Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak today to Bill C-16, the citizenship act, and my comments will be multifaceted.
I will speak first on some of my experiences in Africa a couple of weeks ago, then address the timing of the bill and then highlight a few of the many issues that the department has ignored for far too long. I will also, of course, speak to the bill itself.
Before I proceed on those topics, I want to affirm that my party is a proponent of immigration and citizenship. We support individuals receiving citizenship and enjoying the many privileges of being Canadian. We have always valued and cherished the contributions that newcomers make to our society.
Four hundred years ago Europeans joined aboriginals already living here to begin building this country we call Canada today. Since that time, persons from every corner of the globe have moved to Canada and have enriched our society with their knowledge, talents and culture.
We do believe in balancing the welcoming of refugees and immigrants with ensuring a fair system. Related to that, I wish to provide some clarifications.
Aboriginals aside, we were all immigrants or refugees. All refugees are immigrants but not all immigrants are refugees. This is not clearing things up very well is it? I will try to clarify it a bit more.
The legal definition of refugee in Canada follows the convention refugee of the United Nations, which states:
“Convention refugee” means any person who
(a) by reason of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion,
An immigrant is legally defined as a person who seeks landing. In other words, an immigrant is someone who leaves his or her country with the intention of living in Canada.
Now that I have furnished the House with these definitions, I wish to provide some context for the definitions.
As I said, I was recently on a trip to Africa and I had a chance to sit in on some interviews with potential Canadian citizens. I will talk about one in particular, which was a rather heart-rending story. It involves a young lady, around 18 years old, who came from Sudan. She lived in a city where her father was killed by rebels when she was 11 years old. She lived with her mother and two brothers. The city was being bombed. Rebels were on the outside. This family was told they had to leave the city. In leaving the city, she was separated from her mother and brothers and has never seen them since. She was able to find someone at a church who put her up for a while and then found her a foster home in Nairobi. At that home she was sexually abused. She finally got away from that and laid claim for refugee status at the United Nations. That was how she came to the Canadian immigration office to make application as a refugee.
When she came into the office her dossier said that she spoke English. However, in questioning her, we had a hard time getting her to say anything. It was basically yeses and noes. At that point, the immigration officer asked her to write down something. She took a piece of paper and a pencil and easily wrote a beautiful, one paragraph account. After that, the immigration officer asked her to do a couple of math questions and she had no problem at all. Then she started to open up a little bit and we found that she did speak English very well. She spoke, read and wrote English.
We then found out that she had only about five years of schooling; about two and a half years in primary school and about the same in secondary school. During that time her mother tongue was Arabic. She spoke, wrote and read Arabic. We know she spoke, wrote and read English. She also spoke two other languages fluently, with only five years of education. As members can see, this person, with the few opportunities she has had in life, was able to develop. This is the type of person would would probably be an excellent Canadian citizen.
While I was in Nairobi, I had the chance to visit the orientation training school for the refugees who were coming to Canada. I have to say that I was a little nervous with these people because I felt most of them knew more about Canada than I did. Refugees from that area who are trying to come Canada usually spend from two to three months getting a little training about what Canada is all about and what they can expect when they get here. I have to say that from what I saw they were doing an excellent job.
I also had a chance to sit in on an immigrant interview. This was a young man and his wife learning a lesson about how difficult it was to come to Canada as an immigrant. We do have some major problems in that system.
This young gentleman was an aeronautics engineer with five years of university but his profession was not recognized in Canada, even though we have a need for aeronautics engineers in Canada and our point system indicates they would get preference. In order for this young gentleman to get in he was applying as an aircraft mechanic. With our point system, there is not a large need for aircraft mechanics and, unfortunately, this gentleman will be refused. It is too bad because this is a young family with good possibilities.
Our point system needs to be updated. We do not move fast enough as the changes come about in the workforce to do what is needed in Canada.
