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House of Commons Hansard #34 of the 40th Parliament, 3rd Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was c-3.

Topics

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:10 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, one of the key elements concerning me about this new refugee bill and what is missing in it is that when we look at the refugee boards, those are life and death decisions that are being made and if they are being made incorrectly, the damage obviously to the families who go before them will be very serious.

I am concerned about the issue of how these people are chosen because we know that one of the key elements of the Federal Accountability Act was that the government was going to put in place a commissioner for appointments, so that we would not just have party pals, party volunteers, party bagmen and party hacks put into these positions. We see that the Conservatives love putting their pals in everything from the Senate all the way down to all kinds of appointment boards, yet it has failed to bring in this element.

I would ask my colleague, does he agree with me that when it comes to the refugee boards, we need to have people who are chosen because they understand the issues, because they are not simply going to be doing political favours for the government, and whether or not we need to push the government to have independent people chosen and not just political appointees?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:10 p.m.

Liberal

Gerard Kennedy Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, the short answer would be, yes. There was the work done by the hon. member for York West in terms of setting up criteria and screening to ensure that people would be not just credible but trained and effective at doing this. I spoke to someone at a refugee hearing this afternoon, though, and this individual is fundamentally discouraged that we are not getting the trained and qualified people sitting at the IRB.

Again, this is a moral equation. These people need to be able to represent us in a knowledgeable and thorough way. This is our discretion being exercised. That has to be paramount. I think a further, complete degree of independence should be in this bill. I would join my colleague and others in the House to entertain that as the kind of amendment that we can bring forward to make this a workable reform.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:10 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, I am sorry to have missed the member's speech. I was not aware that we were up on debate this afternoon, but I appreciated his comments. I will review them closely.

I have a couple of quick remarks in response to the previous intervention. In point of fact, the previous government introduced a screening process that was improved by the current government. The member might be interested to know that all those people who apply for membership on the IRB go through a rigorous pre-screening process in an independent committee at the IRB before they are recommended to the minister. Only one out of every 10 candidates who apply for the IRB are recommended to the minister, without any consideration of their political background.

According to the official opposition research bureau, of the 99 people who I have appointed or recommended for appointment or reappointment to the IRB, all of whom went through that objective process, I think that five had ever given a contribution or been remotely associated with the Conservative Party. That is fewer than 5% of the appointments for a party that has the support of 30% to 40% of Canadians.

I think we have depoliticized the process. We depoliticize it even further by appointing highly trained, independent public servants situated at the IRB, like at the immigration division of the IRB, that will be making the decisions at the refugee protection division.

I just wanted to make one comment quickly with respect to a remark made by the member for Parkdale—High Park. He suggested that we are now on the precipice of the end of individual assessments in the reforms that we are proposing.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Every single decision made under the proposed reforms would be on the individual merits of the claim before an independent decision maker at the independent quasi-judicial IRB, at an oral hearing considering the merits and credibility and the evidence that is tabled, with access to the new appeal division that was never brought in by the previous Liberal government.

I have appreciated the co-operation of my official opposition critic, but the member for Parkdale—High Park was a member of a party that refused to bring in the appeal division that we are now proposing. Not only does this meet our domestic and international legal obligations, but it actually exceeds them. This is a very important debate, so we should be responsible and stick to the facts. There is nothing in this bill, including the country of origin designation, that would in any way prejudice the consideration of a case on its individual merits.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

Gerard Kennedy Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I would hope that the minister would agree, on reflection, that it all depends who is hearing from individuals on whether they are really getting individual consideration, if there is no right to counsel, if there is inadequate time to prepare their case, if there is not a way to express themselves or to be considered because their country of origin denied them the right to appeal, or if they really should have been a humanitarian and compassionate case, but they will not get that for a year.

These have the possibility and the high prospect of being arbitrary decisions that take away the individual assessment to the degree that it exists today. There is a harder road to go, but I am glad to hear the minister say that he is claiming this high value of independence. I want to take that at face value because that means that he would be open to amendments that would make the IRB thoroughly independent and out of the reach of political parties.

That is the kind of thing that would begin to shape the building blocks of trust for this. This should not be subject to only partisan consideration. It should be one where the merits are clear and conspicuous. In terms of who will get to hear the hearings, he has to reflect on the experience of Great Britain in terms of clogging up the appeal process. When we are simply hearing from front line bureaucracy, there is a prospect of trying to please the minister that then turns out to foster a huge number of appeals.

That is not the kind of reform that would be fair or equitable or would address what we want to accept. If the minister wants to see things fair and fast, he needs to slow down only long enough to ensure that these things will actually work. I think it is encouraging if the minister is at least acknowledging that he would be open to making some of those fundamental changes.

For my part, I am happy to be open to see it proven. I think the questions I am raising are all legitimate, but I would welcome the changes that I have talked about and would laud them from the minister.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:15 p.m.

NDP

Jim Maloway NDP Elmwood—Transcona, MB

Mr. Speaker, I was essentially going to comment that I sat through all of the speeches yesterday. I know the minister was here, which was a bit of a surprise and certainly welcomed. He was complimented in the House many times yesterday for being here. In fact, he took the first question with all of the speakers.

There were some points in the member's speech that I wanted to clarify in light of what the minister said yesterday, but I am certain that he can clarify them for the member by perusing Hansard.

The whole issue of the safe country of origin is also a concern to our critic, and we talked about that yesterday. The minister was straight up front in saying that he welcomed amendments to the bill at committee and that even in the area of safe country of origin, there were aspects to that particular mechanism that perhaps should be explored a little bit further. That certainly could be done at committee. If the two members talk to each other, the member will get some of his questions answered.

