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House of Commons Hansard #33 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was refugees.

Topics

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, I thank the minister for his clarification.

I want to take this opportunity to point out the merits of the bill as seen by our critic. Our critic thinks that one of the positives in the bill is the speed, as refugees are desperate to seek the reunification of their loved ones, especially those who are languishing in refugee camps or slums. She thinks that is a positive part of the bill. She also thinks that the establishment of an appeal process for some refugee claimants is another good part of the minister's bill. She also thought that more funding to the refugee board to clear up the backlog is very forward looking and positive.

We do see some positives in this legislation, but when we are dealing with different political parties, as with any bill, there are going to be differences in opinion. We are trying to find a way to resolve whatever differences there are. At the end of the day, if we cannot resolve those differences, then the minister's party will vote one way and we will vote the other way.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:05 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Liberal Yukon, YT

Madam Speaker, I am very happy that the member mentioned the millions of refugees around the world. In particular, as chair of Parliamentary Friends of Burma, I just wanted to remind people of the hundreds of thousands of Burmese refugees in India, China, Bangladesh, Malaysia, and even more in Thailand.

I know the minister is very sensitive to this and has been very helpful in this area. In fact, maybe on another question and answer he could explain more about how this legislation will take care of some of those people in desperate need. They are the type of people we want to help. I think he is hoping that is what this legislation will do. The government renewed the funding to those refugees recently at the Thai border and we are all very thankful to the government for doing that.

Some people work three, four or five years in Canada before they get the ultimate decision. By that time, the mother is on the school board, the father is the volunteer of the year, the two children are captains of the football team and the dance club, and then someone shows up at the door and says they have to leave Canada.

I am sure that is what the minister is trying to deal with. I would like the member to comment on that situation which presently occurs in Canada and what could be done to deal with that, both with this legislation and otherwise.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, the member does have a point. When I read the information about how it can take five years to follow through this process, I could not believe that could be a healthy situation to be in. Clearly, it just makes sense for all concerned to have the process done more quickly.

I am not sure whether it was a refugee situation, but there was a family in Newfoundland and it was the exactly the case the member for Yukon described. The family had been involved in the community. The entire community was behind the family in trying to keep the family from being sent back to Russia. For people to live with that uncertainty over their heads for even one year would be enough, but for five years would be excessively long in my opinion. I think we all agree that we should shorten the time period considerably.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Madam Speaker, I would like to ask my colleague a question about the bill's title. The Conservatives are developing an annoying tendency. Instead of naming bills based on the legal purpose of the enactment, for instance, an act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, as is traditionally done, the Conservatives are adding more and more subjective qualifiers. If my memory serves, in this case, we are now talking about a balanced refugee reform act.

Does my colleague think this ridiculous practice should stop? They should be more serious. We are voting on a bill, and value judgments have no place in the titles of bills. I would hope that parliamentarians vote in favour of a bill because it is a good bill. There is no need for the bill to indicate that it is a good bill.

We saw this tendency earlier this week with the bill to improve the health of Canadians and the economic stimulus bill. Does my colleague agree that these ridiculous little stunts need to stop and that the Conservatives should stick to the legal aspects of the legislation?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Madam Speaker, the member is absolutely right. The reason they do it is so they can put it in their press releases. They should simply write the press release and send it out. They do not have to include it in the bill.

Having said that, we have had two private members' bills on the whole issue of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act in the last seven days in this House. I have to admit to a bit of a weakness here because when my staff read that the member for Eglinton—Lawrence had introduced the pedal act, my staff insisted that I introduce the car act. As much as I fought the idea, I was persuaded at the end of the day that the car act had a particular ring to it and I went with that. I must apologize to my friend, but I caught the same disease that the government has.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Ève-Mary Thaï Thi Lac Bloc Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Madam Speaker, I am very pleased to speak today to the bill that the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism recently introduced in the House.

This refugee bill was eagerly awaited and badly needed. No one will be surprised to hear that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was very helpful to my fellow Vietnamese who immigrated to Canada at the same time as I did.

When people ask me about my background, they ask me three questions. First, they ask me where I come from; second, whether I remember the war; and third, whether I was one of the boat people. It is clear that Quebeckers and Canadians understand and agree with the principle of refugees.

