understand the unique challenges of the LGBTQ people in arriving and settling in Canada. As with same-sex immigration, Canada needs to play an ongoing leadership role in the protection of LGBTQ refugees facing persecution. Over the past several years, more people are reaching out to LEGIT to help them escape violent situations. Through our drop-ins, email, and social media channels, LEGIT receives pleas for help daily from people who are in the midst of, or have fled, homophobic or transphobic violence.

Let me share my inbox with you.

Abdul is a college graduate. He contacted me in January, desperately trying to find someone who could help him. As a gay man in Pakistan, he was scared, closeted, and in two months going to be forced into an arranged marriage. He had no money for the exit visa to leave Pakistan. He did not want to be forced to marry but feared his family would kill him if he explained he was gay.

Daisy, a woman from an African country with laws criminalizing homosexuality, is an athlete and a lesbian desperately wanting to live somewhere without the risk of being murdered. Her partner lives 1,000 miles away because they fear being found out if they lived closer.

Wilson contacted me recently, saying, “I am in Uganda in Africa and am facing difficult times in here due to my status as a gay and I would like to flee my country to safeguard my life.” When I explained that I knew very little about refugee procedures and that he should contact the rainbow refugee program instead, he replied, “Oh, my God, I'm running for my life hopelessly.”

Lastly, Lucinda is transgendered and from Lebanon. She boarded a rusty ship with a number of Syrians fleeing for their lives. The ship sank and she lost all her documents and ended up in Greece. She rapidly found that the Greeks don't care for transgendered women any more than they do in Lebanon. She's periodically beaten and evicted from one apartment after another, once the landlord realizes she is transgendered.

I searched for and gave her the address for the UNHCR in Athens. She went to register and was told that she is not allowed to register with them. This is a very small sample of the messages I find waiting for me every day. People are fearing for their lives and desperate to survive, and they often are not finding help through the UNHCR.

Without Rainbow Refugees, we would not be able to respond with appropriate information and referral. What will happen if the RRAP ends in March? I'm not confident that typical sponsorship agreement holders and settlement organizations understand that LGBTQ refugees are fleeing persecution differently from other refugees. They are often without the support of family or cohorts, and often that is who they are fleeing from.

We need the experience of Rainbow Refugees to help with proactive planning that aids resettlement of LGBTQ refugees and assists with crisis situations, such as the targeting of gays in Chechnya and Kenya.

I hope you grasp the importance of their work, the importance of this program that is literally saving the lives of the last group of people that it is acceptable to vilify worldwide.

Thank you to the committee members for listening.

3:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Ms. Altshool.

Mr. Powell, for seven minutes, please.

3:45 p.m.

Kimahli Powell Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad

Thank you.

Hello, everyone. My name is Kimahli Powell, and I am the executive director of Rainbow Railroad.

Founded in 2006, Rainbow Railroad is a Canadian charity based in Toronto with a mandate to help LGBTQ2I individuals get to safety. We respond to urgent requests from all over the world from individuals who experience or have been threatened with physical or sexual violence due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Just today, the International Lesbian and Gay Association released a 12th edition of its crucial report, “State-Sponsored Homophobia: A world survey of sexual orientation laws”. According to the report, 72 countries still have anti-homosexual laws. In fact, there are eight countries where same-sex intimacy is punishable by death.

I'm sure you might have heard some of these statistics before. However, it is crucial in these discussions to remember that the criminalization of same-sex behaviour results in a hostile environment for many LGBTQ2I people internationally. They are rejected by their families, evicted from their homes, and targeted by the police. The result is a reality where gay men are fired from their jobs and forced into sex work. Additionally, many face housing discrimination and are homeless, living in cemeteries or in storm gutters.

Just recently, in Jamaica, I witnessed first-hand the scars of a young homeless man suffering from his second acid attack before we brought him to safety.

It is a reality where lesbians experience violent corrective rape and other forms of sexual violence. It is a reality where people who are HIV-positive cannot get access to essential health care for fear of being outed and exposed to further persecution.

That's where we come in. Since our founding, Rainbow Railroad has funded travel for nearly 300 individuals and has sharply, unfortunately, had to increase the number of individuals we have been able to assist from 29 in 2015, to 81 people last year, and 60 people this year alone.

Rainbow Railroad has also stepped up to help evacuate persons who fled Chechnya to Russia, whose lives are still at risk, and who wish to flee the country. We do this by providing pre-travel support, airfare, and short-term post-travel support to help individuals travel to a safer location. However, as we help more people, the need increases. Last year we received 700 requests from individuals, and since news went out that we were helping the situation in Chechnya, we received 100 requests in the past month alone.

While we have been steadily increasing the number of people we have been able to bring to safety, the majority of these individuals reside in the Caribbean, where there is greater access to local contacts and local options for people who need our help. However, for many individuals around the world, there is limited access to the community supports, which are crucial to our doing this work, as well as access to visas.

