Mr. Speaker, the bill before us today at third reading would make amendments to two acts, the Citizenship Act and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which are two pieces of legislation that have a substantive impact on our immigration policy here in Canada. I started to get at this in my first speech on this topic.
My major concern is that the content of the bill is deemed to be the government's first priority in terms of addressing immigration concerns in Canada. My speech today will be in that context, because I feel that there are other more pressing concerns than the content of the bill that would positively impact our immigration system in Canada.
I will broadly frame my comments in two broad strokes. First is the prioritization of refugees coming to Canada and the criteria involved, and second is the supports provided for refugees coming to Canada.
Since the bill was first tabled, the Standing Committee on Immigration and Citizenship has had the opportunity to hear from many witness groups from across the country with regard to how the government's Syrian refugee initiative is playing out. Certainly I think I would be united in a non-partisan way with people on all sides and of all political stripes in this House in saying that Canada wants to help, has a duty to help, with the humanitarian and refugee crisis unfolding in the Middle East. The question really becomes how.
During the campaign, the now governing party I think really engaged in what was a series of one-upmanships in terms of the number of refugees who were coming to Canada. I think that was fairly shameful.
We certainly want to ensure that we have refugees coming to Canada, but we also have a duty to protect them. I think that is what the government should have been focusing on, as opposed to the content of the bill.
When we talk about refugee supports, one of the first things we have heard about over and over again is language training. The government has brought tens of thousands of refugees to Canada in a very short period of time. What we are hearing from settlement services groups, as well as from the refugees themselves, is that they are not able to access language training services. This has a material impact on their ability to integrate into Canadian society and to have a full and positive experience here as Canadians.
We heard from one man, a new refugee who I believe was in the Surrey area. He was talking about how he had been waiting for months to receive language training services and was not able to obtain them. What really struck me at my heart was that he also said that his wife, who is at home with their children, did not have the opportunity to receive language training services.
What is interesting is that when we tie this back to this bill, the bill actually makes significant changes to the language requirements for the attainment of citizenship. It actually reduces the age at which someone has to be proficient in one of our official languages to achieve citizenship.
What we are hearing in the context of support for Syrian refugees around language training services, is that language is a unifier. It allows refugees and newcomers to Canada to obtain employment, to ensure that they are not isolated, and to fully participate in the rich fabric of our country. What we have heard over and over again is that the government, so far, is failing to provide support for the high number of refugees it brought into the country.
To have this bill in front of us while this is rolling out really sends a message that we are not valuing language as a unifier in Canada. I really think that the government, rather than lowering the age, should be looking at how it can provide better language training services. We certainly heard this at committee in the review of this bill. This has actually been a theme of this entire parliamentary sitting in committee.
Moreover, we are also hearing from school boards across the country saying that the Liberals did not consult with them on how they were going to absorb the rapid influx of refugees in a very short period of time. Representatives of the Calgary Board of Education provided some very powerful testimony at committee last week. They talked about how they had absorbed the equivalent of a new elementary school in a very short period of time and had not received any additional funds from the province.
The province told the board to track its costs. When I asked the board representatives if they thought they had been told to track their costs so the province could send a bill to the federal government, they said yes. We asked department officials at committee if there were any plans for the government to provide additional funding, support, or address the concerns of the schools boards, and the answer was no, that this was not under consideration.
We have heard over and over again from the minister that education is a provincial concern, that he is going to wipe his hands of that, and that he is not going to talk about it. However, these are human beings, not numbers on a score card. The minister has more of a commitment than just standing in the House of Commons talking about how many people he has brought here, like it is some sort of tally sheet of which he can be proud.
Yes, we need to help people and, yes, we need to ensure they come to Canada. However, we also have to provide for them when they are here. The fact is that the government has not costed this out. It has not costed out the provision of language training services. Its campaign promise said that $250 million would be dedicated to the entire Syrian refugee initiative. Yet when departmental officials appeared at committee to talk about these costs, they could not even tell members of Parliament, in a meeting to look at supplementary budget estimates, what the entire cost across government was for these programs.