He is blaming the backlog exclusively on the government, but it was reported yesterday by several speakers that in fact 20,000 people were in the line under the previous Liberal government, so we have to get a balance here. It is unfair to say the Conservatives are 100% responsible. The Liberals should take their fair share of responsibility for the current situation, and I want to leave it at that.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:15 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Before I go to the member for Parkdale--High Park, I want to remind all hon. members that we ought not to refer to colleagues as being in or not in the House, even if it is done in a complimentary manner.

The hon. member for Parkdale--High Park.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:15 p.m.

Liberal

Gerard Kennedy Liberal Parkdale—High Park, ON

Mr. Speaker, I thank the member for elaborating some of the minister's comments for him. I think that was helpful, but in the main it is a question of how we can stand on guard here in the House.

It is tempting to look for easy solutions. If there is a way to put definitions in, we still have to ask ourselves a question: can we have a safe country? Can we actually make a definition that will work? That is what the test is for the House.

In doing so, what are the byproducts? What are the consequences? What otherwise safe countries might still have people subject to persecution? That is what we cannot be afraid to hear over the coming weeks.

I saw the minister's remarks. He said he would put some of those criteria in legislation. That is the kind of thing that would start to bring comfort to people, but we need to make sure this is not about shortcuts. There is a welling up in this country that wants us to be effective and intelligent in our compassion, but they will punish us severely if we end up adopting the wrong measures.

I am not calling into question the minister's sincerity. I am simply saying that this bill is a test for him and a test for all of us. If Amnesty International or the United Nations refugee commission or others who are completely independent can be part of that referencing and part of that definition, then we would find ourselves in a different place.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:20 p.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow NDP Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, the character of a nation is often defined by how we treat people in desperate situations who come to our shores seeking asylum, safe haven or a better life.

Canada has two sides. One is very generous. If we look at the situation at the turn of the last century, tens of thousands of Irish immigrant refugees fleeing the potato famine arrived at the shores of Canada. Some came to Toronto. At that time the city of York only had 20,000 to 30,000 people, and yet 50,000 Irish refugees came to its shores.

At that time many of them were sick. The people of the city of York could have said they were not welcome, that they were afraid of their diseases and that they should go home, and then could have sent them away. Instead the medical officer of health and many of the residents in the city of York opened up their doors, were very generous and helped to treat them, even to the extent that one of the Protestant medical officers of health died of the disease.

However, there is another side and face to Canada's immigration policy. We can remember many Jewish refugees who tried to come to Canada and were sent away. At that time there were two successive immigration ministers who basically did not want to welcome them. We sent them home. We refused them entry.

At the end of that period, only 5,000 of them came to Canada. We know that had we opened up our doors during that period, many more thousands or tens of thousands of lives could have been saved. They could have found homes and started their families in Canada. That was a dark page of Canadian history.

Much later, in the 1960s, we sent Indians back on the Komagata Maru, some to their death. Again, that period was not a proud time in the history of immigration policy in Canada.

As we go into this debate on this refugee reform bill, Bill C-11, perhaps what we should do is remember that history and that reputation for generosity and for sharing what we have, versus a government that was obsessed with narrow national self-interest. At that time there was also an obsession with elections. We could see these people coming to our shores, either as people seeking new opportunities or as queue-jumpers or people who wanted to scam our system. That is a different way of seeing people who come to Canada.

We know that how we treat these refugees sometimes determines their life or death. If we send them back, sometimes they go to prison or end up being tortured. Some endure beatings or starvation, so in many ways we have to be very cautious.

We have seen examples. A young Mexican woman came to Canada twice, trying to leave the drug lords in Mexico. She was refused refugee status. After the second time she returned to Mexico, she was kidnapped by the people she was originally trying to run away from, and in June 2009 she was found dead with a bullet in her head. How we treat refugees really does sometimes mean life and death.

As a principle of a fast and fair refugee determination, what we want to see is high-quality initial decisions. Get it right the first time.

Let us make sure we keep it non-political and have an independent body make all the decisions. Let us keep the laws simple and not have unnecessary rules or a complicated process. We should also make sure we have the necessary resources in place so that we can avoid backlogs. We should always remember that human lives are at stake and adhere to human rights standards.

As New Democrats, we have long proposed a fast and fair refugee determination process. We have said that all appointments of Immigration and Refugee Board members should be done through an independent appointment commissioner with set criteria.

Right now members are picked by their merits. However, if the minister has 10 names in front of him, he can pick person A versus person B. Persons A and B are both supposed to be qualified, but perhaps person A happens to be a failed Conservative political candidate or someone who donated money. That person could be picked over person B, who happens to have no political background whatsoever. It is very important that an independent appointment commissioner be set up through the Federal Accountability Act, Bill C-2, which was passed in 2006. Those kinds of appointments should be done through an arm's-length commissioner.

Number two, New Democrats have said that we need to hire more permanent refugee protection officers to clear the backlog. That is a no-brainer. If there is a backlog, hire more officers to clear the backlog.

Number three, make sure there is legislation so that the unscrupulous immigration consultants who are telling people how to lie cannot practise. We need to crack down on them, ban them, punish them and throw them in jail. We need to ensure that we ban them from the Immigration and Refugee Board hearing room so that these unscrupulous middle people cannot coach refugees on how to lie.

On the flip side, we must provide legal aid for proper representation. Refugees often come to Canada penniless. Whether they are Jewish, Irish or Indian refugees, when they come to Canada they often do not have money for a court system, so we must provide legal aid to some of the most desperate people.

