Madam Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to rise to speak to this bill.
I am deeply concerned that any time the Conservatives are faced with a choice of considering policy, sitting down and having a rational discussion, or playing politics, they choose to play politics. There does not seem to be a headline the Conservatives are not willing to exploit.
I can remember the pardon issue, four or five years ago, when the then public safety minister said, after a sensational case, that they had fixed the pardon problem. He said they did not involve the rest of Parliament, because it was something they were able to do on their own. They refused to have any hearings. On the back of a napkin, they whipped something up and called it fixed.
And then we had Graham James. All of sudden, they feigned indignation and said they had to do something fast, forgetting that they themselves claimed to have fixed the problem some four years before.
However, this did not stop them from trying to play games with the problem again. They ratchet up the rhetoric and, on the back of a napkin, whip up a policy, instead of sitting down with Parliament and having a mature debate.
When the Sun Sea and the Ocean Lady arrived on Canadian shores, the Minister of Public Safety was eager to say this was a boatload of terrorists. He talked about intercepting boats in international waters, even though this would violate international conventions. Anywhere else this has been tried, it has been a disaster, raising fears that people would be thrown overboard to hide the evidence, that human beings would be tossed like luggage off the side of the ship to hide the fact that they were being smuggled.
So, for roughly 2% of the claimants Canada would get in a year, the Conservative government went nuclear, not because it wanted to fix something, but because it wanted to play politics and saw a great opportunity to drive a wedge.
The people the Conservatives called terrorists turned out to be mostly women and children. But that is an aside. Apparently, it did not matter much to them.
So after much floundering, including talk about going out into international waters, after throwing around a lot of rhetoric, we get this bill.
I have a lot of problems with the bill. Let me start with the fact that it is tough in all the wrong ways. It is extremely tough on claimants. It is easy on the scum that preys upon the weak and smuggles others into this country. Because of this misplaced focus, I have serious doubts about how it could be effective.
In addition, we have to realize that the government is masking the fact that the real solution rests in engaging international partners. If there is one thing the government has not been able to do, it is work with other countries.
If we want to go after the people who prey on the weak, on those who are vulnerable, then we have to work with foreign jurisdictions and ensure that we go after this scum where they are operating. Instead of being hard on the women and children who are trying to escape war-torn regions, we have to go after the people who are preying on them, trying to suck money out of them, taking advantage of their unfortunate situation, sticking them on dangerous ships and sending them across oceans to Canada. We have to stop the problem long before they walk onto that boat and begin their journey across the seas.
In this regard, and in many others, this is a placebo policy. And I wish it was only that. However, the government also plays on the public's misunderstanding of the distinction between the words “refugee”, “immigrant”, and “claimant”, trying to mix them all up together, trying to confuse people, trying to make them think that there is some queue and that these claimants are jumping ahead of other people. The government knows this is false. That is what makes the assertions absolutely irresponsible and reprehensible.
The government's job is to inform public debate, to inform it with facts. The government is supposed to encourage honest discussion about the differences between political parties. Instead, the government capitalizes on misunderstandings, plays tricks with, let us be straight here, fake emails that go around with misinformation, and generally tries to engage in grand political games. I think this is shameful.
It is not just me who is saying these things or having problems with these bills. I will read a couple of things that some experts in these areas have been saying. Their words are worth hearing because they make the case so clearly.
There is a piece written for the Globe and Mail by Lorne Waldman and Audrey Macklin entitled, “Why we can’t turn away the Tamil ships”, and I will quote several excerpts from it:
Asylum seekers on boats is not a new phenomenon. In 1939, the St. Louis, filled with hundreds of refugees fleeing the Nazis, was turned away from Canada. At the time, the government tried to discredit the passengers as frauds and economic opportunists, and warned that, if the St. Louis were permitted to dock, more Jews in Europe might follow. The “line must be drawn somewhere,” and it was drawn at zero. Many of the people on board subsequently perished in the death camps.
In 1969, Canada signed the Refugee Convention and undertook not to return refugees if they had a valid fear of persecution. This obligation is part of our law. Once asylum seekers reach our territorial waters and are in Canada, they cannot be sent back to another country unless their claims for protection have been denied.