From what we have heard so far, it is kind of in the neighbourhood of $1 billion, maybe. However, what was even more concerning was when I asked officials if they had calculated the downstream costs to municipalities, for example, with school boards, or provinces, for example, of the health care system and whatnot. They could not answer that either. They had not made those calculations.
Going back to the bill, the government has fundamentally changed the pace at which refugees are brought into Canada, which is its decision. However, it also has an obligation to fundamentally change how we support refugees and then be transparent to Canadians on that costing. It sold Canadians a bill of goods by putting in its platform that $250 million would be the total cost of this initiative, saying it was a fully costed initiative. Then it was unable to tell the committee what the costs actually were.
I spent some time in management consulting, in which people are trained to ask what services they are providing, why they are providing them, and then look at the resourcing afterward. The fact that we are not even having this conversation here tells me that the government has significantly failed in its refugee initiative. It is not just me saying this as an opposition member. These are non-partisan service groups that have come to committee, I think somewhat reluctantly, because there has been so much fanfare.
The minister got very hot under the collar when I made fun of his photo ops. I remember being at Pearson airport, watching that very glossy photo op take place. These were privately sponsored families. Why were dozens of ministers in attendance and taking photos when the focus should be on transitioning them and providing more support?
These agencies appeared at committee. They said they had their funding cut and they had to cut hundreds of spots for language training. One of the school boards said that it had to increase class sizes and delay maintenance on some of its buildings. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Leader of the Government in the House of Commons made a comment in one of his questions to my NDP colleague, saying that the government was doing a wonderful job on the refugee initiative. We all want to help. We want to bring refugees to Canada, but the government is doing a disservice to these refugees by sort of pushing this under the rug.
This is why I think this bill has misplaced its priorities. There is going to be a significant impact on affordable housing. I know my colleague from Vancouver East said that there were several groups from the greater Vancouver area at committee talking about the lack of availability of affordable housing in that area and how the current stock that might be available did not necessarily meet the needs of large, multi-generational refugee families. One refugee said something to the effect that there were bugs in his family's apartment, that they used spray and sometimes it did not work. Is this really the life that we want for refugees when they come to Canada?
There is another silo that the government could have looked at in terms of its legislative or management priorities with respect to this bill, and that is the privately sponsored refugee silo. These groups of people fundraise within their community to bring refugees to Canada, to support them and integrate them into the community. They are the heroes of the refugee initiative. I hope no one would disagree with me on that. I believe the refugees that the Prime Minister took his big photo op with at Pearson airport were not government sponsored refugees but privately sponsored refugees who had been fundraised for by the community. I wish those sponsors had been in that photo op, but they were not.
Some of these groups have actually fundraised tens of thousands of dollars to bring refugee families to Canada. They were told by the government that their refugee families would arrive within a very short period of time, days or weeks. They obtained apartments, contracts for cellphone services, child care, and whatnot. We have heard numerous cases in question period. I have had dozens of requests come into my office, asking why the refugee families have not arrive. These groups have had to release the apartments and waste donor money and their efforts of goodwill.
Therefore, when we look at the experience that some of our government sponsored refugees are having with respect to having to stay in hotels for months at a time, the lack of ability to find affordable housing, the concerns we are hearing about language training services and social inclusion, the fact that the government has not married those two silos, given the rapid influx, or put any effort into bridging those gaps, has done a real disservice to the groups of people that have raised all of these funds, as well as to the refugees themselves. I wish the government had spent some time thinking about that as opposed to tabling this legislation, which I do not think helps these refugees over a longer period of time, especially given the language concerns that have been raised.
The second component I want to raise with respect to priority is another theme that we have heard over and over again at the citizenship committee, as well as in the House of Commons. The government really has not been able to tell Canadians the criteria that it uses to prioritize refugees coming into the country. On multiple occasions, I have asked the minister and his parliamentary secretary about this.
I remember being on an interview panel with the parliamentary secretary. I asked how the government was prioritizing because there were refugees from other parts of the world as well. That is a very fair question. It is not a partisan one. When we have groups, especially these privately sponsored groups, saying that they do not understand why their applications for an Iraqi family have been rejected because the government is focusing on people from Syria or from other parts of the world, it is fair to ask what the criteria is.
