Immigration and Refugee Protection Bill

Debates of the Senate (Hansard)
1st Session, 37th Parliament,
Volume 139, Issue 64
Tuesday, October 30, 2001

On the Order:

Resuming debate on the motion of the Honourable Senator Cordy, seconded by the Honourable Senator LaPierre, for the third reading of Bill C-11, respecting immigration to Canada and the granting of refugee protection to persons who are displaced, persecuted or in danger.

Hon. Douglas Roche: Honourable senators, I start from the premise that Canada needs immigrants and has a duty to take in refugees. In the past decade, Canada has taken in 2.4 million immigrants and resettled more than 140,000 refugees from all continents. We have welcomed Kosovars fleeing the Balkans, Vietnamese boat people following reunification, and Hungarians after the 1956 uprising. In fact, our country operates the world's second-largest refugee settlement program - a concrete manifestation of international burden sharing.

Honourable senators, the laws concerning immigration are complex. We do not overhaul them often. The last time was in 1976. Bill C-11 attempts to ensure that Canada's immigration and refugee protection system is able to respond to new challenges and opportunities. This overhaul may not be done again for another 25 years. It is important to get it right.

The challenge inherent in Bill C-11 is to respond to refugee pressures and security concerns about terrorists without closing the door on persons in need of protection. There are more persons in need of protection in the world today than ever before.

Though we must ensure that Canada's borders are secure against those who constitute security threats and are potential terrorists, this bill is not proposed legislation to combat terrorism. However, because of the tragic events of September 11, the government suddenly decided to rush this bill through the Senate in the guise of anti-terrorist legislation. Even though Bill C-11 was passed by House of Commons months before the events of September 11, it is suddenly projected to be part of the government's response to the events of September 11. The government put its foot on the accelerator to get the bill through the Senate fast, thereby denying the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology sufficient time to study the bill's many complexities.

Bill C-11 does not have it right. It cuts off the appeal process. Its statutory bars cast too wide a net. The rights of refugees are not clarified. Terrorism is not even defined. We had witnesses who excoriated the bill for its weaknesses.

Seeing the improvements needed in the bill, and recognizing the government did not want amendments that would have sent the bill back to the House of Commons, resulting in further delay, the committee unanimously made a wise choice and appended to its report a 13-page appendix called "Observations." Rather than splitting over amendments, the committee stayed together. Thus, the consensus of 12 members gives added weight to the observations. The many witnesses who came to the Senate committee to improve the bill should see their work reflected in the observations.

The committee wants these observations taken seriously by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. I have served notice that I will move in the committee that the minister respond in writing six months after Bill C-11 is proclaimed.

The observations state, first, that the fundamental problem in Canada's immigration and refugee program is not the lack of new legislation but, rather, the lack of resources. Many witnesses stated that two rounds of downsizing in the past decade, the same decade that saw immigration and refugees increase, reduced immigration staff by almost half, including front line immigration officers.

The Immigration and Refugee Board now has a backlog of 34,000 refugee claims that have yet to be heard. The board has 186 decision makers at present and it needs at least 250. The current 103 refugee claims officers need to be augmented by another 50 or 60. It cannot be emphasized enough that what is needed in the present situation is more personnel, better enforcement, additional training programs and improved technology.

It was shocking to learn from the national president of the Customs Excise union that Customs officers in Victoria do not have a single computer and are operating out of a 35-year-old trailer with 30-year-old clipboards. Front line officers insist that they need more training.

Bill C-11 proposes to require that our immigration officers refer claims within 72 hours, a process that can currently take months. This presents an already understaffed and under funded system with an impossible situation. We must also deal with the reality that there are tens of thousands of claimants who have been ordered deported, but who continue to live within our borders. These are questions of resources, not legislation.

The observations also criticize the inadequate manner in which regulations, which we have yet to see, will be reviewed by the parliamentary process. Greater scrutiny of the regulations is essential, as these regulations will play an important role in implementing immigration and refugee laws fairly.