This debate coincides with the 35th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. Many people from my country came here as refugees and became prominent citizens, like the refugees from other countries who came and made Quebec and Canada better.

The current act is quite out of date and sometimes gives refugee claimants a bad name. It is high time we modernized it.

On March 30, the federal government introduced Bill C-11 as part of its reform of the refugee system. If it were passed as it stands now, this bill could have a serious negative impact on refugees. It is not enough to pass a law to improve what is not working. What we must do is find a balance and create something that will work.

The Bloc Québécois has asked the government to provide the committee with the regulations so that we can do an exhaustive study, because many measures announced as part of this reform are not included in this bill.

The Bloc Québécois is in favour of studying this bill in committee, and I am proud to say that I will study it carefully, because I am the assistant critic. The member for Jeanne-Le Ber is the Bloc Québécois critic, and he does a very good job, by the way. We make a great team, and the people of Quebec can be glad to have a team like ours, because we will see to it that the flaws in this bill are corrected.

We are happy that the government is finally looking at implementing the refugee appeal division. However, we are disappointed that it is not fair, because not all applicants will have access, which we believe is discriminatory.

When people from designated safe countries are denied at the first level, they will not have access to this appeal division. Even if the government assures us that all files will be examined individually, there is no guarantee that there will be no mistakes.

My colleague from Jeanne-Le Ber pointed this out. We know the statistics of some IRB members. Some of them flatly reject 90% to 95% of the applications they receive, while others show more flexibility. A decision made by one man or one woman is arbitrary. That is why it is not fair that refugees from designated safe countries will not have access to the refugee appeal division.

Another thing: which countries will be designated safe by the minister and the government?

The government is currently working on Bill C-2, An Act to implement the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and the Republic of Colombia. The government tells us that a free trade agreement with this country is no problem because Colombia respects human rights.

However, Canada accepts Colombian refugee seekers who claim their rights have been violated in Colombia. Will the minister put Colombia on the list of safe countries? I wonder.

On the one hand, the government says it wants to sign a free trade agreement with Colombia because it is a safe country. On the other hand, it accepts political refugees from that same country because their rights have been violated. What will the minister choose? Will the minister decide to list it as a safe country?

That is why we think that the idea of safe countries is questionable. We do not know where the minister will put Colombia and other countries that do not respect the human rights of women or homosexuals—these are recognized rights.

Even though the Conservative government sometimes has difficulty acknowledging them, these rights are still recognized in Quebec and Canada. What will the minister decide? Will he designate certain countries as safe even though they do not respect human rights, women's right or the rights of homosexuals? What category will these countries be in? It worries me.

A civil servant will make the decision. Applicants from designated safe countries will have no right to appeal. That is far too radical considering that the decision will have been made by a single person. It is possible that an applicant's individual rights will not be respected. He will not have all the rights that other people with the same background but who come from different countries will have.

Statistics for certain board members are alarming. We should not find this kind of unfairness when the decisions are made by civil servants.

It also says that an immigration officer will have 8 days, as opposed to 28, to refer a refugee claim to a first interview with a department official.

Some people are traumatized when they arrive here. They have been abused and pressured. Some come from very corrupt countries. They do not trust the government in the country they came from. When they arrive here, they are told that in eight days they will have to explain their situation to a government official. They have left a corrupt country where their rights were violated. They are told that they have eight days to prepare to explain their situation. That is not very long for people who have suffered such great trauma.

Then, the second hearing happens 60 days later. Do not forget that many refugee status claimants arrive here having left their houses, their families and their jobs with no preparation whatsoever. They did not bring any documents to prove what they are saying. They have to get those documents.

As MPs, we occasionally write to embassies in Africa. Although we have more resources than refugees or applicants, it takes a fairly long time for the mail to get there as well as for the reply to come back.

What will we do when the person does not obtain the documents required for their defence within 60 days? Will their application be refused automatically? Will this person be penalized because they could not provide the necessary documents?

At present, it takes 19 months and now we are talking about 28 days. Perhaps we could find a compromise. I believe there is enough flexibility to do so.

