Mr. Speaker, I rise today to speak to Bill C-31, a bill that dramatically changes the refugee system in Canada and, in my respectful view, does so for the worst.
I was our party’s immigration critic when the bill was introduced some three short months ago. Following the introduction of the bill, I was inundated by ordinary Canadians and stakeholders alike who were worried and shocked about what the government was proposing.
It is no exaggeration to say that the bill is opposed by every major stakeholder group in the country. Churches, doctors, immigration lawyers, settlement service organizations, academics, refugee groups, cultural organizations and refugees themselves.
Rarely has a bill been so roundly condemned by so many. Why? Because it is readily apparent to anybody who studies this omnibus legislation that the bill is unconstitutional, punitive to refugees and will be completely ineffective in deterring human trafficking.
I am extremely disappointed to be back here at report stage after the Standing Committee on Immigration and Canadians heard many hours of very trenchant and damning testimony. I am disappointed to see that the government has ignored the recommendations of over 40 witnesses representing the full spectrum of the immigration community, who warned about the damaging and misguided effects of the bill.
I am referring to witnesses such as the Canadian Pediatric Society and psychologists who warned of the effect that mandatory detention would have on refugees who had been traumatized by persecution, violence, torture or other atrocities.
The government has ignored this testimony and is moving forward with this backward approach. Most telling, those same groups testified about the particularly damaging effect that detention had on children, whom the bill would also see in detention.
I think of the testimony of Peter Showler, Lorne Waldman and other members of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, probably the most knowledgeable group of people in the country on refugee law. Peter Showler used to be the head of the Immigration and Refugee Board. They testified that the accelerated timelines to make refugee claims would be impossible to meet in an adequate manner. In their testimony and their experience hearing cases, this would lead to mistakes and decisions not to grant asylum to bona fide refugees.
I want to pause to say this. Rarely is a mistaken decision more damaging and dangerous than a mistaken decision in a refugee determination case. To be refugees, they have to show that they have a well-founded fear of persecution. This often means they are fearing for their lives. Therefore, a wrong decision could lead to a deportation of someone back to a country where that person might face torture, persecution and death.
That has happened. In the past year there have been cases. There was a case recently of a Mexican refugee claimant denied here, sent back to Mexico, who then was murdered by her ex-husband, a police officer, whom she claimed persecuted her.
Those lawyers also spoke of the provisions for mandatory detention, arbitrary designation of irregular arrivals, denial of appeal to certain classes of refugees and ignoring the best interests of children, all of which went against our Constitution and international conventions alike. The government, unfortunately, ignored that expert testimony.
I think of the testimony of Gina Csayni from the Roma Community Centre in Toronto, who spoke of the real human rights violations and systemic discrimination in Europe. She spoke about how Roma refugees would be negatively affected by having EU countries designated as safe. She spoke about how disheartening and insulting it was to hear our Minister of Citizenship refer to them as bogus and she explained why he was wrong.
I want to pause there and say that we are all very intimately familiar with the persecution, the genocide, against the Jewish people in World War II. What is less commented upon is the fact that Roma, along with the disabled, were also targeted for their ethnicity, rounded up, tortured, medically experimented upon, detained in concentration camps and murdered simply because they were Roma.
This is not just any ethnic group. It is an ethnic group with a history of being the victims of genocide in Europe. There is absolute rock-solid evidence that Romas still face persecution, and states are unable to protect them even today.
The government ignored that testimony. In fact, it doubled down and continued to use inflammatory language referring to Roma refugees as bogus.
We heard from Chris Morrissey and Sharalyn Jordan from the Rainbow Refugee Committee and others who spoke about how the so-called safe country determination process threatened LGBTQ refugees specifically. Over 100 countries of this world have some form of legislative discrimination against the LGBTQ community, including death in some countries.
Again, the government plows forward as though these stakeholders never spoke.
Experts from Australia, a country the government likes to selectively quote from when its adopting policies it likes, testified that the draconian rules that the government was imposing to try to deter human smuggling—that is, rules that direct punitive elements at refugees—had no deterrent effect at all. Australia has adopted the same procedure that this bill would, and there has been no diminution of refugee claimants coming to the shores of Australia since it adopted those rules years ago. The government ignored that evidence.
The government did make two important changes, and it is important to point that out because it shows what an effective official opposition can do and it shows when parliamentary committees work.
Witnesses and opposition members warned about the impact of clauses 18 and 19. These clauses would allow the minister, through the IRB, to strip permanent residence status from people who had been living in Canada for many years on the basis that conditions had improved in the countries they fled.
The minister said repeatedly that this was not his intention. Actually he went much further than that. He said that the bill categorically did not have this effect. He vociferously and arrogantly derided members of Parliament and stakeholders who brought up the subject. In the end, however, he realized and acknowledged that he was wrong, that he did not understand the effect of the bill that he wrote. He has still not apologized for the vitriol and derision with which he so wrongly defended these clauses.
The other change that the government agreed to was to require a review for the mandatory detention at 14 days and at six months. This came after witnesses, including witnesses sympathetic to the government, had a consensus that this provision was blatantly unconstitutional, as the New Democrats pointed out for months.
This means that the government put forward a bill and could not find one expert in the whole country who deemed it to be charter compliant. This is shocking.
I would also point out the intransigence of the minister who insisted throughout that this bill was constitutional, repeatedly, only in the end to find out, just like the official opposition said and the stakeholders said and the legal community testified, it was not constitutional.
This change notwithstanding, experts still believe other provisions make this bill unconstitutional and we may be tied up in the courts for years figuring that out.
I want go back to the beginning and ask this question. Why this bill? Why does the government insist on going forward with the bill when many of the problems the government claimed to address were already dealt with in the previous Parliament in Bill C-11? We dealt with them when all parties, the Conservatives included, came together and passed the Balanced Refugee Reform Act. We all recognized that the refugee determination system was slow and we put forward reasonable solutions to this problem.
The minister stood in this very House and praised Bill C-11. He said that the amendments that were worked out by all parties in the House made the system faster and fairer and he called that legislation “a monumental achievement”.
When I asked the minister whether he was wrong then or wrong now, he said that he was wrong then. Well, that may be honest, but it does not inspire confidence and it raises serious questions about the real motive behind this bill.
Why would the Conservatives throw a bill in the trash can, a bill that the minister praised, and reintroduce a bill that in previously unamended form was inferior? Even the Minister of Immigration said that.
One part that still puzzles me is the minister’s insistence to give himself the power to unilaterally declare a country to be safe. Under Bill C-11, designated persons still have the right of appeal to the Refugee Appeal Division. Under this legislation they do not. Under the previous legislation the minister had to consult with a panel of experts before determining a country to be safe. Under this bill he does not.
On television the minister said that he had run simulations that showed the system under the previous bill would not work. However, when I have asked for the data from these simulations, even under access to information, the minister cannot produce that information.
There is no need for this bill. Canadians know it. The official opposition knows it. The immigration community knows it. The government should withdraw the bill now before serious damage is done to refugees and Canada’s reputation as a compassionate country.