Number four, we have also said that we must set up a refugee appeal division so that consistent decisions would be made based on law and fact. In fact Parliament mandated such an appeal division in 2001, and successive former Liberal governments chose to ignore it.

Since 2006, the new Conservative government could have implemented all of these recommendations, but through the years it emptied out the refugee board. When it came to power, it did not want to reappoint the Liberal cronies to the Immigration and Refugee Board, so the minister at that time became paralyzed by uncertainty and took no action. He stopped most of the appointments and left the board mostly vacant. The number of refugees waiting their turn for the board to decide their fate grew larger by the day because there was no one around to make the decision.

Critics watched the situation, grew alarmed and said this was going to be disastrous. Even the Auditor General said in one of her reports that the whole system was collapsing and that the government should do something, because it was taking far too long to appoint and train people and it was costly. Against this backdrop, two years later the board is now full, but the minister is now trying to address a crisis that was created partially by his own party.

Bill C-11, the refugee reform act, has a few merits.

One, the process is speedy. Yes, the refugees want to be united with their loved ones, so refugees who come to our shores want us to make fast decisions so that they can bring some of their children and their loved ones who are in refugee camps or urban slums in poor countries to Canada and be united with them. Speed is good.

Two, the bill establishes an appeal process for some refugee claimants. That also is good.

Three, it provides more funding to the Immigration and Refugee Board to clear the backlog. However, we would prefer to see much of the funding go to the Immigration and Refugee Board and the protection officers instead of most of it going to the CBSA, the Canada Border Service Agency and to the Department of Justice to appoint more Federal Court judges. We would prefer to see more refugee claimants as each year's target. We do not believe 9,000 is an adequate number. In 2005 there were 25,000 refugee claimants that were approved in Canada, inland applications were approved.

There is one more aspect in the bill that is good, an assisted voluntary return program, so failed and destitute refugee claimants can get a little help to return to their homeland.

However, this Conservative refugee reform bill has serious flaws.

Problem number one is the safe countries list. The introduction of safe country of origin means the minister has the power to create two classes of refugees: those who have the right to appeal and those who do not have that right.

Claimants who would be particularly hurt would include women making gender-based claims, for example, the one that was raised in the House today. Mrs. Sow was beaten by her second husband. She found a safe haven in Canada, but her case was denied.

Claimants who are most hurt in the safe countries designation would also include people claiming refugee status on the basis of sexual orientation or sexual identity. In many countries that otherwise seem fair and peaceful, there can be serious problems of persecution based on gender or sexual orientation. In 50 years of studying human rights, the international community has learned that there is no country that can easily be declared safe. That is why fundamentally this is a serious flaw in the bill.

Problem number two is that the first hearing is not done by people with any independence of the department or the minister. Bill C-11 sacrifices fairness in the hearing of refugees' claims and centralizes the power in the department and the minister. That is a substantial problem because it really should be an arm's-length group of people who make the first decision. We have seen countries on the safe countries list that have a huge number of appeals and do not allow those appeals to be successful. Making a right decision at the beginning is critically important, and having the first hearing done by officers is not the proper way to do it.

Problem number three is that if those refugees come from safe countries and have no right to appeal, most likely they will not have access to the pre-removal risk assessment within the first year because they are likely to be deported within one year. The problem with the pre-removal risk assessment, even if they do have access, is it takes a long time. Normally it takes close to two years to get a pre-removal risk assessment decision, which means that claimants could be deported before the hearings are done. That is a problem for claimants who are from so-called safe countries.

For example, Ghana is seen as a safe country. In Ghana if a person is gay or lesbian, the person will be punished and thrown into jail because it is illegal to be identified as gay or lesbian.

There are also countries that support female genital mutilation. There are other countries that are supposed to be safe that have a huge number of human rights violations.

Therefore, having a safe country list is not a good way to go.

Furthermore, even though the minister promised many times that there would be action, Bill C-11 does not address the problem of unscrupulous immigration consultants. When we speed up the timelines and get to the first hearing very quickly, it drives many refugee claimants to these so-called immigration consultants who are not licensed and are not qualified. Why? Because a person cannot get legal aid within eight days.

When a person has a hearing within eight days and tries to get legal aid, say in Ontario, the person cannot get legal aid that quickly. We asked some of the people who came to my office why they did not try to retain someone who knows the immigration and refugee law. They said that it takes a long time to get legal aid. Some refugees do not have the funding to do so. It would probably drive more claimants to unscrupulous consultants.

What should we do at this point? My preference was that the bill be sent to the immigration committee before second reading so that there could be amendments. The minister did not agree to that, even though that was the route I preferred to take.

Since that is the case, the bill will go to the citizenship and immigration committee after second reading. At committee we should carefully examine the bill. We must make some amendments as I have suggested to slow down some of the initial processes, to change some of the regulations, to remove the safe countries designation. We must hear from some of the people who have many years of experience dealing with refugees, such as people from the Canadian Council of Refugees, Amnesty International, the Canadian Bar Association, and some of the refugee organizations. Those are the organizations that we must listen to very carefully in order to make the right decisions.

I hope the minister and his government will allow some fundamental amendments at the immigration committee.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:35 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

It is my duty, pursuant to Standing Order 38, to inform the House that the question to be raised tonight at the time of adjournment is as follows: the hon. member for Don Valley West, Veterans.