At present, more than 45% of refugee claims are accepted. When refused, the failed claimants can ask the Federal Court for a judicial review. This court presently accepts 13% of applications. Where an error was made in the decision, 2% of requests are allowed. In total, 60% of applicants are successful in the end. The tragedy lies in the fact that many failed applicants have found work, married, had children born in Canada and have learned the language. In other words, they have fully integrated in the host society.

The current backlogs are unacceptable for 40% of the claimants who will be forced leave Canada. This government is largely responsible for these backlogs. Indeed, since 2006, we have gone from 20,000 to 60,000 backlogged claims. We know that over a third of the board members could have rendered decisions, but there are many vacant positions, which has caused this backlog.

As my colleague from Jeanne-Le Ber put it so well earlier, we cannot help but wonder if these delays are arranged on purpose in order to stay within certain quotas set by the government. What will they do in the future to stay within those quotas? Will they deny more claims? This will not serve Quebec or Canada.

We must ensure that this new legislation does not discriminate against claimants and does not deny more claims because they are processed faster. That would be tragic, both for the claimants and for our current system.

It is definitely time to reform this legislation, but that does not mean it should be reformed in a slapdash manner. We can take the time to reform it correctly. There is a difference between saying that it should have been done a long time ago and saying that we will do it too fast, which could lead to other injustices. If we did that, we might improve what is not working, but we would risk undermining the parts that are working. We must ensure that this bill does not create new injustices.

In committee, my colleague from Jeanne-Le Ber and I will ensure that when the time comes to vote on this bill in the House, it will be much improved and will respect the needs of claimants as much as possible. We no longer want to hear that, according to statistics, 60% of claims are completed and are successful. It is sad to hear people say that refugee claimants are abusing the system.

It is an essential system that is desperately needed, but the current legislation is outdated.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:25 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Madam Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot for her remarks and for her work as a member of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.

I would like to comment on a few points. First of all, she said that there was no guarantee that cases would be dealt with individually or that decisions would be based on merit. But that is not true. In the reformed system, the IRB will deal with every refugee claim in an independent and quasi-judicial fashion on the basis of merit, in accordance with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In dealing with claims, we will go beyond our obligations under the international conventions on refugees and torture.

Second, she asked whether Colombia would appear on the list of safe countries of origin. As I said earlier, the answer is no. One of the main criteria for a country to appear on the list of safe countries of origin is that refugee claimants from those countries are turned down because they do not need our protection. Some 76% of claims by Colombians are allowed. Such a country will never appear on the list of safe countries of origin.

Last, she said that there was a quota for admissions, which is not true. We expect that the proportion of claims allowed will increase after the reform because there will be fewer unfounded claims for refugee status. She said that people do not make false claims, but that is neither objective nor accurate. Unfortunately, there are too many false claims. For example, 97% of claimants from the country that produces the most claims withdraw their claims themselves after arriving in Canada. By their own admission, they do not need Canada's protection.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Bloc

Ève-Mary Thaï Thi Lac Bloc Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the Minister for his answers and clarifications.

There are two reasons behind the high number of false refugee claimants and the fact that a significant number of claimants withdraw their applications when they arrive in Canada. First of all, the act is very outdated and perhaps does not contain the standards needed. Secondly, asylum seekers are often taken advantage of and do not receive good advice; there is no supervision. People coming to Canada ask someone to help them through the immigration process. As long as this process is not supervised, there will be abuse.

The minister said that there would not be a quota and that the number of accepted claims will be increased, but will this increase be for claims after the initial hearing or after an appeal? It would be interesting to know. If an appeal division is created, but only some people have access to it, that creates a limit, which is unfair. It comes back to what I was saying earlier: there would be two types of claimants, which would be unfair.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Liberal Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I was very interested in the member's speech. I want to pursue the point she made about appointees to the boards, and also talk about boards in general.

First, does she think that would clear up some of the backlog that we have all agreed needs to be done, and that there is a need for more officials in those positions or more positions?

Second, to expand that discussion, the government has talked about cutting down on boards to save money, cutting the membership of various boards. The problem is, as most people know, most of those spots are already vacant. I think there are only 18 part-timers on those boards, so that will not save much money.

However, my worry is about the philosophy of cutting back on these boards. Who will be cut off these boards and which particular positions will be cut because usually people on a board represent somebody. It could be government, an NGO, individuals, provinces or territories. Who will be lost on these boards when representation on boards is cut back?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Bloc

Ève-Mary Thaï Thi Lac Bloc Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Mr. Speaker, I greatly appreciate my colleague's question.