Until the Canadian government is prepared to facilitate issuing emergency temporary resident permits to LGBTQ2I persons at risk who Rainbow Railroad endorses, we have to diversify our options for individuals who request our help. That is why the rainbow refugee assistance program is so important. In 2015 Rainbow Railroad launched a pilot project to privately sponsor five Syrian refugees with the Metropolitan Community Church acting as our sponsorship agreement holder and Rainbow Refugee in Vancouver as a co-sponsor.

We had four settlement teams that raised above the $12,000 minimum to financially aid the newcomers; however, funding from RRAP was critical in order to give these individuals a lifeline of support. The first three applicants were submitted in early 2016 and were fast-tracked as part of the IRCC response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Four arrived in Toronto between May and June 2016. One of them, a young man named Bassel Mcleash, arrived just in time to proudly march next to the Prime Minister at Toronto Pride.

Our final application was submitted in July 2016, but unfortunately we were informed that the resettlement quota for 2016 was reached in March. We still await processing of the fifth individual.

Today Rainbow Railroad asks four things of the committee. First, the rainbow refugee assistance program must be a stable program with a multi-year funding commitment. We are very concerned that if this program does not continue, it will hinder the work we've been doing to nurture and sponsor LGBTQ2I refugees, particularly in regions where federal government assistance is crucially needed.

Rainbow Railroad is pleased to partner with national organizations such as Rainbow Refugee and Capital Rainbow Refuge. However, we also receive requests from rural communities across the country that have the heart and the organizing capacity to sponsor individuals but need resources.

We also have received interest from trans communities and from people of colour who want to help and who are, in some cases, a better fit for some of those refugees who need assistance, but they also need assistance in their fundraising efforts. Today it's time to make this program permanent with multi-year funding so that we can build the infrastructure to help save lives.

The second ask is to improve the processing times for LGBTQI individuals. These individuals who are waiting in a homophobic country should receive priority processing with expedited timelines. This would help minimize the risks these individuals face in dangerous countries of first asylum and would help encourage private sponsorship of high-risk cases out of these regions.

It is important to understand the unique nature of these cases. Many times these individuals have been ostracized from their homes, as my colleague just mentioned, and from their families, and sometimes the violence is perpetrated by their families, and they are alone. These waiting times, of up to seven years in some cases, literally put lives at risk.

Third, we need to remove the cap for UNHCR referrals of LGBTQ2I individuals in homophobic countries of first asylum. In regions where state-sponsored homophobia presents acute risk for LGBTQI asylum seekers, the UNHCR should be allowed to refer cases for resettlement irrespective of federal referral caps or quotas.

Finally, we encourage you to partner with Rainbow Railroad and other national partners on a strategy to support vulnerable populations. Recently we began talks with the federal government on a response to support the individuals who have currently fled Chechnya, and we're hopeful for results. As part of this ask we hope that any agreement is not limited to just one region but shows understanding that these atrocities happen all over the world.

3:50 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

You have 10 seconds.

3:50 p.m.

Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad

Kimahli Powell

In particular right now, we're also concerned about nearly 500 LGBTQI asylum seekers who fled to Kenya, many of them from Uganda, who face homophobic and violent conditions in the Kenyan camps. Because of the high incidence of rape and physical assault, they are isolated inside these camps.

I can name many of them. We are hopeful that we can partner with you to make sure that all members of the LGBTQI community, a community that is most vulnerable, are protected.

Thank you.

3:55 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Mr. Powell.

Mr. Tutthill, go ahead for seven minutes, please.

May 15th, 2017 / 3:55 p.m.

Michael Tutthill Executive Director, Rainbow Resource Centre

Starting 44 years ago in 1973, Gays for Equality offered a telephone information line, peer counselling service, and a resource library on the University of Manitoba campus. The group went on to become a leader and an important resource for the gay and lesbian community, providing community service, education, outreach, political awareness, and activism.

Today, known as the Rainbow Resource Centre, our mission is to provide support, education, and resources to foster a proud, resilient, and diverse LGBT2SQ+ community in Manitoba. This diversity includes refugees, asylum seekers, and other newcomers. We offer a newcomer-led social support group called New Pride of Winnipeg. The group meets twice a month, and it is a chance for gender and sexual minority newcomers to support one another and find community. Currently the group includes six claimants, two convention refugees, 23 permanent residents, one citizen, and 13 visa holders.

We provide support to newcomers in our counselling program. Currently we have five refugee claimants, one person considering a refugee claim, two under appeal, one facing a deportation order, three awaiting IRB decisions, nine with a permanent resident application pending, and two newcomers with unknown status.

Newcomer counselling clients may be newly arrived, have had a student visa and are making a refugee claim, have been sponsored through organizations like Reaching Out Winnipeg, or increasingly have crossed the border irregularly. Our counsellors provide support to prepare for the IRB hearing; follow up on the invasive questions faced by claimants appearing before the IRB; and begin to address the trauma experienced during the clients' journey in their home country or in the country of temporary asylum, which is almost never safe for sexual and gender minority people.

