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Evidence of meeting #8 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 language.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Bernie M. Farber  Executive Director, Mosaic Institute
Sheryl Saperia  Director of Policy for Canada, Foundation for Defense of Democracies
Patti Tamara Lenard  Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Ottawa, As an Individual
Janet Dench  Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees
Jennifer Stone  Secretary, Canadian Council for Refugees
R. Reis Pagtakhan  Immigration Lawyer, As an Individual
Martin Collacott  As an Individual

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Alice Wong Conservative Richmond Centre, BC

Thank you, Mr. Chair. First of all I'd like to also thank all of the witnesses who came to our meeting today, especially those who are now from another province.

My remark first is that we believe new Canadians enrich and strengthen our country. Their experiences and perspectives make us stronger. Immigration is an important part of who we are as a nation and the strength of our nation's future. We want newcomers to Canada to have every opportunity to succeed, opportunities for economic success, the experience of our many freedoms, and the experience of safe communities.

My first question is about the intent to reside. It does not restrict mobility of new citizens.

My question is directed to Mr. Collacott. Could you please comment on the fact that now the intent to reside provision is going to be repealed under Bill C-6?

12:30 p.m.

As an Individual

Martin Collacott

Yes, I think there should be some flexibility for people when they have received their citizenship in being able to go abroad. Simply saying we don't expect you to stay in Canada is a major mistake. I think at least there should be a general commitment. Removing that raises questions in my mind about how serious we are in expecting newcomers to have real ties to Canada.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Alice Wong Conservative Richmond Centre, BC

Why is proficiency in one of Canada's official languages and knowledge of our country important for new Canadians?

My question is directed to Mr. Pagtakhan.

12:30 p.m.

Immigration Lawyer, As an Individual

R. Reis Pagtakhan

I think language proficiency is important, but testing language proficiency at this stage where it's a citizenship application.... It should have been done when the person immigrated here.

All the concerns are about, is this person going to be employable, can this person integrate, and will this person be able to fit into society? If they have been here already for three years and they can't speak English or French in a way that they can do any of those things, why did we let them in here in the first place?

If we let them in here because we have a good reason, such as refugees and protected persons where we aren't going to put a language test on them, then why are we going to penalize them later on and say, “You didn't learn English fast enough, so we're not going to allow you to be a citizen?”

Where the value is on the English and the French language testing is that we've already stated our value at the immigration point of entry. If we have not put a language requirement there, why are we putting a language requirement on later? We're not correcting employability issues three years after they have come here, or four years.

12:30 p.m.

Conservative

Alice Wong Conservative Richmond Centre, BC

Yes, the fact is, as a former language teacher teaching adults, I would say that the provision to require is very basic and is simply common sense. Common conversation is very important for integrating into society. Very often, you see tensions in the community where we have a lot of multicultural groups, and there's a misunderstanding because of the language barrier.

I'd like to direct this question to you, Mr. Collacott, about the language proficiency requirement and also the need for integration.

12:30 p.m.

As an Individual

Martin Collacott

Those are two questions. Thank you, Ms. Wong.

First of all, simply giving people admission to Canada as permanent residents doesn't mean they have to be fluent in English. They do need to have some competency if they're economic migrants and they're going to have to go right into the workforce.

The Australians, in fact, make sure in their case that people speak enough English to be able to do the careers that they hope to go into, but they do require the families of the immigrants to learn English, and they have to pay for it. I think it's not just a matter of whether you're admitted initially as a landed immigrant. You have to be fluent.

Many people, quite frankly, including in my wife's community, which is Vietnamese, haven't learned English after 20 years here. They're stuck in ethnic enclaves where they can only work in Vietnamese. It's a real issue. We really do have to make sure that people speak a reasonable amount of English if they're still young enough to be in the workforce, or it's going to cost us an arm and a leg.