People from the communities currently represented are those who are most likely to be in need.

We must certainly not reduce the number of board members.

Nonetheless, the government talks about accepting more claims. That is good. The government says it wants to save money, but I must say that it is these interminable delays that are so costly.

A person might apply for refugee status and not get a final answer until seven years later, only to find out they are being deported. In the meantime, the person has integrated, bought a home and their children go to school. That is what is so harmful about all this. If a person's claim is approved and they get permanent resident status, they have the same rights and the same duties as a citizen and they integrate into society.

Immigration is a positive thing. People are not against immigration. When people come here as refugees it is not by choice. They do so because they are being persecuted in their home country. They do not choose to claim this status. They are fleeing a very harmful situation.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:35 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would like to ask the hon. member a specific question about section 109.1. We have discussed a fair bit in the House the fact that the definition of designated countries is to be determined by regulation. I read this provision backwards and forwards and I am still trying to figure out what comes first. I do not envy a refugee claimant trying to figure out this provision. I am looking forward, in the review period, to receiving greater clarification in addition to the guidelines and regulations.

It has occurred to me, based on information that has been provided to me, that the largest category of refugees apparently now in the world are environmental refugees. Given the mindset of the current government to the recognition of climate impact and the problems many nations around the world are facing, an immediate question comes to my mind. There are so-called safe countries, which by way was not noted in the legislation but was pointed out by the former chair of the board. I wonder if the member would like to comment on my nervousness about what kinds of countries should be designated. They could have a good system of government, but they could be devastated by climate, such as Tuvalu?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:35 p.m.

Bloc

Ève-Mary Thaï Thi Lac Bloc Saint-Hyacinthe—Bagot, QC

Mr. Speaker, I want to thank my colleague for her question.

Currently, so-called environmental refugees, people seeking refugee status because of natural disasters, as my colleague mentioned, are not mentioned in the convention. This concept has not been included in international conventions. It should be. It is certainly a good idea.

Nonetheless, I am not surprised to see that the minister did not include this concept in his bill, since it is not yet recognized in international conventions.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:35 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

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.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

5:55 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, I will reiterate that I am prepared to share, inasmuch as is feasible, draft regulations with the committee. Having been in opposition for many years, I know that opposition members are understandably skeptical about the ambit for regulations that are implied in a bill but at the same time it is very difficult to put every instrument in the statute and regulations are an important part of the legal system.

Having said that, I agree that there is a need for transparency. We are trying to pursue this in as collaborative a fashion as possible. It is my intention to share with committee draft regulations, for example, as to the process for the designation of safe countries. I also will accept amendments to outline the criteria for what would constitute designated safe countries.

I also would be open to the notion of submitting to the standing committee for comment future regulations as they are prepared.

Secondly, with respect to the member's comments on the notion of fast, in point of fact this is a principle, an idea, a word that I have developed from Mr. Peter Showler, the former chairman of the IRB, who has often been a strong critic of our government and who is now the chairman of the revenue policy think-tank at the University of Ottawa. Professor Showler has said:

The real secret of an effective system is that fast and fair are not opposites, they are complementary. The government appears to understand this principle.

He goes on to say that every refugee asylum system in the democratic world aspires to be both fast and fair.

It's even more difficult to design an entire refugee claim system that is both fast and fair. This Conservative government has done just that striking a reasonable balance between the two.

With respect to the member's comments on the backlog, when our government took office there was a 20,000 case backlog in the asylum system. Between 2006 and 2009 there was a 45% increase in the number of asylum claims, peaking at 38,000 claims in 2008, well above the maximum capacity of the IRB when fully staffed to finalize 25,000 decisions a year.

The point is that this is not a resultant neglect by the government. Let us not politicize this issue. The reason we need asylum reform is, in large part, because huge backlogs have been a permanent feature of the system. Over the past decade, the average backlog has been 40,000 cases.

Bill Clinton said, “One definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result”. We do not want to keep doing the same thing over and over again, pouring good money after bad when we need to reform the architecture of the system.