From the St. Louis onward, every new boat is accompanied by denunciation of the passengers as frauds and dire warnings of future “waves.” Yet, two boats – one filled with Tamils and the other with Sikhs – arrived in the 1980s followed by four boats with Chinese in the 1990s, and the sky did not fall in. All were given due process without creating havoc. Some were found to be refugees, some not. Other countries, including Australia and the United States, receive far more sea-borne migrants than Canada, and far more irregular migrants in general.
It goes on to talk about the bill:
Moreover, such a regime would run afoul of our Charter. Our Supreme Court has held that Canada cannot be directly or indirectly complicit in torture or other human-rights violations. By turning away boats without fairly determining whether those on board would be at risk, we would be violating refugees’ right to life and security of the person.
The article concludes by saying:
Canada receives about 30,000 claimants each year. Five hundred Tamils represent only 2 per cent of the annual intake. The rest arrive by plane or overland, so don’t elicit the same moral panic as people on boats. Although the system has experienced delays in recent times, it has managed to provide a reasonably fair determination. Failed claimants are being deported each year in record numbers. All this to say, that with a just and efficient determination system, we will be able to deal with asylum seekers arriving by boat or otherwise. And the best way – indeed, the only way – to stop any future boats from Sri Lanka is by solving the problems in Sri Lanka.
Amnesty International is also speaking with deep concern about this bill saying that the proposal violates three treaties: the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Amnesty says that the bill shows no respect for the equality provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Gloria Nafziger of Amnesty International said:
It’s just a flagrant violation of so many rights, it just goes beyond the pale. Those treaties are the international treaties we signed on to and we have obligations to uphold and respect [them].
The Canadian Council for Refugees is saying that despite the government's claim that it is targeting smugglers, the people who will suffer in this bill are the people fleeing persecution, including women and children. It asserts that measures keeping some refugees longer in detention, denying them family reunification, and restricting their freedom of movement, are likely in violation of our charter.
Professor Peter Showler, the former head of the IRB and a refugee expert, noted that there are two different targets under this bill: the human smugglers and the refugee claimants themselves. Even if a person is accepted as a refugee, which means the person fears persecution for five years, the person cannot bring his or her family members. This is not just any family member, we are talking about husbands, wives, and children who are trapped in conflict zones. Mr. Showler has characterized many of the provisions in the bill as outrageous.
What I would like to do is talk about some of the specific provisions that the bill does undertake. One of the much heralded things the bill does is it creates mandatory minimums. It defines aggravating factors where those mandatory minimums would be triggered. There are two aggravating factors. Factor one is where somebody is engaged in the activity for profit, whether or not the person is with a criminal organization. Factor two is whether or not it endangers the life of a person who is being smuggled. It gets into a formula where if there are less than 50 people and there is one aggravating factor, it is a three year mandatory minimum. If there are both aggravating factors and it is under 50 people, it is a five year mandatory minimum. If it is more than 50 people, it is a mandatory minimum of five years if it is one aggravating factor. It is 10 years if it is two aggravating factors and more than 50 people.
Here is the problem. The current penalty can be up to life imprisonment and a $1 million fine for anybody smuggling more than 10 people. The government already has at its disposal extremely serious measures that are on the books to go after the smugglers.
These mandatory minimums are a placebo. They are held in the window to feign action, to pretend they are being tough, as the Conservatives like to say, when in reality they are little more than window dressing. In fact, the actual tools they need to go after the smugglers are already in place. The problem is they are not going after them where they need to, overseas in other countries, working with other jurisdictions.
There are some provisions in the bill that I think we could support. Looking at increasing penalties under the Marine Transportation Security Act for someone who is providing misleading information, or a failure to comply with a ministerial order and therefore be refused entry.
One of the things that is very concerning because its wording is so ambiguous first was introduced by the minister when he talked of a “human smuggling event” and all of a sudden this human smuggling event would trigger all sorts of extraordinary powers. We are not given any details of what those powers would be or how they would be exercised, but eagerly, obviously, we looked at the bill and tried to determine what those powers were.
