moved that Bill , be read the third time and passed.
He said: Mr. Speaker, I rise today to commence third reading of Bill , the balanced refugee reform act, which would reform Canada's asylum system to make it both faster and fairer. I encourage all hon. members to support the bill.
I am pleased to report that the proposed reforms in the original version of Bill received widespread support. However, many concerns were raised in good faith by parliamentarians and others concerned about Canada's asylum system. We have, in good faith, agreed to significant amendments that reflect their input, resulting in a stronger piece of legislation that is a monumental achievement for all involved.
These amendments, I am happy to say, create a reform package that is both faster and fairer than the bill as it was originally tabled.
There is a remarkable spirit of co-operation around this bill. It is amazing to see that a consensus could be reached on such a sensitive issue by all the parties in the House with their divergent views.
I will just add that I have been here for some 14 years and in a minority Parliament for several years. It is very seldom that we see all parties working together on anything. To have seen all parties come together, following a diligent and serious debate on this very complex matter of policy that involves people's lives, is truly remarkable. It is a commendation to all Canadians that, indeed, notwithstanding the political differences here, at least from time to time this minority Parliament can work and, in this case, it has worked. That only happened because of the diligence and good faith of those parliamentarians who worked most closely on the bill. I commend, in particular, my parliamentary secretary, the member for .
I would like to acknowledge the tremendous efforts of the Bloc’s immigration critic, the hon. member for , who demonstrated an incredible knowledge of these reforms and this aspect of our legislation. He was open to an agreement, which was really unexpected at the start of the process.
It is rather rare for a so-called ordinary member to have an opportunity to implement an idea taken from a private member’s bill. The hon. member for proposed a bill to implement the appeal division of the Immigration and Refugee Board. That was rejected by the House because it was not part of a larger reform of the asylum granting system.
Thanks to his tenacity and dedication, Bill gives all rejected asylum seekers access to a new appeal division. This is thanks to his efforts. I would like to salute him and thank him for his remarkable efforts.
I would like to acknowledge the great efforts and remarkable spiritedness and diligence of my colleague from , who is a long-standing spokesperson for refugees, for people who are in need of our protection. She brought a great deal of compassion to this debate but also a tremendous knowledge of the complex details of refugee policy. To quote my new favourite newspaper, the Toronto Star, the fact that the member for Trinity—Spadina and I could come to an agreement on a matter as delicate as refugee reform is nothing short of a miracle. Miracles happen.
I would also like to acknowledge the efforts of the member for , the official opposition immigration critic, who first raised this issue last spring, in March 2009. He worked with us in good faith to advance the cause of a fair and fast asylum system. I regret that he ran into some internal political difficulties in his own caucus.
Not to sour the note, there was at least one member of this place, the member for , who was not exactly representative of the kind of consensual approach that has characterized this bill. In fact, he engaged in the kind of lowbrow demagoguery that really has no place in debates on immigration, suggesting that this positive reform would “build walls around Canada”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In point of fact, the reforms that this bill will allow us to implement will lead to a 20% increase in the number of resettled UN refugees, who we will welcome to our shores, victims of ethnic cleansing, warfare or persecution. There will be some 2,500 a year, year after year, who will find the certainty of Canada's protection and to whom we will be giving protection, thanks to these reforms, thanks to the broadmindedness, the soft-heartedness but also the hard-headedness of members from all sides.
We have been able to bring about these reforms that will help to save 2,500 additional lives every year as we welcome more resettled refugees and give them more support for their successful integration. This bill does not build walls around Canada, as the member suggested in a fit of demagoguery. Rather, it breaks walls down so that Canada can be true to its vocation as a place of protection and refuge for those most in need of it.
We can all be proud of the Canadian asylum granting system, although all the parties acknowledge that it is typified by extensive backlogs and lengthy processing delays. This is not a temporary situation that arose just recently. It is typical of a broken system that has been that way for a long time.
I do not need to belabour the point. We all recognize the system in many respects is broken, with a 60,000 person backlog taking 20 months for an initial protection decision, with some nearly 60% of claims being rejected, with our number one source country, a European Union democracy, from which 97% of claimants go on to abandon or withdraw their own claims. Therefore, it is imperative that we find a way to deter abuse so that those who really need protection get that protection faster and those who seek to abuse Canada's generosity are removed from this country much more quickly.