Yes, there are additional resources but we need to streamline the system, and I believe all of my predecessors in the previous Liberal government said as much but, for whatever reason, did not act on it. However, I am pleased to see the Liberal Party's openness to taking action in reforming the system now.

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6 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to hear the minister's views. I agree that we should not get close to politicizing this. There is lots of it to go around I am sure if everyone tried very hard but it is not very productive.

I think the minister is well aware that Professor Showler's concern has to do with the 60 days for the first hearing. The note I have here is that it is a very quick interview, too quick and impractical. It is impractical in the sense that the refugee will not be able to find a decent lawyer, inform the lawyer and let the lawyer gather and present evidence at a hearing. If that first hearing is not a good hearing, the entire system will unravel fairly quickly.

That is an interesting perspective and I hope we will be able to examine it because it would be awful if we had a timeline that would undermine the good work that otherwise can happen to allow us to properly and fairly address refugee determination and to help those who require the help and, for those who do not qualify, that there is a quick removal before they take root or take flight.

Those are the kinds of things that I know all hon. members will want to look at. I thank the minister for his commitment.

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6 p.m.

Bloc

Thierry St-Cyr Bloc Jeanne-Le Ber, QC

Mr. Speaker, I never miss an opportunity to ask a Liberal member this question, because I want to make sure that we can really count on the Liberals when the time comes to amend this bill.

My colleague must know that I introduced Bill C-291 on the refugee appeal division. The Liberals said they supported that bill, which was a very popular thing to say. But when it came time to vote in the House, the Liberals had twice as many members absent as all the other parties combined. The opposition still had three more members present in the House than the government, but as luck would have it, four Liberals remained seated. The bill was defeated by a single vote, as if by magic.

No one is fooled. With that vote, the Liberals turned their backs on refugees. It suited them to say publicly that they were in favour of the refugee appeal division, but they did everything they could to engineer the defeat of my bill in the House.

This time around, can we count on the solid support of the full Liberal caucus?

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6 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, I am a backbencher. I do not know if I can speak on behalf of my party.

I want to assure the member and the whole House that our critic has done an extraordinary amount of work in providing us with sound information, to identify areas that he feels comfortable with and to suggest there are some areas where we want to have robust dialogue with respect to making amendments. We want to see this legislation go to committee to hear witnesses. We want to do a good job on this.

I hear the member, but I think he would agree, along with virtually everybody else in this House, that it is time to put the political rhetoric and the history behind us and start looking forward, because it is in the best interests of Canada.

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6:05 p.m.

NDP

Niki Ashton NDP Churchill, MB

Mr. Speaker, one of the recurring concerns that we in the NDP have been raising regarding this bill, and a concern that has been echoed by other opposition parties in the House, is the question of the safe country statement.

People who have been involved with not just refugee services but human rights in general know how dangerous it is to use that safe country statement when it comes to human rights abuses or the reasons why people seek to leave the abuse they are facing.

Much has been said about how women would be most at risk with this change in the legislation, women who are seeking refugee status on the basis of abuse, gender-based claims. But people who would like to make claims based on persecution based on sexual orientation or sexual identity would also be at risk. These kinds of abuses happen in countries that we might consider to be safe. We find that this legislation would pose a great danger for such people and would go against Canada's tradition of providing refuge for these people.

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6:05 p.m.

Liberal

Paul Szabo Liberal Mississauga South, ON

Mr. Speaker, there is no question that this issue of safe origin has come up often, and I think the minister has heard us. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concerns about safe countries of origin along the lines that the member mentioned, as well as concerns with regard to sexual preference and gender issues. That is on the table. We will make absolutely sure that the legislation deals with it.

Amnesty International has similarly raised this as a principal concern. The Canadian Council for Refugees was probably the strongest. It said it does not agree with any of the major changes in the bill, starting with the introduction of the list of safe countries of origin. The council says it is a mistake. It also criticizes the use of the public service for first-level decisions and the tight timelines for initial decisions.

Some of the major stakeholders and operational groups are getting involved and raising this issue. It has been raised many times in the House. The minister has heard, and we take him at his word, that we are not going to politicize this or allow a position where any future government could politicize the system simply on the basis of safe country of origin, which is not even in the bill.

