moved that Bill C-436, an act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (sponsorship of relative), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am proud to rise in the House to speak for the first hour of debate to my private member's bill, Bill C-436, an act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (sponsorship of relative).
I thank the member for Winnipeg Centre for supporting the bill. I know it is an issue that he supports very much. He has had a lot of feedback in his riding about the bill and I am very happy that he is seconding the bill today.
The bill before us would allow a Canadian citizen or a permanent resident to make a once in a lifetime sponsorship of a relative who would not otherwise be considered under the family class sponsorship rules that exist today.
I brought forward the bill because one of Canada's key immigration objectives is to help families reunite in Canada. In fact we just received information from the minister a couple of days ago showing us that 28% of Canada's new immigrants are under the family class.
Upon examination of the current provisions, it becomes very clear that the current legislation defining the family class is quite restrictive, leaving many potential relatives ineligible for family reunification. I know in Vancouver East, my own riding, and indeed across the country, because I have heard from many people, many families are desperate to reunite with a family member who is still in the country of origin.
The bill is actually a very modest one. It does not change the system in any dramatic way. It lays out that a permanent resident or a Canadian citizen could sponsor, once in a lifetime, on a one time basis, a family member who would not otherwise qualify under the existing rule. It is that straightforward and it is that simple.
Just to give some context to this proposal, the Liberal red book has long put forward a goal to move immigration levels to 1% of the population, which would be about 300,000 people per year. However, as we all know, we have never come close to meeting this target. On average about 219,000 immigrants arrive each year in Canada.
In 1993 the number of people sponsored under the family class provision reached a peak of 110,000. Today the projection for family member sponsorship is around 60,000. We can see that there has actually been a decline from that peak in 1993.
The federal NDP and our leader, Jack Layton, have been very outspoken on this issue and very supportive of the bill. We do support the government target of 1% of the population for immigration. We consider immigration to be a powerful and positive contribution to the economic, social, cultural and political life of our country. We are a party that has always stood for supporting immigration.
We have seen too often a backlash against immigrants. I read a front page story in the Vancouver Sun last Thursday, the day I held a press conference in my own community around the bill, which linked immigrants to terrorists. We all know we are in an environment where there is increasing hostility toward immigration.
I am proud to say that in the federal NDP we have always supported immigration. We want to see the federal government meet its own targets. We know there are Liberal members who support those goals as well. We can help achieve the goal of 1% by supporting the bill without drastically changing the system.
Currently, under the family class section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, only the following relatives are eligible for sponsorship, and it is quite restrictive. For example, one can sponsor a spouse, a common law or conjugal partner who is at least 16 years of age. One can sponsor a dependent child who is under 22, is a full time student, is dependent on a parent for financial support or has a disability. One can also sponsor a parent or a grandparent.
My bill would allow a further step such that someone not eligible under those restrictions could be sponsored. A brother or a sister over 18 years of age could be sponsored. A first cousin, an aunt or uncle or a niece or nephew over the age that now provides the restriction could also be sponsored. A child over the age of 22 could also be sponsored. My bill gives more flexibility.
I want to make it very clear that my bill is not opening up the floodgates to family class sponsorships. Sponsorship would be on the basis of somebody being able to do this once in a lifetime.
I am sure that all members, based on their own experiences in their own ridings, have heard of heartbreaking cases of families spending years in the system trying to get a family member to Canada from their country of origin. I find it heartbreaking to see the psychological impact and sometimes the economic impact that hits these families that have been broken up. I feel that if my bill were supported and acted upon it would be a small step in helping to provide family reunification.
Bill C-436 has received tremendous support. When this idea first came up from the former minister of immigration in 2000, 15,000 signatures were collected in Vancouver alone in support of this policy change. Unfortunately, the then minister decided not to go ahead with the change.