Questions and comments, the hon. Minister of CItizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank the member for Trinity—Spadina for her thoughtful remarks as well as her evident concern for refugees. I should say that her opening remarks mirrored my own about the historical precedents of Canada being a country of welcome but also, in particular during the second world war, being a country of xenophobia and the rejection of refugees, and how we must always learn from that and be mindful of it when dealing with this very sensitive matter.

I will try to give some quick points for her response.

The member talked about the backlog. It would be fair for her to acknowledge that backlogs have been a permanent feature of the current system, which is why we need to change the architecture of it. The average size of the backlog in the past two decades for asylum seekers is 40,000 cases. Therefore, the current backlog is not unprecedented and that is why we need to change the architecture.

I should also point out that between 2006 and 2008, we saw a 60% increase in claims, 58% of which have subsequently been found not to be in need of Canada's protection. The backlog is not simply the result of a temporary shortfall in appointments as a result of the new screening process. It is also a result of a large number of unfounded claims. I know there are some people who do not like me pointing out that there are unfounded claims made in our system, but there are; there is a large number and that is something we cannot be blind to.

Second, we are not proposing a target of 9,000 positive asylum decisions per year. In fact, our proposal would give resources to the IRB to make 28,000 finalizations on asylum claims per year. Theoretically, that could be 28,000 positive protection decisions, 28,000 landings for successful claimants, but we cannot determine or plan the number of successful claims. That is up to the independent IRB. However, the ceiling is not 9,000. The effective ceiling with the resources we are allocating is 28,000, which of course is an increase over the status quo.

Third, she claimed that international authorities say that no country can legitimately be described as being safe. In fact, António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said, “There are indeed safe countries of origin. There are indeed countries in which there is a presumption that refugee claims will probably be not as strong as in other countries”.

Finally, she accused us of centralizing decision makers in this proposal. That is not true. Public service decision makers would be situated at the IRB, beyond the control or influence of any political actor, as they are in the immigration division of the IRB. It simply mirrors that.

I agree entirely with her on consultants. We intend to bring forward meaningful reforms and I would like her views on that issue in the near future.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:40 p.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow NDP Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, there have always been backlogs but between 2001 and 2005, the backlog was accumulating because of 9/11. At that time, the former Liberal government hired a lot more officers and brought the backlog down to 20,000, which was much smaller. When there is a backlog, hire more workers. That is one way to deal with it.

Fundamentally, there needs to be some minor changes too, but one of the problems is the back end. It is not the front end, who gets accepted, who does not get accepted and who is rejected. It is the back end. The Canada Border Services Agency, during that period, was taking a huge amount of time to find some of the failed claimants. In fact, the Auditor General said in a report that they did not even know where some of these folks had gone to, and that they were detaining eight people in a room that was only fit for one person. One of the reasons there is a backlog is the back end. It is not just the front end.

One of the key problems regarding safe countries, is that we can internally have a safe country list but to deny individuals of their right to appeal because they are from one of those countries is a fundamental problem. I believe that each individual case of refugee determination, when a person is seeking asylum, must be seen on its own merits. Each refugee claimant should have equal rights. There really should not be two classes of claimants: one for people who come from a certain country and another for those from a different country. For example, if people are gay or lesbian, they could face the same kind of persecution.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, my hon. colleague has done great work in the area of refugees. The discussion before us to resolve the refugee issue simply and to everyone's satisfaction is like coming in and untying the Gordian knot. I recognize the difficulty that is before us and we need to find ways to work together beyond all parties.

My concern is on the designation of safe countries. We do recognize that there are countries that have been identified by the UN where refugees are taken from, but we also find now that there are many areas of global unrest, where there are drug cartels, extreme gender violence, whether it is violence on sexual orientation, that these refugee claimants would still have legitimate claims and yet they might not be covered under the list the government has provided.

I would like to speak specifically to the issue of, for example, the labour activists in Colombia who have been targeted over the last number of years. We have read the names of the labour activists and organizers who have been killed in Colombia while the free trade deal has been negotiated, and yet it would not be politically expedient for the government to allow any of these activists into Canada because it would recognize that they do have some fundamental human rights problems in Colombia.

I would like to ask my hon. colleague how we square the circle. How do we ensure that those people who are fleeing situations of violence are given a fair hearing while separating that perhaps from the aim of a political treaty or the negotiating aims of a particular government at a particular time in history?

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow NDP Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, we cannot square the circle. When we designate certain countries I would imagine that trade would be one of the considerations, even though it should not be when it comes to refugees. Some countries could appear to be democratic. The government of the day could see a country as being a fair and democratic country and have friendly relationships with this country. So often, if that is the case, then it would claim this country to be safe. Some of the political situations can change on a dime. There could be civil unrest or there could be drug lords. There could be political killings by secret services as we have seen in Colombia.

To designate safe countries and to give the government the absolute power to do so would be extremely inappropriate because of all of those kinds of consideration that could come into the picture, especially relationships and financial interests, because I have seen financial interests trump human rights one time too many.

Balanced Refugee Reform ActGovernment Orders

4:45 p.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to speak to this debate on Bill C-11. I know we are not supposed to do this, but I would like to thank the minister for being here in the House to listen to the debates. I think it is important for the minister to hear these debates in the House, because many people are affected and often experience human tragedies with the immigration and refugee system in Canada.

I am in a good position to talk about this, because I represent the riding of Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, one of those urban ridings that struggles with these human tragedies every day. I have a been a member in this House for 13 years, and 80% of my interactions with constituents are related to problems with immigration and refugee claims.

Members can imagine the kind of pressure our staff is under as they deal with these situations every day. I would like to take this opportunity to mention some of my constituents and staff from my riding. I am thinking of Louise Bellemare, at my constituency office, and Michel Blouin and René Champagne, who work hard every day to help constituents who are struggling to understand the system.