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6:05 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I am looking forward to providing some brief comments on this bill, but I will be sharing my time with my colleague, the member for Sault Ste. Marie. I look forward to hearing his comments, which I know will be very cogent and critical to this debate.

I have to say at the very outset that one of the things that troubles me most about this bill is the title, the popular title as I may put it. The formal title of course is an Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act and the Federal Courts Act, but it is to be known as the balanced refugee reform act. Given the continual reference of the government to balancing things and its record of balancing, for example, environmental and economic development, I am not very reassured by the title. It would be good if this were elaborated upon during committee.

This is an extremely important bill. People have been waiting for quite some time for amendments to improve this process. I have heard other members in the House talk about a bill that came forward, was passed and languished. For four years, the government has failed to actually give royal assent to that bill. So these reforms are long overdue, but I do have some concerns about the way in which they were brought forward.

I do want to add at the beginning that I am extremely proud of the efforts, in my constituency and across the city of Edmonton, in assistance to refugees given by the people of Edmonton. I am very proud of the fact that doctors from the University of Alberta have actually established a separate refugee health clinic, recognizing the particular health issues that were not being addressed.

I am also extremely proud of the students at the University of Alberta, who actually sponsor a number of refugees every year. I had the opportunity to go to a reception to meet some of these refugees who attended the University of Alberta. They actually cover their health fees and transportation fees, which is an incredible barrier that needs to be addressed soon by the government and removed. The students were absolutely incredible with how they look after these refugees who come out of camps and have the opportunity to study at the University of Alberta. They are incredible success stories.

It is very important that legislation be brought forward to recognize the need to expedite these reviews, ensuring the rights of all people who come to this country claiming the right of citizenship and bringing forward to us that they need to have our protection to take refuge because they are being treated in some untoward way in the country they come from. A lot of the members in the House have mentioned this and said they welcome the fact that there will now finally be an appeal process at least for some of the claimants. However, I hear members expressing the concern that it will not apply to all claimants.

I have also heard great concern that it is regrettable that this bill was not referred to committee after first reading. I notice that even the Canadian Bar Association's immigration committee as well as Amnesty International have asked that this occur and they have called for a full and extensive public hearing process on this. Both of them have extreme expertise in this area.

One of the issues I have heard raised in the House is the issue of the lag in actually making appointments to the Refugee Appeal Board. I would hope that the government, as I mentioned earlier in the House in a question to one of the members, will give full consideration, as it is moving forward with this bill, to bringing forward in parallel all the regulations and all the guidelines necessary to implement the bill. I also hope it will commit to a full, open and public consultation on those regulations and guidelines. Third, I hope it commits to putting in place the necessary officials and appointments to the board to genuinely move forward and expedite these reviews.

Again as I have mentioned previously in the House, I am very concerned with the reference by the government to the need for fast and fair reviews, when in fact what we should be looking forward to is that they be timely and just. It is absolutely critical that we accord due process to all of the claimants regardless of the outcome of the process. A lot of concerns have been expressed, which I support and which should be addressed fully in committee, to make sure that the bill is actually giving a fair hearing to all the claimants who come forward, and that all the claimants potentially have the opportunity for an appeal.

We have heard often in the House, and I have heard in my constituency from immigrants, about the issue of how traumatized they are when they come and how difficult it is for them to identify who can actually assist them in their appeals, particularly with medical testimony or legal services.

I think that the timeline set in the bill is far too short. As many members have pointed out, particularly if we are dealing with people who have been sexually traumatized, there is a long recovery time and they may need a lot of support so that they build trust in the system. I am particularly concerned about the fast-tracking. I am hoping the government is not thinking in terms of balancing out and doing away with some people's rights and due process.

We are fortunate to be in a country where we actually have a charter of rights and we expect that everybody is given due process. We should give careful consideration to that for the refugee claimants.

One of my colleagues mentioned the concept of potential for duty counsel. This concept has been applied to a number of the tribunals in the province I come from, Alberta. Duty counsel would be a very good idea, particularly at the initial period so that the claimants are aware of the fact that they may be able to apply for legal aid or where they can seek legal counsel to assist them. It would be unfortunate if they lost their claim simply because they did not fully understand the process.