On a final point about the trip, I want to recognize that the high commissioners and immigration staff face many mental and physical challenges in foreign lands. They do the very best they can in the conditions they work in. For that I applaud them.
I now wish to turn to the timing of this bill. The bill is important but at this point in our history there are far more serious problems to deal with in the Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
Last summer 599 illegal immigrants arrived on the west coast by boat. Six hundred arrivals at once places an enormous strain on Canadian taxpayers who must support these migrants, provide legal aid, shelter and health care. Such an arrival also infuriates those who have tried to enter Canada the conventional way, such as those I have just described. They encounter far too many delays in the immigration process.
Just last month the provinces of Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia called on the federal government to reduce the backlogs in immigration inventories. Refugees and immigrants alike need to wait unnecessarily long for their claims to be processed, while it is the provinces which must pay for social assistance, legal aid, health care and housing.
The minister's response to this common front was that Ontario should reduce its taxes. Reducing taxes will not ease the strains of the Immigration and Refugee Board.
During the month of January a container ship with stowaways arrived in British Columbia. Almost every week in January illegal immigrants were found somewhere in the province of Ontario.
Another point I would like to speak to is our foreign students and the missed opportunities because of the stringent rules on those students. We look for students. We bring in roughly 30,000 a year to attend our different universities. These students pay double the tuition that our students pay. They learn the language when they are here, if they do not know it before they arrive. They are immersed in our culture. Most of them stay four years, some five, and then they are allowed to work in the country for one year. They then have to leave if they want to apply to get back into the country. We do not actively go after them, and that is unfortunate, because the Americans go after them and the Australians go after them. We end up losing these people. Indirectly, we have a chance for a brain gain, but we are suffering again from brain drain.
This winter has seen heartsick worry in cancer wards in Ontario. The province has been suffering from a shortage of radiation therapists. The provincial government has been recruiting foreign therapists, but this initiative has become snagged in immigration red tape. The processing times for these therapists takes far too long. Waiting times for cancer patients are dangerous. Delays allow this fatal illness to spread to other parts of the body. These are just a few of the issues which CIC has had before it over the last eight months.
Similarly, there are a few issues which CIC has ineffectively dealt with. As a matter of fact, last year the minister and the Prime Minister said that the winter months would discourage migration from overseas countries. Of course, that was absurd and cowardly, and it meant to defend the integrity of our Canadian society.
Canadians, the provinces and this party want attention focused on the serious issues. We are speaking of our borders, entities which we have the responsibility, indeed the right, to defend. We are a sovereign nation and we should be able to decide who is admitted to Canada and how they are admitted.
A new citizenship bill would not solve our border problems, would not speed up our processing time for radiation therapists and could not provide us with a new way of dealing fairly with non-status migrants arriving on our shores. A new citizenship act would not provide additional resources for customs agents who are required to safeguard our borders.
In my own riding I have seven border crossings. It is a problem we deal with every day. We do not have enough immigration officials. We understand that the first line at our borders is our customs officers. Our customs officers are not equipped, quite frankly. They have just been given a certain amount of power. They have been given the right of arrest, but they have no arms and no special training. They are taking some test cases, but I think our criminals will quite easily find which border crossings are covered and which are not, and we know what will happen.
At this point the minister has advanced no solutions and, most important, she has not tabled the new immigration bill to begin the process of dealing with these problems and concerns. I understand, due to departmental leaks, that a new bill is on its way. I just do not understand why it is taking so long.
The former minister was all set to forge ahead with a new act last year, but a cabinet shuffle seemed to postpone the legislation, and I cannot grasp why. I know it would take some time to study the bill, but in 1998-99 citizenship and immigration launched reviews and consultations costing $1.76 million. These studies have been done. Why have we not seen the results? Why has it taken the department so long to release this new bill?
I am disappointed that it has taken so much money and time for a new piece of immigration legislation, but I will not press this point further. There are parts of Bill C-16 which I wish to address.
