Mr. Speaker, I would like to acknowledge that the minister spoke this morning and has taken the time to listen to the debate. It is a good model for other ministers. I wish he would pass it on to them because good things happen in this place, even at second reading, which is somewhat problematic at times simply because members are speaking to themselves without the benefit of expert witnesses and testimony. Everyone is sort of left to their own ingenuity to craft together some of the important issues.
The minister will know that there was an interest in having this particular bill go to committee before second reading simply because it is a very comprehensive bill. There are certainly some contentious areas, but I think there is consensus within this place that we need an overhaul of the refugee system.
Right now it is estimated that there are 10.5 million refugees around the world, according to the UN High Commissioner. Every year some 20 developed democracies resettle about 100,000 of them globally. From that number, Canada resettles between 10,000 and 12,000, or 1 out of every 10 refugees, annually. We are second only to the United States, which has 10 times our population.
When we think about it, 10.5 million people probably have no hope in their circumstances. The global community is making some effort, but it is minuscule compared to the need. How much can a country do? I sometimes wish we could do more.
Before I came to this place, I had a CA practice and three of my clients worked for the Malton community council, Malton Community Information Services, and the community assistance services of Peel. All three of those agencies provided services and assistance to refugees. It was my first exposure to the plight of people coming to this country seeking asylum from places where some of the stories are very difficult to even speak about because they are such horrible situations.
I used to visit the airport to see some of these people coming in. I would see people in the middle of winter coming in with virtually only the clothes on their backs, maybe tank top shirts, shorts and sandals, and walking on the tarmac through the snow.
When I became a member of Parliament, the issue of refugees and immigrants was always a big issue. It is a big part of the work we do. A lot of people asked, why were we letting all those criminals into the country? It is more a problem of ours that we have not educated the public, for which we have a responsibility.
We know there is a difference between immigrants and refugees. We know people have to go through a very difficult process to get into Canada by applying for permanent residence status and, ultimately, to become citizens of our country. However, the refugee part is the hard one to explain to people.
It is hard for people to understand that there are people around the world who suffer on a daily basis, are being persecuted, tortured and even killed. There are many examples. Members deal with organizations that are involved in countries like Burma, for instance, where the slaughter of people is enormous.
This is an extremely important bill. I wanted to participate in the debate, so I could say that I have received some input from constituents and stakeholders about the bill. Their concerns are more prompted by the fact that this is such a comprehensive change to the legislation. It is very difficult for them to get their minds around it or to understand whether it is really going to work.
Let us look at the summary. I am not going to read it. There are a dozen substantive initiatives or changes that are going to be made in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, as well as changes to the Federal Courts Act.
It concerns me that we have so much on our plate. Then we look at the bill and note that the reference to regulations. This is where members of Parliament, on a hope and a prayer, hope they understand what the bill states it wants to do and gives the confidence to the minister and to the order-in-council to promulgate regulations, which are enabled by the legislation but which deliver what the legislation states.
The public may not know this, but when we deal with bills in this place and they go through all stages in the House, go to the Senate and get royal assent, if those bills require regulations, normally we do not see them. We do not see the detail, and everybody knows the devil is in the detail. This is why it is important that the minister would, to the greatest extent possible, provide the framework for the regulations. We cannot understand the thrust of each of the elements of the bill without seeing some of the detail of what is proposed in the regulations.
This has to be thought through. The department is not dealing in a vacuum. It is not going to wait to start its work. However, when we worked on the Assisted Human Reproduction Act at the committee stage, we asked officials how long it would take to do all the regulations. We were told it would be two years. It is about four years later and we still do not have all the regulations. I know that for a fact because the bill said, prior to gazetting any regulations, that the regulations should go through the relevant committee for comment, not to judge or change or whatever, but to see them and comment for the minister in the event that something was missed.
I would recommend that for the minister in good faith. The regulations should come to the committee for comment if there is that concern. That would go a long way to alleviating the kinds of concerns that have been developed. It is workable and it puts confidence in the committee system, which has worked on the bill, that these are the regulations, this is what we talked about, this was the stated intent and we see that in the regulations. The bill is too important to leave to order-in-council in the hope that it works out fine.
I hope that might cause some consideration by the minister from the standpoint, in listening to the debate today, that there have been some relevant concerns about the bill. This will take a lot of work. It will a lot of collaboration among all the parties to work this through committee, to deal with the challenges that will come from Amnesty International and from other stakeholders, other people who have been mentioned in the debate. These people will raise issues about things like the time frame is too short in terms of the first stage. Then there is the other problem of what is a country of safe origin. It has come up in virtually every speech. We really need to nail that one down.
When we talk at second reading, we know we will be asked to give approval in principle to the bill. Once it goes to committee and through the rest of the stages, those fundamental principles are locked in, so we have to be absolutely sure. I am not so sure everybody will be comfortable with the bill as it stands. However, in view of the fact that we started this debate and we will not go to committee before second reading, this will take good faith on behalf of all parties to work to stretch as far as possible under the rules of this place to consider some of the changes which have been suggested.