I agree with the ideas put forward by Amnesty International and the Canadian Bar Association that we should be very clear on the principles of this process and we should be very clear that there are not political considerations attached to the criteria for determining if people come from “safe countries”. There are a number of people, including the former chair of the refugee appeal division, who have said they have a problem with the government referencing safe countries, when in fact the legislation does not reference such a term.

As I mentioned, I find the drafting of the bill very confusing. I would think that refugees coming to Canada who do not have English as their first language may have difficulty in comprehending the bill. I hope the guidelines and the regulations bring greater clarity to the process.

It is very important that those resources be in place to work with the refugees. I have also noticed that there is still a tendency to download on to certain support organizations. The government gives assistance to certain categories of immigrants to the country to help them become settled and to go through the processes, but there are certain categories, and I believe refugees are one of those, and good-hearted people who run voluntary non-government organizations are trying to deal with this as well, where resources are not provided. I am hoping when the government brings in these new provisions it will consider giving more support to the NGOs and the role they play.

Earlier I mentioned that we are developing new kinds of refugees in the world, and while we have always had environmental refugees, with the impact of climate change, hundreds of thousands of new people will be coming forward. My concern is with the idea of having “safe designated countries”, we could have a disaster the next day, and if that designation is by regulation, could we move expeditiously enough to allow refugees to apply or to go through the appeal process?

I am told that environmental refugees are quickly becoming the highest category of refugee claimants. I think I have raised this before in the House, that we have two choices in this country. One is that we take action to reduce our own greenhouse gases which are contributing to the problem of climate change, and the other is to step up to the plate and commit what our foreign aid dollars will be to assist those who are already trying to mitigate and adapt to climate change. The greater action we take to prevent environmental devastation in other countries, from drought, starvation from drought and so forth, and we try to mitigate and help people adapt to the impact of climate change, then we do not necessarily have to be accepting more refugees to this country.

That is where we draw the line in the sand. We will have to give assistance one way or another. I would suggest that we will have to be factoring in a lot more environmental refugees applying to this country. Maybe if we step up to the plate and actually commit larger dollars in foreign aid, then we will not have as many refugees wanting to come here.

I certainly know from my personal experience working overseas that nationals of other countries, even if we may wonder how they can stay in their country that is so devastated, love their country and they would like to stay. People come here as refugees only when it is absolutely the last choice and when they want to give an opportunity to their children.

In closing, this is a country that stands by the rule of law. I think it is absolutely critical that we bend over backwards to make sure that we accord due process including to the refugee claimant process.

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6:15 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, first, the member suggested that we eliminate any vacancies in the IRB. That is not possible because there are no vacancies in the IRB. The refugee protection division is operating at 99% of its capacity.

The problem is that since the current system has been in place, virtually every year there has been an excess of claims, well over the capacity of the IRB to finalize claims. We receive more claims than virtually any other developed country in the world and the IRB has a higher acceptance rate, almost twice as high as the average among western European democracies.

The member said that she thinks nearly everyone who comes here under the asylum system is a bona fide refugee. That is not supported by the fact that according to our legal system, 42% are found not to be in need of our protection, including a very large number who withdraw their own claims saying they do not need our protection.

I am most interested in her point about environmental refugees which she made in her last intervention. Does she believe that we should expand the definition of refugee beyond the UN convention on refugees or the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to include environmental refugees? If so, how would she define that?

Would people in the far north of Canada be able to claim refugee status on that principle in other countries? Does it mean living through extreme weather conditions? How many people does she think would be affected? How many people would Canada have to accept as a result of that major change to both international and domestic refugee law?

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6:20 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, those are all excellent questions. I look forward to those issues being discussed during the review of the bill in committee.

Indeed, I would welcome the minister bringing them to the international scene and coming to grip with the issue of environmental refugees. I cannot say how many. I only know from having participated in the Copenhagen conference that there is a growing problem. I am sure the Minister of the Environment would attest to that. There are some countries going completely under water.

I do not believe that I said that we should accept absolutely every refugee. All I have said is that I think it is incumbent upon us, being a country that abides by the rule of law, that we accord due process to all refugee claimants.

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6:20 p.m.

Liberal

Larry Bagnell Liberal Yukon, YT

Mr. Speaker, I am delighted that both the minister and the member for Edmonton—Strathcona have raised the subject of environmental refugees. I am the first member of Parliament to have a private member's bill that would actually add them, as the minister suggested, to the refugee and immigration system. As the member said, countries are going under water and people have nowhere to go. That has to be dealt with somehow. A fulsome discussion has to take place.