I used the word “understand” because few people truly understand the mechanisms and workings of the Canadian system because it is complex and because—we must not forget—the government has added to that complexity in recent years. Each year 25,000 people seek asylum in Canada. That is roughly equal to the backlog. That is a serious problem. Quite often, when someone seeking refugee status arrives in Canada, it takes nearly 28 days for them to meet with a government official to explain their situation.

It generally takes close to 19 months to have a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board, the IRB. During these 19 months, the person belongs to a community; they share common values, have conversations and slowly integrate themselves. Those 19 months are filled with insecurity. And 19 months later they get a hearing with the IRB. But only 45% of these claimants will actually get refugee status at the end of the IRB process. And so, 55% of the claimants are denied by the IRB.

The individual can then start the process of asking the Federal Court for a judicial review. But only 13% of such cases will be heard by the Federal Court. That is truly unfair because very few of these people will have their cases heard by the Federal Court.

Even if they are not heard there, they can always apply for a pre-removal risk assessment, a PRRA, but again, there is roughly a three-year waiting period. Everyone knows that at this stage of the process, the chance of getting a positive ruling is roughly 2%.

The chances are very low. Despite this refusal, the person has not reached the end of the road because he can still go to the Federal Court and request a review of the PRRA ruling. During this process, nothing is stopping the person from applying for permanent resident status on humanitarian grounds. The entire process takes approximately four to six years.

Very few people in Canada really know the process, but many people are in this situation. I am thinking of Ms. Camara, among others, who arrived here in 2006 and waited 10 months for a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Some may say that she is lucky since the average wait for a hearing is 19 months and she waited nine months less than the average to get a hearing.

We are in this situation because, between 2006 and 2009, the government and the minister refused to appoint any so-called new decision makers. There were only 50 decision makers out of a possible 164. That is what has caused the backlog. The backlog grew from 20,000 claims in 2005 to 60,000 claims in 2009. The government created these delays despite the harm done to persons seeking status under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

Introduced on March 30, 2010, this bill seeks to reduce processing times and to provide $540 million over five years. This money will not go directly to help settle refugees but will be allocated for the most part to border officers. Thus, there will be more investigations and screening. These changes are designed to increase the restrictions on people who wish to be recognized under Canada's Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

There must be no misunderstanding. We are not opposed to some of the government's proposals because we recognize that waiting times must be shortened. We must ensure that decisions are made as quickly as possible.

I remember that when I arrived in the House in 1997 it took approximately six to eight months, on average, to obtain a first hearing at the Immigration and Refugee Board. It now takes 19 months. This is a real problem that leads to human tragedies, as I was saying, and also creates interminable procedures: application for refugee status, federal court proceedings, PRRA, applications for permanent residence on humanitarian grounds, and I have surely forgotten others.

Reform is necessary. We support part of this reform. As members know, we would have preferred that this bill be sent directly to committee, but that was not possible. Therefore, we are starting this process today in the hope that, at the committee stage, we will be able to study the changes we are seeking more thoroughly.

We are pleased to see the creation of the refugee appeal division in the bill before us today, because we have been asking for it for a long time, since 2001 in fact. I remind members that we have been working on this bill since 2001 and that the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act included the possibility of the government actually establishing this appeal division.

I remember the Liberals telling us that they would reduce the number of board members hearing refugee claims from two to one. At the same time, they promised to establish this appeal division.

The Liberals did not keep their word. We gave them the chance to make up for it when we introduced Bill C-291 in the House. This bill proposed the creation of the refugee appeal division. It was passed at second reading, but was defeated by one vote at third reading.

We must remember that when the time came to create this appeal division at third reading, the Liberals were nowhere to be found in the House. I will not name them because I know that it is unparliamentary to mention colleagues who are absent from the House, but there were 12 of them missing. We know who they were; we took note and we will remember them during the next election campaign. These 12 Liberals prevented us from implementing a real appeal division, as we have been proposing since 2001.

This proposal was defeated, but an appeal division is still necessary, because mistakes can be made in our legal system. Citizens must be able to appeal a decision, whether it is from a quasi-judicial tribunal or a court of justice. When the Liberals proposed the refugee appeal division in 2001, they proposed having one member make decisions instead of two. There could have been arbitrary decisions. The proof is that some IRB members reject 98% of refugee claims. So even among the members' decisions, there does not appear to be balance.

I am not here to question IRB member decisions. I know that it is a quasi-judicial tribunal, and I do not plan on looking at each and every one of these decisions. However, there does not seem to be balance among the decisions of some judges.

The decisions can sometimes be arbitrary and things should be more fair. That is why the government has created the refugee appeal division. However, the problem is that not everyone can take advantage of it. I cannot emphasize enough that there will be exceptions. Anyone coming from countries designated as safe would not be able to appeal the decisions made by government officials acting as decision makers—not board members—who have been given more power. I will say more about that later. This appeal division would not be available to everyone.

We, on this side of the House, would like to know what is meant by safe country. The government is telling us that the criteria for designating safe countries will be set by regulation a little later on. But we do not know what the regulations will be. The government is asking for a blank cheque and our trust. Citizens who do not come from a safe country will be able to appeal, but those who come from a safe country will not. But what is a safe country? We do not know. According to the government in one of its balanced refugee reform documents:

Safe countries of origin would include countries that do not normally produce refugees, have a robust human rights record and offer strong state protection.

