Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to speak about Bill C-35, which deals with the important issue of immigration consultants.
This has been a long-standing issue. There are people committing fraud and profiting from others' naïveté, and this has always been the case in all areas. And even though we as parliamentarians or citizens fight daily to lessen its presence, the problem will most likely continue to exist. You only need to watch television shows like J.E. or La facture to see that this is true. There will always be people who will abuse others to try to make a lot of money in a short amount of time.
That said, there is something different about immigration. The people going through this process are much more vulnerable than the average person, which means that there are many more people trying to take advantage of them. This issue has become very troubling.
MPs, especially those of us from urban areas, have all heard stories about people who have had unfortunate dealings with immigration consultants, with people who defrauded them, gave them bad advice or took their money. I would say that this is the tip of the iceberg because the people living in our ridings are those who have been able to navigate the process and settle in Canada. There are many people living in other countries who were fleeced by such consultants and whose voices we seldom hear. That is just as worrisome.
Why are these people more vulnerable to fraud than the average citizen? Because of their ignorance of the legal system and their rights as citizens. Even though they are not Canadian citizens, anyone who lives in Canada is protected by Canadian law. Immigrants often have a vague idea about the country they are going to. It is often a dream and some people are prepared to make sacrifices to make it come true.
Many people do not immigrate for themselves but do so for their children. They hope to give their children a better life and are willing to make many sacrifices. They find themselves dealing with disgraceful people who tell them that they can easily obtain permanent resident status, a visa and Canadian citizenship, but that it will be expensive. They claim to be good consultants with the necessary contacts and say that they are needed in order to follow the procedures.
That is obviously not true; they are taking advantage of the immigrant's ignorance. In theory, anyone should be able to immigrate to Canada without using a consultant or someone paid to help them. Some people feel reassured. The department probably has some work to do in order to simplify the process and make people feel comfortable navigating the immigration system by themselves.
In general, I tell people that they do not need to spend a fortune on immigration consultants and that they can apply on their own. I often tell them that if they have legal problems or a special legal situation they can see a lawyer or notary, who will be more qualified to help them with the process.
So, lack of knowledge is the first factor. Another factor is often the political culture. Some people come from countries where corruption is common and where many things happen through nepotism or shady deals. Something like that seems to happen here sometimes, even in this Parliament.
Generally speaking, I am sure everyone would agree that we have far fewer problems here than in certain other countries, where that is the norm and that is how things are done, and where one must know a politician to make things happen.
Some people therefore believe that someone from the political sphere needs to intervene directly in order to move their file along. So consultants claim, either truthfully or more often falsely, that they know the right people to help someone get his or her visa and become a permanent resident. Once again, that is obviously absurd, since there is no need to know any one particular person to immigrate to Canada. One must simply meet all of the criteria and make the application. Although the system is not perfect, generally speaking, no matter who examines the application, the decision should always be the same.
In addition to the lack of knowledge about Canada's legal reality and the political perceptions that they may bring from their home country to a destination country, there is a third factor, namely, the bonds of trust that certain consultants abuse when dealing with people of the same ethnic origin. Some consultants will use the fact that they went through the immigration process themselves and will tell their clients that they can do the same thing for them, because they are of the same ethnicity, come from the same country and are now successful immigrants. People will blindly trust such individuals, and that is clearly abusive. We looked at this issue in the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration, because we were told that this is a very common problem. We are therefore very concerned about this issue.
The committee did a comprehensive review and prepared a report with a number of recommendations. The first recommendation made by the committee—not the last or second last—was that in the committee's opinion, consultants working in Quebec who make applications in Quebec should be officially recognized under Quebec laws. Canadian laws should therefore take into account this reality and ensure that a transfer is made to Quebec with regard to regulating the profession, in order to address the specificity of Quebec in terms of its immigration powers under the Canada-Quebec agreement, and because of its specific professional system. Furthermore, Quebec is its own nation with its own particularities and it is important that Quebec has control over this type of tool and the way immigration consultants are governed.
This recommendation exists. I hope that the parties that supported it will continue to defend this same position and defend Quebec's right to govern its immigration consultants. What is more, the Government of Quebec subsequently developed supplementary rules to take these characteristics into account because the need truly exists. Immigration consultants in Quebec need to speak French and must pass an exam on aspects of the immigration process that are specific to Quebec, such as the Quebec selection certificate. They will have to know related standards and how to assess and evaluate individuals in Quebec. It is quite different from the system used in Canada.
When the Quebec government put these regulations in place, it referred to the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, which already exists. That was the fastest and simplest option, but we must think seriously and take this opportunity to be even more effective, since this society will probably disappear and be replaced with something else.