The member mentioned sending the bill to committee before second reading. It is very good that the minister has been listening to members' significant concerns. After second reading, of course, the bill goes to committee and we can only make certain changes. It is hard to make some of the amendments people are talking about today. I wonder if the member wants to comment on that.

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6:20 p.m.

NDP

Linda Duncan NDP Edmonton Strathcona, AB

Mr. Speaker, I always welcome comments by the member for Yukon. I look forward to getting back to his jurisdiction one day for a visit. It is a beautiful place.

Process is everything. If there was a request for this bill to be fully reviewed, it is most regrettable that there are tight constraints to the way we can debate matters and bring forward amendments. I welcome the fact that the minister has heard all of the presentations, which is to his credit, but it would have been better if he could have heard the presentations when the full amendments could have been brought forward.

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6:20 p.m.

NDP

Tony Martin NDP Sault Ste. Marie, ON

Mr. Speaker, I have been sitting here for a good chunk of today listening to the debate on this legislation that will affect so many individuals who look to Canada as a safe refuge in times of severe and immediate difficulty. I have a number of questions which arise in the context of having listened for a few years to people who work in the refugee effort across Canada. They try to help those people who show up on our shores having left their homes under serious duress. They are looking for a place to be safe and hopefully, in their minds, to ultimately call home for themselves and their families.

As I listen to the discussion in the House on this legislation it seems that as a country we are becoming narrower and, if I dare use the word, meaner in terms of how many people we will accept. Given the great mass of land that we occupy as a country and the resources that we have at our disposal, and the wealth that we generate every year, we should be willing and able to share that with the rest of the world. After all, we do live in a global society these days in many ways. People say that to me and as previous governments and the current government have moved to change the refugee system, it has not been to be more open or welcoming and helpful, but to be narrower and more judicious and specific in terms of the way that we allow people into the country and then how we treat them once they are in.

I am wondering if this is in keeping with the history and the values of Canada where accepting people who are in need of a safe haven into our country has been the case. I am concerned that in this bill we are delegating safe countries that we will not allow people to establish refugee status in Canada and countries that we will. We will pick and choose who, having experienced great trouble in their lives, can arrive on our shores at any time .

I am also concerned that we are turning over a lot of the decision making to the discretion of the minister. It is no reflection on any one minister. I am saying that when we turn the decision making on matters of this import to people, particularly people who are at great risk and are vulnerable, we set ourselves up for very difficult realities that could unfold.

I look back to the Irish diaspora. The minister will understand this because he has a great appreciation for and knowledge of our past where refugees are concerned. Many people from Ireland arrived on the shores of Canada many years ago because of the potato famine in that wonderful country. People had to leave by the hundreds of thousands and wound up in Canada in huge numbers. I have visited Grosse-Île, the place where the Irish first set foot in Canada.

I am told that one person was given total discretion as to whether someone was well enough to move on to Montreal or Quebec. Many were not allowed for no real scientific reason, no real health reason. People were checked over. They were asked to open their mouths and the man in charge would determine based on his limited knowledge whether they were suffering from some disease. Literally, because of that thousands and thousands of people died on that island. They were not allowed the opportunity to move further inland, to establish themselves and to make a life for themselves.

A couple of years I was in Toronto, when they unveiled the wonderful work at Ireland Park on the waterfront. Back in the 1800s literally 50,000, 60,000 people showed up in boats to a small community of maybe 25,000 people. Those 25,000 people, knowing that those people were sick and bringing with them all kinds of disease, welcomed them into their community. In welcoming and doing the work that was required to make them feel at home, some lost their lives as well.

That is the story of this country. How many of us could ever forget the effort that happened not long ago with the boat people from Vietnam, when churches particularly, including the church I belonged to at that time, opened their doors and welcomed those people in, found ways to integrate them into our communities, found jobs for them, and got their children into schools?

The minister might have a comment for me at some point, but perhaps not today because we are closing in on 6:30 p.m. here. Is this bill going to take us away from that value system, that history, that story that is and was Canada's where refugees are concerned?