However, the parliamentary secretary said that the government was treating Syrian refugees differently. What does that mean? What message are we sending Canadians? That is a very timely discussion and one that the government will have to deal with in a very short period of time. The committee has heard from refugee settlement and sponsorship groups. They are asking this question as well. I am not saying this as an attack on the government. Rather, we should not shy away from talking about this. It is important today because of the report that was issued by the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Again, while the government is focusing on this bill, something really significant is happening in the world. There is a growing international consensus that ISIS, the so-called Islamic state, is committing genocide on ethnic and religious minorities.
The report today focuses specifically on Yazidis. The report states point blank that ISIS has committed the crime of genocide, as well as multiple crimes against humanity and war crimes against Yazidis, thousands of whom are held captive in the Syrian Arab Republic, where they are subjected to the most unimaginable horrors.
We had committee testimony. There was this very strange back and forth with the department officials. My colleague from Markham—Unionville asked how many persecuted Yazidis had been guaranteed permanent resident status as part of the government's Syrian refugee program.
Ms. Dawn Edlund from the department said “... I believe it's nine cases at the moment”. This was quite shocking. The department officials said that they actually were not tracking refugees through this initiative based on their ethnicity or religious background.
Oftentimes when we talk about ethnicity or religion, it comes up in a xenophobic context. However, Canadians live in a very wonderful secular society where church and state are very much divided. We live in this wonderful pluralism. Sometimes we actually cannot comprehend that there is religious conflict in this world, that there are crimes committed against people simply because of how they worship.
In this case, today the UN said that the most horrific atrocities were happening to a group of people. These people are being systematically wiped off the face of the earth because of what they believe in. Therefore, it is a fair to ask the department officials, in determining who is the most vulnerable, the criteria by which refugees come to Canada. Why is the department not tracking these things? Why is there not a specific initiative set up to take the most persecuted?
We know ethnic and religious minorities cannot, and sometimes do not, present at refugee camps, which makes it impossible for the UN to register them as refugees. Therefore, when the governing party members use their talking points that they rely on the UN and its designation, sometimes we have to realize the system is not foolproof.
In this situation, I fully believe the UN criteria to bring refugees out of that area is not foolproof. We only had nine cases that the department was able to point to with respect to Yazidi refugees. That is out of tens of thousands of people who were brought to Canada. This tells me the government is not doing its job in bringing the most persecuted here to Canada.
Again, I would encourage the government not to shy away from this. The government has a lot of opportunity here and a lot of goodwill from Canadians to continue the refugee initiative. However, I would encourage it to ensure it stays effective and that Canada does its best to bring those most persecuted people here.
The UN put forward several recommendations today to the international community. Some of these could be very important priorities for the government. I hope it takes these to heart and acts on them quickly. Again, this is why I find it surprising that we are debating some of the form and substance of the bill today. These recommendations were to recognize ISIS' commission of the crime of genocide against the Yazidis of Sinjar. There are many recommendations in here, but the one that struck me the most was to accelerate the asylum applications of Yazidi victims of genocide.
There are ways that we can do that. Section 25 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act includes a provision by which we can set up a special program to bring internally displaced persons to Canada in a very short, immediate period of time. We have asked the Prime Minister and the minister if they would consider doing that for this group. Their response has been to turn a blind eye to religion and just look at the UNHCR guidelines.
I understand what they are trying to do, but, again, from the bottom of my heart, we have a duty to these people. Their ethnicity and religion is why they are dying. Therefore, we cannot turn a blind eye to that. This is not xenophobic; it is stating fact.
In conclusion, I am disappointed in the bill. At the end of the day, when we look at citizenship, we want to ensure we benefit from those who come to Canada and their richness of experience. They in turn benefit from Canada with respect to their experience of having a full life that is free, with freedom of opportunity, free to love whom one wants, and free to pursue whatever opportunity. However, we need to empower them to do that, and a lot of the measures in the bill frankly do not do that.
We should be talking more about support. We should be talking more about how we support these people and the fact that the government has drastically altered the immigration levels of our country. This is where I see the bill falling short.