The members have raised some very valid points in debate thus far with which we have to be dealt. The number of witnesses that should be at committee should not be unduly restricted given the importance of this bill, but we have to reasonable as well. We do not need to have 20 people saying the same thing. Let us get one or two groups that represent an issue area to get some substantive backing to a position. It is important that we look to witnesses at committee who have well served Parliament in the past in terms of giving their experience and expertise.
Picking that witness list is going to be extraordinarily important. I do not think we want to protract the committee stage process any longer than is absolutely necessary, but we have to hit those high points that have been raised by members in debate today.
Those are my recommendations for committee and for the minister.
I would like to quote from the minister's speech this morning. He said, “This bill and related reforms would reinforce Canada's humanitarian tradition as a place of refuge for victims of persecution and torture while improving our asylum system to ensure that it is balanced fast and fair. The bill would ensure faster protection of bona fide refugees, reinforce procedural fairness by implementing a robust refugee appeals division at the IRB and ensure faster removal of those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity by making asylum claims”.
I emphasize the word “fast” because in my experience as a parliamentarian of over 16 years, fast does not always equate to fair. Sometimes fast means mistakes are made. I want to caution the members on the committee not to be railroaded and to ensure that the questions that are asked are answered.
There are enough stakeholder groups that are very concerned about, first, the process of appeal. My concern is we have had experience in the country where if people cannot get what they need to get through the process as it is laid out for them, they have an option, and that is to go underground. That is not a good outcome in terms of refugee determination.
We have had examples of things like that. It is not refugees, but I remind the House of the so-called undocumented workers in the construction industry. There were 20,000 construction workers. I know one of my colleagues worked on this for a long time. I remember the first question I ever asked about undocumented construction workers was this. Where did that name come from?
These people have come to the country without papers. They are working underground in areas that have a high demand for skilled labour, but they are not paying taxes, they are not contributing into their future for their pension system and they are not covered by our medical system. They are working underground. Their existence is being perpetuated by businesses that have these people in an awkward situation. They cannot come out. They are hiding. They hide all day long, and they work all day long. That is about all they can do because they do not have credentials. As far as I know, that is still an unresolved situation simply because we need construction workers.
This is unfair to those people as well. It is because the system could not deal with the demand that we had in the construction industry, and it was much cheaper. I hate to digress like this, but when we think about it, this is the kind of thing that can happen. Some businesses out there are in fact paying minimum wage to skilled workers who cannot come out and complain because they are undocumented, they do not have papers, they are illegal aliens. They are living lives of hell and they have absolutely nothing to do to save for their future or provide for their retirement. This is an accident waiting to happen. It really is a terrible situation.
People cannot get their situation in order to make the necessary representations and have the lawyers get the papers to do what they have to do. I raise it to enforce the point that if we have a refugee system that is too fast, then they may very well go underground. I do not know how many are underground already, but I do know there are a lot of people in the country who, in one way or another, got in here and then disappeared. They are in flight.
We do not need to have that problem get worse. The minister will know we have suggestions that the 60-day time frame should probably be 120 days. In this place, 60 days is nothing. We give ministers 60 sitting days just to respond to a committee report. It is one of those things at which I hope we can look. We need to hear from those who are on the ground, who deal with these cases and who have a high degree of credibility to find out whether we put ourselves at risk of forcing people to go underground simply because they cannot comply with the requirements nor prepare to go through the prescribed process.
To show where we have come from, we had a situation when I came here where refugees who came to Canada were in the process. It was illegal for them to work. I remember a colleague named Sergio Marchi, if anyone remembers him. He was the minister who brought in the changes to permit refugees to work and earn a little income, which was very important to them. Rather than being reliant on the Canadian system, they needed the dignity of work to take care of their families.
I do not remember the exact number, but I will guess. Somewhere around half the refugees coming into Canada were coming across the U.S. border. That really stuck me. How was that possible? People say there must be a reason. I guess the reasons are pretty clear. If I were a refugee and I went to the United States because it was easier to get into the States than Canada, I would find that I would get no legal aid, housing, health or assistance whatsoever, However, if I cross over the border, Canada would take care of me.
It is amazing how long it took, but I think we have resolved that to the greatest extent possible. It is basically the country of first safe landing, where it will have to take care of the refugee and the refugee determination. I think that has helped substantially, but the irony is the backlog has risen substantially. I think the minister has probably heard from a number of people that the current government has not had this as a priority. It has been delayed. It is an indictment that opposition members are throwing out.
I do not think it is time to throw blame around here. I am rising today and appealing to the minister and all hon. members to find a way to make this work, to ensure that the committee process is as robust as possible and when we get through this process, to ensure that we can quickly get a bill, if that is what the minister wants. It is a laudable objective to ensure that our system is balanced, fast and fair.