Bill C-16 demands that permanent residents spend three years out of six in Canada. That is 1095 days. It assures that permanent residents need to display and prove their legitimacy in becoming Canadians, but how would this be enforced with any authority? How would permanent residents prove with any credibility that they have spent the required time in the country? How could Canadians be sure that this clause of Bill C-16 was respected? Exit controls do not exist in Canada for non-residents. However, we do not know when non-residents are in our country.
A pilot project was launched in southern Ontario this winter, whereby all refugee claimants were given identification cards. The whole issue of these identification cards has been shrouded in a veil of secrecy. Why did the minister not discuss this with parliament? Perhaps it would be a good idea to use these cards as exit controls for refugee claimants. Neither the standing committee nor the House had any input in the present usage of cards or any potential usage such as exit controls.
We praise the move that would make it easier for children adopted from other countries to become citizens. At present they must go through the immigration process and require permanent residency. First and foremost, this modification would hopefully have the effect of helping children abroad who are living in poverty or unacceptable conditions. It would also hopefully free up resources at CIC. Our only concern in this regard is that adequate health checks would be completed on new arrivals.
I do not understand why it has taken the government so long to allow these provisions for children abroad. The PC Party has been demanding these changes to overseas adoption for a long time. The minister should have acted much sooner.
The next topic I wish to cover in relation to Bill C-16 is its coming into force. The bill would apply to every man, woman and child in the queue for the citizenship ceremony. Bill C-16 is not retroactive, with only one exception, for cases sent to the citizenship judge. For the most part, when it comes into effect all applicants will fall under the new law. Why is this? What kind of overlap and additional paperwork would this cause? Would the minister please explain the thinking behind this part of the bill?
On a final point related to the Citizenship Act, I wish to comment on the appointment process of proposed citizenship commissioners who will replace citizenship judges. These citizenship commissioners will be appointed by orders in council. We wish to see this method of appointment changed to guarantee that confident, experienced individuals are chosen for the position of commissioner.
Various witnesses appearing before the standing committee expressed concern about partisan appointments at CIC. Professor François Crépeau and France Houle proposed four recommendations for ensuring competent individuals to fill jobs at CIC. It is worth my time to highlight some of these recommendations.
The first recommendation was that candidates should be hired for eight years with a one year probation period. Candidates must not be renewable and candidates must be staggered. This would ensure constant new blood in a stressful field.
The second recommendation was that candidates must have a knowledge of refugee law, a knowledge of the politics of the country of origin and psychological capabilities to deal with refugees and their situations.
The third recommendation was that a selection committee should be put in place to ensure that competent employees would be hired to the IRB. This committee would be composed of individuals from the immigration, refugee and law fields.
The fourth recommendation was that candidatures must be open to all and must be made public. The selection committee would have to follow strict guidelines, such as being familiar with the candidates' portfolios and a majority must agree on a candidate.
Our party has been calling for a more transparent hiring process for a long time. One needs only to glance at our platform from the 1997 election to see that. Today, as I have in the House before, I call on the minister to take the high road and ensure that competent and not necessarily partisan individuals are appointed to positions within CIC.
Professor Crépeau happens to be a professor in Montreal. The government should look to the province of Quebec more often for its immigration policies. I am speaking in particular about the Quebec investor program. Quebec is the only province in Canada to run its own program. The federal government administers provisions for business immigrants for the rest of the country.
The federal program has failed miserably. Why does the minister not look at Quebec's quasi-guarantees and financing options for business immigrants? Quebec also has the lowest corporate taxes in North America. Is it any wonder that the province's plan has worked so well?
Citizenship is of prime importance. It identifies us as belonging to a certain group of individuals, to a society, to a country. Citizenship is perennial in providing a sense of community. This is not a novel concept. Citizenship was a prized entity among ancient Greeks and Romans. I do not often agree with the minister, but she is correct in asserting that citizenship is at the heart of what it means to be Canadian. Our party only hopes that she protects the integrity and worth of our citizenship.