That is the government's definition, but at the same time, it is saying that the criteria will be set out later in regulations. The government is most likely looking at three countries: Mexico, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Naturally, it will not say anything today because everything will be set out later in regulations.

The government wants us to trust it and says that the process will be balanced and fair. I understand the government will leave it to an advisory committee. However, in the name of transparency, it would have been better to have these regulations.

I have a suggestion for the minister. If he really wants to consult the opposition, I invite him to submit these regulations to the parliamentary committee when the time comes to study the criteria used to determine whether a country is safe.

This bill considerably reduces the role of judges and increases that of public servants, particularly concerning the initial refugee claim. We have never criticized the role of board members. We have always felt that they are appointed based on partisan ideology, but we have never questioned their work. We must seriously consider the fact that public servants will become the decision makers. This is a new approach. I understand that the government wants to ease the workload of judges and leave it up to the public service to assess claims, but this needs to be clarified. I am sure my colleague, the immigration critic, will have many questions in that regard.

This is where things get a little more complicated. The government wants to reduce wait times for interviews. Under the current act, once a person claims refugee status, the average wait time for an initial interview with a government official is about 28 days. Now the minister is saying that will go down to eight days.

As I said earlier, wait times must be reduced. However, we have to look at which wait times to reduce and how to balance the procedures.

We have to remember that, in many cases, people from other countries who arrive in Canada have issues. We need to make sure that an eight-day timeline is not too short. People who claim refugee status have experienced personal traumas. Might the eight-day timeline result in certain injustices and put those people in uncomfortable situations? We will have to look at that.

I would also like to talk about hearings. The government wants to reduce wait times for hearings from 19 months to 60 days. In other words, after the first interview, the government official would schedule a hearing within 60 days. That is not much time for people from countries with unstable governments. People have to submit documentation, and it takes time to send correspondence and receive the required documents. It is important to consider this because if the case goes to the appeal division, all of these processes will be taken into account.

We are in favour of reforming the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, and we believe that wait times should be reduced. In my opinion, hearings should be held sooner following a claimant's arrival because a 19-month wait does not make sense and has made things very difficult for people in the past. We have to make some adjustments. I believe that my colleague, the immigration critic, will invite witnesses to appear before the committee so that we can achieve balanced reforms for people seeking asylum in Canada.

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5:05 p.m.

Calgary Southeast Alberta

Conservative

Jason Kenney ConservativeMinister of Citizenship

Mr. Speaker, I thank the hon. member for Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie for his wise and constructive comments.

First of all, I would like to point out that we intend to work in a consultative way at the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration. Furthermore, I have already said that we are open to the possibility of amendments to define the criteria for the designation of safe countries of origin within the bill. That is one amendment we wish to include. This must be very clear, for there are many pertinent questions in that regard.

Second, I am making a commitment to submit to the committee the proposed regulations for the process of designating safe countries, as well as other essential regulations related to the bill in order to achieve a balanced claims system.

Third, I understand my colleague's concerns regarding the timeframe of eight days for the selection and 60 days for the hearing before the IRB. I would point out that the public servant who conducts the selection interviews will have the opportunity to determine if a claimant has been traumatized by a serious situation, and if either the selection interview or the IRB hearing should be postponed. I believe the IRB rules will have some flexibility in that regard.

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5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I am very pleased to hear what the minister just said.

But he will understand that to be sure, the act must be amended. We cannot just say in the House that the official with decision-making authority will consider the person's mental state, for example, in the event of trauma. The act must be amended. That is what we were hoping for when we wanted to send the bill to committee.

I am glad to hear what the minister had to say, but there will have to be some transparency. That is our hope. I would be glad to see the minister show some transparency. A minister seldom agrees to table regulations in committee and have a real discussion on their enforcement.

In acts like this one, there is the body of the act, but often it is the regulations that determine how the act is enforced. We have often seen bills in the House with no regulations. If the government is willing to table the regulations in committee, I believe that there can be a transparent, open, respectful debate that will benefit everyone.

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5:10 p.m.

NDP

Charlie Angus NDP Timmins—James Bay, ON

Mr. Speaker, Mexico is a strong ally of Canada and a great trading partner. We have numerous relations with Mexico. Mexico has a number of democratic institutions. It has the rule of law and police. Yet, it also has a drug war that is spiralling out of control with greater and greater levels of violence in many communities.

We had the case of a young Mexican woman who was under threat from the drug cartels. She sought refuge in Canada because her life was at risk. She was refused refugee status because Mexico is not perceived as a place where we take refugees from. She was returned and ended up being kidnapped in June 2009. They found her dead. She had most likely been killed by these drug cartels. She was only 24 years old.

There are horror stories like this in many jurisdictions and it is sometimes difficult in Canada to assess what will happen if a person is sent back to a violent situation. I am concerned again about the safe country designation. I think we may be taking some of the few rights that exist for people who are in these very unstable situations and are trying to escape violence. I am concerned that people with legitimate concerns for their safety who come here would no longer be given the same level of protection.

In terms of where we need to go with this bill and what we need to change, does my hon. colleague think that the area of safe country designation is one of the areas that we will need to look at to ensure the bill is just and does protect the people who deserve to be protected from threats of violence?

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5:10 p.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, that is exactly what I said when I invited the minister to table the regulations or amend the act to define what a safe country is. The definition must comply with the three main conventions in international law.

First, we must ensure that the conventions on human rights are included in the definition of a safe country.

Second, we must ensure that the conventions on torture, including the American convention on torture—which Canada has not yet ratified, if I remember correctly—are incorporated into the definition of a safe country.

Third, this definition must include the convention on refugees.