Often, our counsellors are the first people to ask the question, what's the best part of your LGBT2SQ+ identity? The answer to this question is the beginning of an assessment process to provide a letter confirming someone's gender or sexual minority identity or experience. Like many Canadians, many of the gender and sexual minority newcomer clients we see may not identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer, but use language appropriate to their own culture and personal history.

I'd like to thank and congratulate the department for releasing the Chairperson's Guideline 9: Proceedings before the IRB involving Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity and Expression. The guidelines address many of the concerns we experience during IRB hearings, and acknowledge the complexities of sexual and gender minority experience and identities. In preparing for an IRB hearing, our staff and clients' lawyers spend significant time addressing inconsistencies on the basis of claim.

Often, asylum seekers might be out to some service providers, yet not to others. Sometimes clients would be advised by settlement service workers or other service providers not to come out at all. This advice is well intentioned, given the Canadian LGBT2SQ+ people often come in contact with heterosexist or cissexist service providers. However, it does create perceived inconsistencies in the basis of claim for newcomer clients.

It is common for Canadian LGBT2SQ+ people to not be out to all of the service providers. One of our staff members has been married to a same-sex partner for five years and just came out to his doctor a couple of months ago.

IRB members have also asked our clients how they can have a child if they are a lesbian. The answer: for any of same reasons a Canadian lesbian can have a child. The guidelines provide IRB members, service providers, lawyers, and claimants with a framework of accountability in assessing claims of sexual orientation and if adhered to, will address some of these concerns.

These examples highlight our unique expertise as a community in assisting sexual and gender minority newcomers and refugees. This committee will hear from many organizations across the country that support sexual and gender minority refugees through sponsorship and settlement services. For decades, LGBT2SQ+ people in communities have been supporting one another in creating spaces to understand our identities and navigate the heterosexism or cissexism that we encounter daily.

We will continue to learn about the realities faced by sexual and gender minority newcomers, and we are well positioned to help you settle these clients in Canada.

Many newcomer clients, as I mentioned, will choose to be out in some parts of their lives but not in others. Many may be out in LGBT2SQ+ spaces, but not out within their ethnocultural community. Clients may be out to some family members, but not others. We also live with this reality. LGBT2SQ+ organizations are well positioned to make appropriate referrals, educate existing settlement services on gender and sexual minority realities, connect clients to their local LGBT2SQ+ communities and support, and create safer spaces within our own communities for newcomers to settle in. We're also well positioned to assist newcomers to navigate their new reality in a country that celebrates the achievement of same-sex marriage, but where it is not always safe to be out, where sexual and gender minorities continue to face discrimination in areas of health care, education, housing, and employment.

Continuing the rainbow refugee assistance program acknowledges and supports the communities who are best positioned to settle and sponsor gender and sexual minority refugees. Sponsorship by Canadian LGBT2SQ+ communities, like a contact with our centre, helps to ensure that gender and sexual minority refugees are met with community support upon their arrival in Canada. While we encourage non-LGBT2SQ+ people to sponsor gender and sexual minority refugees, given the humanity urgency of a situation, we also acknowledge that many sponsorship agreement holders are busy with the important work of family reunification. The rainbow refugee assistance program encourages our communities to sponsor persecuted people—

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Twenty seconds, please.

4 p.m.

Executive Director, Rainbow Resource Centre

Michael Tutthill

—who may otherwise not be sponsored. While not involved directly in sponsorship as a centre, we know that clients who have been sponsored by community members have a much easier time integrating into the community and require less support from our centre.

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Ten seconds.

4 p.m.

Executive Director, Rainbow Resource Centre

Michael Tutthill

As a centre, we look forward to partnering with IRCC to meet the increasing service needs of permanent residents and convention refugees who access our centre. We are currently providing these services with the financial support of our communities and through—

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you.

4 p.m.

Executive Director, Rainbow Resource Centre

Michael Tutthill

—existing service agreements not designated for newcomer work. Further, we hope to—

4 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Mr. Tutthill.

Mr. Boissonnault, five minutes, please.

4 p.m.

Liberal

Randy Boissonnault Liberal Edmonton Centre, AB

Thank you, Michael. Nice to see you. Thank you for hosting our first community consultation that took place across the country with the LGBTQ2 secretariat.

Kimahli, it's good to see you. Thank you for your leadership on a bunch of files.

Janet, thank you for coming to us, despite some of the video and audio challenges. It's always great to have your voice around the table.

I want to start quickly, Kimahli. We have five minutes, so these are going to be short, sharp questions with, hopefully, similar answers.

How much money are we talking about to respond to your number one request to make rainbow RAP stable and multi-year?

4 p.m.

Executive Director, Rainbow Railroad

Kimahli Powell

It all depends on how many people we're willing to support. Certainly, we know there's a minimum responsibility for just over 12,000 individuals per year. We'd like to see a greater commitment.

Since the program started, the government gave out over $300,000 and private individuals gave $1.4 million. I think we need a bigger involvement from the government in order to match that. I can't give you the exact number right now, but I think it needs to be a number that's representative of the needs of the community.