Many witnesses expressed concern at the absence in Bill C-11 of the explicit definition of a "terrorist," and the fear that an officer could make too subjective a determination of a suspected terrorist. Since Bill C-36 does define "terrorist activity," the same definition that emerges in the final form of Bill C-36 should be inserted into the regulations for Bill C-11. It is only logical to apply consistency. Since the government has cited stopping terrorists at the borders as a principal reason to rush the bill, the absence of a definition of a terrorist is a significant flaw.

The claim that Bill C-11 is needed to stop terrorists from entering Canada is bogus. The current Immigration and Refugee Act already provides authorities with the power to arrest, detain and remove persons who constitute a security risk to Canada. Surprisingly, this power has never been used.

Since September 11, there have been calls for a perimeter around North America, with Canada and the U.S. integrating their rules governing immigration. I resist this strongly. As Canada's refugee record shows, ours is a more open country, and it should be kept that way. There should be cooperation and information-sharing between our two countries, but let us maintain the entry laws to Canada that Canadians want.

Honourable senators, it is the effect of Bill C-11 on the processing of refugees that concerns me the most. Among those who spoke to this concern was Mary Jo Leddy of the Ontario Sanctuary Coalition, which was formed 10 years ago to protect innocent refugees who received notice that they would be deported to what the Geneva Convention describes as "arbitrary torture, detention or death." Church groups hid these refugees in church buildings until Canadian authorities could recognize their claims for protection. In the process, Ms Leddy learned much about the immigration and refugee system, and we should listen to her.

Ms Leddy told us that citizens and non-citizens are governed by two different sets of laws and regulations. A refugee may be picked up, detained and charged with being a terrorist, and may never see the evidence for such a charge before being deported. With the shadow of September 11 looming so large, it is essential not to so overreact in the pursuit of potential terrorists that innocent refugees are victimized. "Get more officers to do a thorough study," Ms Leddy tells us, and I agree. Ms Leddy further says:

Officers become mean and careless, just to survive. Files can sit for years, unread and unsolved. Someone's children are in those files while growing up as orphans in a refugee camp. Someone's desire to study is in those files while they are wasting away in a coffee shop. Someone's hope to start a business is in those files while wasting away in the line for welfare.
Honourable senators, it is wrong to clamp down on refugees because of a terrorist threat. Canada is not a haven for terrorists. It is, however, a haven for desperate refugees and we must keep it so. We must ensure that in our struggle against terrorism we do not undercut the larger global struggle for the promotion and protection of human rights and human dignity. We must ensure that applicants at the point of entry can fully access the refugee determination process.

I paid particular attention to the testimony of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Canada, Ms Judith Kumin. Ms Kumin listed the pros and cons of how the bill treats refugees. She told us that the bill affirms Canada's obligation to refugees. It establishes an appeal on the merits within the Immigration and Refugee Board. It has a pre-risk assessment and incorporates into Canadian law certain international obligations, all to the good. However, she also said that the statutory bars to a refugee hearing cast too wide a net, and she provided examples of innocent people who could be barred. Thus, the pre-removal risk assessment becomes all the more important. Ms Kumin also drew our attention to the administrative assistance refugee applicants are entitled to so that they can receive the convention rights to which they are entitled. I asked Ms Kumin how UNHCR weighs the pros and cons. She answered: "This is a bill that the UNHCR can certainly live with." That testimony helped me to make up my own mind about the bill.

However, such approval must not overshadow the need to better clarify the safe third country concept so that refugees would not be in danger of constant deportations until they were eventually returned to the country where they feared persecution.

In its observations, the committee suggested that Canada consider entering into formal agreements with other countries, especially the United States, to enhance the orderly processing of refugees.

Finally, in light of the many problems surrounding the immigration and refugee system, the committee recommended that the Senate do an in-depth study of all aspects of Canada's immigration and refugee system. Such a study should define the fundamental issues in order for Canada to remain a just and welcoming society and set the standard for a rapidly evolving world community. The history of the effectiveness of Senate studies on several issues commends this recommendation.