You also asked, Ms. Wong, about the need for immigration in general. I referred to that briefly. We have needed high levels of immigration at certain times in our past. We don't today. We're not facing looming labour shortages in spite of constant rumours from employers that we are. That's been shown by bank studies and by the parliamentary budget officer. We have pretty well enough skilled people already here and also the educational infrastructure to provide for our needs, so we need relatively little immigration. It's driven not by our economic needs, but by special interest groups.

I would like to see a total review of these questions and both sides of the issues discussed.

April 19th, 2016 / 12:35 p.m.

Conservative

Alice Wong Conservative Richmond Centre, BC

Thank you.

As a former language teacher myself, I asked one senior why he was learning English. He said that he wanted to talk to his grandkids, and their communication was in English. I really admire the seniors. Saying that seniors can never learn English seems to be discriminating against their learning abilities, so my question again is on the ability or the need to learn English.

I have another story to tell. I was really impressed when one of the new immigrants, who might have come from another non-European country, was asking questions in the cafeteria of some university students. I was really impressed by the young people there who were trying to help her learn English. In other words, it is not only by law that we require these people to have some level of English when they become part of our big family. We also wish to encourage them so that they have the means....

I think the challenge is there. The government should provide sufficient accessibility to these new refugees or these immigrants for family reunification in order for them to really have the opportunity to learn English and have that high incentive.

I would like to ask Ms. Stone this question.

12:35 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Unfortunately, Ms. Wong, your time is up. You're at seven minutes.

Ms. Kwan, please, you have seven minutes.

12:35 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

Thank you very much.

Thank you to all our witnesses. I would like to follow up on the question around language, and the barriers, if you will, to accessing citizenship.

Ms. Dench or Ms. Stone, with respect to the language question, in your experience with the people you work with in your organization, what are those barriers? How is it that, for example, people are not able to learn the language to the level of proficiency that's required to access citizenship? What remedies do you think should be in place to address that?

12:35 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

Janet Dench

Thank you for the question.

I think there are multiple levels of barriers.

There's the question of learning the languages. I think the experience of our members is that people who come to us, many of them refugees or family-class immigrants, do want to learn English or French. Sometimes they are under pressures that make it difficult for them to make themselves available for full-time language classes. For example, refugees who have to pay for the transportation loan find that they have to go to a job in order to earn the money, and then they miss out on the language classes.

Many people do end up learning English or French, but they don't necessarily have proof of it. Now, with the changes in the citizenship, what has come up is that you have to go for testing. Depending on where you live, you may have travel for the test. You have to pay hundreds of dollars for the test.

Also, the testing context is difficult for people who have, say, survived torture and are easily traumatized. Too, older people can get nervous, which is one of the things we've heard. For example, somebody who has spent their life living in a refugee camp has had very limited access to education. They come to Canada and are able to do their shopping and so on in English or French, but when it comes to a formal test, it can be very stressful, and that makes it difficult for them to pass.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

On that basis, would you say that we should do away with the upfront requirement to prove language proficiency? Then, on the question around knowledge, Canadian knowledge, in order to pass that test, would you support the approach prior to Bill C-24 where interpreters were made available for people to prove knowledge, and not so much on the question around language?

12:40 p.m.

Secretary, Canadian Council for Refugees

Jennifer Stone

Yes. My understanding as well is that Bill C-24 brought in the requirement that the citizenship exam be passed in English or French without the availability of an interpreter.

The CCR's experience from its 180 member organizations across the country is really informed by those experiences on the ground. One of those organizations is the one that I'm a part of. It's the Inter Clinic Immigration Working Group. We are the immigration practitioners at legal aid clinics across Ontario.

Since 2012 when those upfront language proficiency proofs had to be submitted with the citizenship application or the application was returned, and since the citizenship knowledge exam was redrafted to make it considerably harder and we saw a 30% jump in fail rates, it's a real area of growth practice for legal aid clinics. Now it seems to be more the norm that you need to hire a lawyer to access citizenship. It's a real access to justice issue.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

Thank you.

Financial barriers are also I think another issue you touched on a bit in your presentation. Could you take a minute to elaborate on that? I have one other follow-up question on a different issue.