Gone was the term “human smuggling event” and now came the term “irregular arrival”. Irregular arrival has no real specificity and could just be two people, not a large group or a throng of people or hordes of people coming into Canada, but just two people. If the minister, for whatever arbitrary reason he or she decides, invokes this provision, there are suddenly two classes of refugees, those that are subject to one set of rules and those that are subject to another. It could be for no other reason than the minister does not happen to like those particular refugees, or happens to think one particular group coming from one particular region is more disliked by the public and therefore maybe the government should play games with them and play it for wedge politics.
The problem is that for that separate class, some very different rules are invoked. One of them is to invoke mandatory detention so that when someone was defined in this class he or she would be detained for a minimum of one year. This mandatory detention would not be reviewed again for another six months. Imagine women or children being in a detention centre where they are only given the opportunity once every six months after the first year to appeal that detention. While they are detained, it stops their ability to appeal to the Refugee Appeal Division. It stops their ability from making any claim on humanitarian or compassionate grounds for their situation for five years.
One of the things worth pointing out is the impact of detentions on mental health for a woman or a child who is in a mandatory detention centre because the minister arbitrarily decided to put the woman or child in that class. We can refer here to a multidisciplinary team of university researchers. The team members included: Dr. Rousseau of the Department of Psychiatry at McGill University; Professor François Crépeau, Hans and Tamar Oppenheimer Professor, Public International Law at McGill University; and the list goes on and on.
They concluded a three-year study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research on the impact of detention in Canada on adult asylum seekers. Based on their expertise in this area, they predict that the mandatory long-term detention as proposed in the bill will have a severe negative impact on refugee claimants' mental health, especially on the most vulnerable: children, pregnant women, and survivors of rape and torture.
Their preliminary results based on a sample of 54 refugee claimants detained in the Laval and Toronto immigration holding centres showed that even a short period of detention is associated with high levels of anxiety and depression. After only 16 days of detention, 30% of refugee claimants met the criteria for depression, 22% for anxiety. Studies have consistently shown that detainees' mental health problems tend to worsen over time and they are more likely to persist, even after release, when detention is prolonged.
I hear some members heckling on the other side about that. I am talking about people who might have been raped or tortured, pregnant women, children. Let us remember who we are talking about. Let us remember the people who could potentially be impacted by this detention.
Another thing we need to look at in the bill is the fact that it imposes a duty of inquiry on people who provide assistance. That may seem relatively innocuous at first, but if a church group makes a determination that it wants to help a claimant because the group thinks the situation the claimant is coming out of is desperate and dangerous, no longer will the burden be on the state to prove that there was not a violation of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, but rather that burden of proof would literally fall upon the church or independent organization that sought to assist that refugee, placing all that burden of proof on that individual instead of placing it on the state.
The bill would also seek, and this is quite remarkable and something we need to debate as we move forward, that even if a person is successful in claiming refugee status, even if the person finds a way to convince the government that being sent back would mean the person's certain death, torture or some other horrible outcome, the government reserves the right after five years, after the person has spent five years in Canada and has naturalized here and has established roots, to say it has changed its mind and the person is out of here. The person can spend five years here as a legitimate refugee and then after those five years, the government says, “See you later”, and the person is back out. For those five years the person obviously will be living under a constant threat of being tossed out. How will the person be able to establish himself or herself? How will he or she be able to make a meaningful contribution to Canadian society?
During that five year ban, and again we are talking about legitimate refugees, the person is also barred from applying for permanent residence. He or she is barred from travelling outside the country for five years. He or she cannot sponsor family members. Let us remember who these family members are. They are the wife or the husband, or the person's children.
We need to proceed very carefully, because when we change legislation, it has profound implications. There is no question we need to get tough with those who would smuggle the most desperate and the most weak out there, but the bill, full of its flaws, appears to me to be infinitely more about playing politics than it is about finding solutions.
People who hoped as they read headlines that the bill would be the thing that would save us from future situations such as we saw, will be sorely disappointed when they look beneath the veneer, because like so much of what the Conservative Party puts forward, it is about the talking points and it is not about the substance.