I believe that these three international conventions must be included in the definition of a safe country and must serve as benchmarks. I am certain that we can talk about this in committee.

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5:15 p.m.

NDP

Olivia Chow NDP Trinity—Spadina, ON

Mr. Speaker, I understand that in the mid-eighties three members sat on the refugee board. It was subsequently reduced to two members. During the period when it was changed to one board member, assurance was given that there would be a refugee appeal division.

The member was right when he said that one member would hold the power over someone's future. In Toronto we have heard allegations of this. Steve Ellis, one of the board members appointed by a former Liberal government, was seeking sexual favours in exchange for allowing a woman from South Korea to stay in Canada. The number of people on the panel makes a big difference.

What would the member say about the current changes to the bill that would result in board members having no decision-making power at all on refugees who come from safe countries? That would mean there would be no independent review of refugee claims. If the person comes from a safe country, there would be no appeal procedure in place.

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5:15 p.m.

Bloc

Bernard Bigras Bloc Rosemont—La Petite-Patrie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I believe the appeal division must apply to everyone, whether they come from a safe country or not.

I believe that was the spirit of Bill C-291, which was supported by the NDP, adopted at second reading, but defeated at third reading because of the absence of the Liberal members. Hon. members will recall that 12 Liberal members were absent at the time of the vote.

That being said, we were had by the government when it decided to go from having two commission members to just one and promised us a real refugee appeal division. We were had by the Liberal Party of Canada. The government is trying to redeem itself today by creating this appeal division and by excluding a portion of claimants. In the meantime, it will amend federal legislation to increase the number of judges from 32 to 36 at the Federal Court for cases to be heard there.

However, let us be clear to the public. Only 12% of cases succeed when there is an application to the Federal Court for review after an unfavourable ruling at the Immigration and Refugee Board. We want a real refugee appeal division and not just a half measure.

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5:15 p.m.

NDP

Nathan Cullen NDP Skeena—Bulkley Valley, BC

Mr. Speaker, it is with some pleasure that I enter this debate.

I am a member from the rural parts of our country in northwestern British Columbia. Issues around refugee and immigration reform in general touch us as much in rural Canada as they do in other parts of the country. This is perhaps an untold story, that my staff and my communities are constantly dealing with questions that we facing here in the House.

I would also like to thank the member for Trinity—Spadina for her tireless work on this issue over the years, both bringing in personal sentiment and cause, and a calm rationality to try to reform the system that we all in this place can recognize is broken.

I think it is high time that Canadians come to understand where the true fixes lay, where the true solutions are to be had, and that governments resist the temptation that they have so often given in to, to politicize the refugee and immigration system in this country. Whether it is pandering to votes on one side of the conversation or to another, while it is trying to make some appeal to a particular group of new Canadians or make an appeal to some reactionary elements in our country that are fundamentally anti-immigrant.

We have to recognize that those forces are in play in this country and they come to bear on any government and any elected member. We have to resist those for a longer vision, a more noble and honest opinion of where Canada needs to be, not just in the next year or the next 10 years but in the next 100 years.

Decisions that we make with respect to bills like this have an effect for many years to come on those individuals and families seeking to reunite, seeking to find a better life here in Canada. We are also trying to find ways to keep folks from clogging up the system, entering the system knowingly, and trying to corrupt the system.

It is unfortunate but rules in this place are so often made for the minority. Rules are so often made for the cases of people trying to put the system into jeopardy but end up hurting so many of the vast majority who are simply trying to appeal to Canada's ethics and morality on a refugee claimant basis. They are coming from a country of some hardship and in particular circumstances, where they are being biased against for who they are, either their gender or their sexual orientation, and their economic status or political affiliations.

These are difficult questions for a refugee board to sort out. These are obviously difficult questions for a government to sort out.

No one, and certainly not New Democrats, lauds previous Liberal governments for their inaction on the backlogs that were created year in and year out. Justice delayed is justice denied. It was too often that people were cast into a system with no end in sight. This was not a decent way to deal with refugees and immigrants to this country. This was not a decent way or a humanitarian way to deal with folks.

We also see, with the current government's either action or lack of action in some cases, a contribution to the problem that we saw when the current government was elected in 2006. There was a reluctance to appoint new people to the boards.

The system is inherently political and partisan. This is something that we hope to reform. We actually had some glimmer of hope from the government when it sought to have an appointments commissioner, someone who would act in a non-partisan way to review the many hundreds and in some cases thousands of appointments in a year, that did not have any partisan connection, that could create a stand-alone committee at arm's length from the government.

New Democrats worked with the current government to make this happen and make it a reality. Unfortunately, the government's first choice for who should lead that commission was a gentleman who was the chief fundraiser for the Prime Minister, who had helped the Prime Minister achieve office.

Colleagues across the aisle are shaking their heads, but it is fact and case in point. When New Democrats asked if there was anybody else out there who could help with the appointment process other than this one individual most closely tied to the sitting Prime Minister, the government scrapped the whole idea. It said this was the only individual out of some 30-some odd million Canadians who was sufficiently capable of heading up an appointments process, and if we would not accept him it was going to get rid of the whole idea.

We thought it was a good idea. It was a good idea. The members can heckle all they want, but what they cannot deny is the fact that the Prime Minister put one single name forward and that was it, take it or leave it. We actually notice that time and time this has become this Prime Minister's tendency, his habit, to lean toward this type of leadership. It was rebuked earlier today from the Chair itself, this kind of intolerant approach.

Now we head to this issue of Bill C-11. My colleague from Trinity—Spadina made the good point that we sought to move this bill to committee prior to second reading. That would allow the committee even more latitude to make more fundamental changes to the bill. The government refused that.