In Quebec, there could be an association governed by Quebec laws, and in Canada, there could be another association. This model would be more effective, and would be in line with the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
Why am I talking about the importance of giving Quebec control? It is a matter of jurisdiction under the British North America Act. Quebec has exclusive jurisdiction over regulating professional associations. I would like to quote an excerpt of the brief presented by the Barreau du Québec to the advisory committee on immigration consultants:
Although the provisions of the former Immigration Act allowed the federal government to create a quasi-judicial administrative tribunal, and allowed a barrister, solicitor or “other counsel” to represent individuals for a fee, that is not the case with the issue of establishing a college of consultants and establishing strict regulations to govern a profession. The Barreau du Québec believes that the creation of a college of consultants is not constitutionally viable.
Bill C-35 does not change anything. As it stands, the federal government essentially governs those who make representations on behalf of their clients to the federal government, but it does not truly have control over a person's ability to act as an immigration consultant and to provide advice for a fee.
But with Bill C-35, the government wants to take things further. We are not opposed to the intent, because we agree. However, by taking this further, the government is getting very close to creating a professional association. That completely interferes with the Quebec government's jurisdiction.
I would like to quote Quebec's criteria for establishing a professional association or order:
(1) the knowledge required to engage in the activities of the persons who would be governed by the order which it is proposed to constitute;
(2) the degree of independence enjoyed by the persons who would be members of the order in engaging in the activities concerned, and the difficulty which persons not having the same training and qualifications would have in assessing those activities;
(3) the personal nature of the relationships between such persons and those having recourse to their services, by reason of the special trust which the latter must place in them, particularly because such persons provide them with care or administer their property;
(4) the gravity of the prejudice which might be sustained by those who have recourse to the services of such persons because their competence or integrity was not supervised by the order;
(5) the confidential nature of the information which such persons are called upon to have in practising their profession.
These five criteria are clearly fulfilled in the case of immigration consultants. It requires knowledge—point 1—which must be governed by an appropriate order. People who work as consultants are very independent, and it is difficult for an outside person to assess their work if they do not have the same qualifications. The fundamentally personal nature of the consultant-client relationship is obvious.
Clearly, serious negative consequences can befall those who get bad advice. Their lives can be turned upside down and their plans can come to an abrupt halt. Confidentiality is also a factor.
As we can see, this is all about Quebec's jurisdiction, so much so that Quebec felt the need to establish its own regulatory system. The federal system, even with Bill C-35, cannot guarantee that specific elements of Quebec immigration law will be taken into account.
They also use the term “shared jurisdiction” and talk about how this does not fall under federal jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is one thing, but what about competence? Is the federal government competent to do this?
The abject failure of the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants proves that the federal government does not have the competence to do this because it does not have the necessary expertise. In Quebec, the Office des professions du Québec oversees all professional groups. The regulations are a hundred or so pages long. The laws are substantial and provide real powers to investigate, intervene and sanction. The federal government does not have that. It would have to start from scratch and come up with all-new legislation for something that Quebec is already equipped to deal with. Personally, I do not think that is an efficient way of doing things at all.
The Bloc Québécois is concerned about the transfer of information proposed in the bill. In committee, we will ask questions about whether this bill goes too far in terms of what it wants lawyers and notaries to transfer to the federal government. Does this respect Quebec's legislation regarding confidentiality and the transfer of information? We will take a close look at that.
For all these reasons, the Bloc Québécois will be supporting this bill—at least at second reading—in order for it to be considered in committee. This is an issue we care about. We agree with the government and the other parties that the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants is not working. It has serious governance and transparency problems. I have seen student associations that were much better managed than this outfit.
I have personally tried to obtain information and have been routinely prevented from getting my hands on it. Members come and see us regularly complaining of the association’s exorbitant fees. They also complain of questionable policies, overly bureaucratic offices, outlandishly high fees, cronyism, general meetings where only the chair speaks and folks can only give input by way of email. In short, it is not a glowing record and there is nothing to inspire people’s confidence. The association has very serious governance issues and it fails at winning over its members and giving the profession a credible and professional face.
In closing, I would like to talk about the bill’s title. The government is carrying on its ridiculous tradition of giving bills ludicrous titles. In this particular case, the title is, “The Cracking Down on Crooked Consultants Act”. The title in English is even more ridiculous. That has to stop. They will tell me that what I am saying is of scant importance and that it has no bearing on anything, but as parliamentarians, we pass laws that should be objective and not subjective.
What will the next step be? A good budget and a good piece of immigration legislation? It does not make sense. We will settle this matter in committee, and I hope that the government will stop grandstanding and making grand gestures. Rather than giving bills really menacing sounding names and saying that they are going to stiffen penalties, they need to get out there in the community. Even if the penalties were 10 times stiffer, without people to enforce them and prosecute, there is no point.