Even today the bill is gathering a lot of support across the country from groups like MOSAIC in Vancouver, Storefront Orientation Services, Falun Gong members, the B.C. Latin American Congress, the Inland Refugee Society of B.C., members of the Fijian community, the Iranian-Canadian Community of Western Canada, the Vancouver Association of Chinese Canadians, and well known writers like Lydia Kwa and Sook Kong, a writer, a poet and a teacher. There is also support from groups like SUCCESS, which is the largest organization in the lower mainland of Vancouver serving the Chinese and was one of the organizations that obtained those 15,000 signatures in 2000. Just yesterday I was advised that the all presidents' meeting of the Chinese Canadian National Council voted to support this once in a lifetime bill.
Word is now going out across the country that Bill C-436 is being debated in Parliament and in due course will be voted on. I think there is very strong community support. Groups and agencies that support new Canadians understand how difficult this issue of family reunification is. They understand families' desperation at trying to bring family members over. No matter how hard they try, the rules are so restrictive they are not able to accomplish it. I think this bill would help move us toward family reunification.
When we held a press conference in Vancouver on Thursday some local media were there, after which a story appeared in the Vancouver Sun. A couple of immigration lawyers were quoted as saying that the family class is “traditionally a net drain on public funds”. I was actually quite alarmed by these kinds of statements and by the fact that anybody who works with new Canadians and families would say that new immigrants and family class sponsorships are a net drain on public funds. We know that under the existing rules financial support has to be provided for anywhere from three to ten years. All kinds of existing provisions are in place to ensure that there is no financial drain on society generally. None of those rules are being proposed for change. All my bill would do is ensure that someone could sponsor one additional relative.
Other comments were made that if the bill were passed it would somehow trigger a backlash. I was very alarmed to read those kinds of comments, particularly from immigration lawyers who should be familiar with what we need to do.
It seems to me that as members of Parliament we should be supporting and advocating for family reunification. This is actually one of the core programs of the government's immigration program. It is something that is based on compassion and on the well-being and wholeness of families. Any of us could imagine what it would be like if we were here in Canada and wanted to have a relative who was a very important part of our family in this country yet were prevented from doing so.
I will be the first to say that clearly there have to be rules and regulations. My bill would not change any of the provisions around medical requirements or even the definitions of family in the existing bill. Based on the conversations I have had, there are many people who actually would like to change those definitions because they think they are too restrictive. However, that is another debate and maybe another bill for another day.
This bill is actually quite limited in that it takes in the existing definition of family class and the existing provisions for approval. It would simply allow someone, once in a lifetime, to sponsor an additional family member who would not otherwise be eligible under the sponsorship rules.
I hope members will consider the bill and look at it as a step toward actually accomplishing what I believe we all support and agree on, which is support of families and reunification. I hope members will agree that it should go to the next step, to committee. Then we would have a further discussion and there may be all kinds of suggestions about how to improve the bill, which I would certainly welcome.
One of the things I hope we can draw visibility to in putting forward the bill is the real difficulties people face in dealing with the immigration system. In our party we are actually setting up a website so that Canadians can tell us first-hand about the experiences they have had with the system. I know that many of us are familiar with that because of the cases that too often, unfortunately, we are compelled to take on.
We want to draw attention to the facts about just how difficult it is to deal with this system. Some of it is a question of resources. I think one of the reasons we do not meet the 1% target is simply that government offices overseas do not have the kind of staff resourcing they need to actually process applications. This is actually something that the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration has investigated and documented in a very thorough way. I think many of us are very concerned about the fact that while these goals exist, we are not able to meet them because we simply do not have the resources, particularly in some key offices, or we do not even have enough offices to make sure that these applications are processed in a timely way. This becomes a sort of backdoor way of keeping a gate closed on the system. I think members on that committee are very well aware of that systemic problem that exists now.
I will close by saying that I think the bill is a small step to help families with reunification. It is a very modest proposal. It would not dramatically change the system in any way. It was actually proposed by the former minister of citizenship and immigration at one point in 2000. It has tremendous support in the community. I think people see it as a practical and concrete step which they would be able to use. I look forward to the debate. I encourage members to think about the issue and to support in principle the idea of what is being put forward. I look forward to further debate at committee.