We will work within the parameters of this place in a democratic way to effect this bill for the betterment of all those seeking refugee status in Canada.

It must be noted that when dealing with immigration and refugee issues, it brings out both the best and worst in a country. Our history has proven that out. In this place, the Prime Minister and various parties over the years have had to stand and publicly apologize for the treatment of people from different countries appealing to Canada's conscience to allow them to come to this country.

Some years ago, Jewish immigrants, Indians from the Komagata Maru and Irish immigrants were rejected simply based on narrow stereotypes of the worst order of that time. We evolve, move on, mature as a country, gain competence, and realize that we were wrong, that we used the barriers to our country as a tool or mechanism to punish those we were fearful of, those we did not like or suspected. This is the worst element of the refugee and immigration system and it is a difficult thing to get right.

We have no pretensions in the New Democratic Party that this is an easy thing to do, properly, fair and balanced, but today as we seek to speed up the process, we also look for a fair process. We look for one that does not sacrifice fairness for expediency, that does not create more errors that future prime ministers and governments will have to stand up and apologize for. This is something we all wish to resist and we should resist in every way as we look through this bill.

It is also a crisis in the making as the government refused, in the political appointment process, to put Liberals back on the board because it did not like Liberals and it did not want to give them a job, basically. I do not know if it did not like some of their decisions or it simply did not want Liberals on the government dime any more, but rather than replacing them with skilled and qualified Canadians to fill those roles, the backlog grew again.

When we have these crises, these moments that occur and require severe action, we have to pay attention to whether they were at all manufactured. If they were, then the cynical minds within this place will say it was done intentionally to move some radical reforms. If we create the crisis, we need to meet it with some expeditious force that will change it all dramatically.

It is also a story about the best of Canada, the best that we wish to be, and how we wish to present ourselves to the world as a safe haven for refugees, as a place people can come when they are being mistreated, and subjected to torture in all sorts of inhumane conditions. Canada must be a beacon of light in the world that people feel they can come to, where they can make an appeal to the Canadian system that is a full and transparent process.

This is the question we have on the expediency of this particular bill, the eight-day condition. Will refugees be able to seek the kind of legal support in order to defend themselves in front of the board or will they get one of these so-called consultants? We need to find another word for these immigration consultants.

I, like many members of Parliament, have had these folks on my doorstep. I am sure the immigration minister has met with some of them, bottom feeders I think the minister sometimes refers to them. These folks are sometimes in training and sometimes have noble intention, but too often pariahs on the system, pariahs on people's fear and desperate need to get into this country, and they offer them bad advice.

I worked in Sierra Leone for a while before entering politics and had the unbelievable frustration of meeting a young Sierra Leone man who had been engaged in the civil war and had his entire family wiped out by the rebels. He was appealing to Canada and had, through his church, forked over $850, which is an enormous sum to someone living in Sierra Leone, to one of these consultants. What did that Canadian consultant do? He provided that young man with a form that was available on a website.

These consultants prey upon refugees' fear and ignorance, that those seeking to come here think that this is an impossible system to get through. These people do not live in a democratic society where there are forms available for anything. This is a wartorn country and these consultants are preying upon these refugees, folks who often have already gone through hell and back, and are now seeking a better life in Canada. These immigration consultants pop up, promising the world, and charging even more for these folks to access Canada.

It seems to me we also need more refugee protection officers in the system. This is something the bill does not sufficiently seem to answer at this point.

We are caring communities in Canada. I represent northwestern British Columbia. Whenever there is a global crisis, whether it is Haiti or any other place, it is amazing to me that within days emails are in my inbox, I receive phone calls and people stop me on the street, either through faith-based organizations, their communities or themselves as families, saying they want to help, they want to offer access and safe refuge to people who have gone through such trauma.

As elected members, it is very rewarding when we meet those Canadians who are willing to open up their homes and sacrifice financially to welcome people in from another place and offer them a bit of the life that we have here, something that some of us were born with.

I am the first-born of an immigrant family and some of the things that concern me about the immigration reform before me is that I have to cast through and wonder whether my family would have made it through the system. Would my family of Irish farmers been able to apply under the immigration standards that the government currently holds? My family is a proud family but they were not rich. They did not have access or influence. They would simply have applied on the basis of their hard work, integrity and merit and spent the last 40 years helping build this country, as so many immigrants before them have. That is a test that I hold and a test that I hope we all hold, which is thinking back through our own lineages, our own coming here if we were not born here as first nations and for many generations past. I hope we give this bill a--

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5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Sorry but I must interrupt the member. The hon. member for Skeena—Bulkley Valley will have nine minutes remaining when the House returns to this matter.

Business of the HouseGovernment Orders

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

I would like to inform the House that under the provisions of Standing Order 97.1(2), I am designating Thursday, April 29, 2010, as the date fixed for the consideration of the motion to concur in the first report of the Standing Committee on Transport, Infrastructure and Communities. The report contains a recommendation not to proceed further with Bill C-310, An Act to Provide Certain Rights to Air Passengers. The one hour debate on the motion will be held immediately after the usual private members' business hour after which the House will proceed to the adjournment proceedings pursuant to Standing Order 38.

It being 5:30 p.m., the House will now proceed to the consideration of private members' business as listed on today's order paper.

The House resumed from March 24 consideration of the motion.

Quebec BridgePrivate Members' Business

5:30 p.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Conservative Barry Devolin

Resuming debate.

The hon. member for Lévis—Bellechasse has two minutes.