12:40 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

Janet Dench

Yes, the financial barriers are quite considerable, especially if you have a large family. A lot of the Syrian refugees that have arrived have many children, so we're thinking already of what it's going to be like for them to pay the fees. In addition to the fees, you may have to pay for proof-of-language tests, proof that you've met the language requirements.

Of course, many people make it a priority and they scrape together the money, but there are people who are not in a position to pay the fees, which have gone up very significantly. It does become a barrier. We do not believe that people who are not in a position to go out to work and earn that kind of money—for example, due to health concerns—should be barred from access to citizenship.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

On the issue around criminality, Bill C-24 brought in a change whereby if you have committed a crime abroad, an indictable offence abroad, you would not be able to access citizenship here in Canada.

Mr. Pagtakhan, you actually touched on that a little bit in your presentation.

I'm curious to know whether or not you agree, Ms. Dench and Ms. Stone, with the notion that those with the offence charge abroad should be excluded from access to citizenship, or should it be assessed on a case-by-case basis, given, for example, the situation that we have learned about from Mr. Fahmy's situation?

12:40 p.m.

Secretary, Canadian Council for Refugees

Jennifer Stone

I think the CCR membership would agree that it really should be on a case-by-case basis, if at all. A foreign charge can mean all kinds of things. A witness last week raised the hypothetical example that, really, it would only give a foreign government the opportunity to lay a charge against a dissident who came to Canada to preclude them from ever accessing Canadian citizenship, and certainly that's not fair.

12:40 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

Thank you.

If I still have time, I'm going to ask a question about those who are under 18 and access to citizenship.

You've outlined very clearly why that is an issue, so what is your proposed remedy to fix that?

12:40 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

Janet Dench

We would like to see the law amended so that there is no discrimination on the basis of age, so that somebody under 18 who meets all of the other qualifications can apply for citizenship.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

That is to say that a child then can make an application.

12:45 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

Janet Dench

There may be issues in terms of getting parental permission where that is appropriate, but where there is no parent or legal guardian, they should not be prevented from getting citizenship.

12:45 p.m.

NDP

Jenny Kwan NDP Vancouver East, BC

I have a quick question on statelessness.

12:45 p.m.

Executive Director, Canadian Council for Refugees

Janet Dench

The CCR is very concerned about statelessness and calls on Canada to sign on to the 1954 convention on the status of stateless persons.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Borys Wrzesnewskyj

Thank you, Ms. Dench.

Mr. Chen, you have seven minutes, please.

12:45 p.m.

Liberal

Shaun Chen Liberal Scarborough North, ON

Thank you, Mr. Chair. I will be sharing my time with Mr. Tabbara.

Mr. Collacott, you have tremendous experience in the field of education, from your work at the Ontario Ministry of Education, to your work in setting up ESL programs and teacher training. You might know that all across Canada we teach school-aged children that to complete a basic science or research project, you set a hypothesis, conduct a study, gather evidence, and then come to a conclusion.

To follow up on my colleague's question, what evidence do you have to support your very public claim that the proposed changes to Bill C-24 are for the purpose of securing Liberal votes?

12:45 p.m.

As an Individual

Martin Collacott

I think there's quite a bit of evidence, going back a long way, that certain policies over the years by the Liberals were to benefit specific communities. Now, in the previous election, in 2011, the Conservatives obviously courted immigrant communities as well, but they did it on the basis of conservative policies. I think there's a fairly long history of Liberals courting specific immigrant groups with benefits for those groups.

As an example, the Liberal government had very strong support from the Punjabi community, and four Punjabi ministers were appointed to cabinet. There was no one of Chinese background or Hindu background, even though they're much larger portions of the population.

I think a very detailed case could be put together to show that the Liberals—not just the Liberals, but the Liberals in particular—have courted ethnic votes in order to get electoral support. I believe a whole book could be written on this.

Again, not exempting other parties completely—