That is what Bill would achieve. The bill and its related regulatory and operational reforms would create a new information-gathering interview at the independent Immigration and Refugee Board early in the claims process. It would put in place independent decision makers at the Refugee Protection Division of the IRB who are not political appointees. They in fact would be appointed according to a transparent process. It would create a new fact-based refugee appeal division.
This is something that refugee advocates and more especially the hon. member for have been demanding for years.
It would create the certainty of Canada's protection for bona fide refugees in about four months rather than the current 19 months. It would allow for the removal of false claimants in about a year rather than several years under the status quo, which would yield about $1.8 billion in savings for Canadian taxpayers.
It would allow for the possibility to fast track the processing of claims from designated countries, as well as the identification and expedited processing of manifestly unfounded or fraudulent claims. It would create a new pilot program of assisted voluntary removals for failed claimants. It would invest $540 million in new resources for the refugee system, including the enhancements to resettlement from abroad that I mentioned.
As I mentioned at the outset, the government was open to the idea of making thoughtful improvements that would help achieve what I believe we all want: a quick, fair asylum granting system.
During second reading of Bill in the House of Commons, I listened to all the speeches. During the debates and consultations, the government took constructive criticism into account and recognized the need to work together with the opposition to design a bill that reflected the parliamentary consensus.
The reforms we are proposing should have been implemented long ago. They would have enabled us to use our resources to protect people who really need it.
Bill would put in place authority to develop a designated country of origin list. This list would include countries with a strong record of human rights and protection of their citizens and that are not normally refugee producing, probably in the end, no more than a handful of countries.
We need such a tool to deal with large spikes in unfounded claims from typically safe democratic countries, claims that are often later abandoned or withdrawn, suggesting that claimants may not have been in need of our protection in the first place. I am confident that we will seize the opportunity before us to implement these reforms.
As the IRB presently delivers the majority of risk assessment making through the Refugee Protection Division, and additionally the refugee appeal division under Bill , the IRB is the logical organization in which to centralize the function of risk assessment, which we have done through an amendment to the original bill, moving the pre-removal risk assessment for failed asylum claimants to the IRB.
The government has also heard the concerns expressed by a wide range of stakeholders regarding the proposed deadlines. To respond to those concerns, we have agreed to move the deadlines back, to 15 days instead of eight for the initial interview by the information gatherer that is being incorporated in the Act, and to 90 days instead of 60 for the initial hearing, which will be incorporated in the regulations in the section dealing with processing times in the Refugee Appeal Division.
The deadlines proposed for the interview and the subsequent hearing are reasonable, realistic and fair, and for certain exceptions, in particular in cases where there is evidence of trauma or vulnerability, the officers handling the interviews would have the power to adjourn an interview.
The decision-makers at the first-level hearings will be trained in accordance with the same standards as are used in the present system and hired in accordance with the values of the public service: merit, transparency, access, representativeness and fairness.
The government has worked with our colleagues in other parties to make further changes to our policy direction with respect to the designated country approach. These changes are reflected in amendments passed by the standing committee with support from all parties. We have accepted an amendment from our colleagues in the Bloc that gives claimants from designated countries access to the refugee appeal division while ensuring even faster processing of their claims than was originally proposed in Bill .
The amended designated country provisions maintain the intent of our policy to more quickly process and remove claimants from designated countries. Criteria for the purposes of designation have also been included in the legislation. These include the volume of claims from that country, the acceptance rate at the IRB for claims from that country, the human rights record of that country and the availability of avenues for seeking protection and redress in that country.
While a review would be conducted against all four criteria, the amendments ensure that the quantitative thresholds established in regulations actually trigger the review. In other words, a review for designation could only take place if certain quantitative thresholds established in regulations are met. Countries that do not meet this threshold would not be reviewed. Manifestly unfounded claims would also be a factor in country designation decisions and would be reflected in regulations.
I would like to express my thanks to the member for , because he was the one who heard the experts and the other people who actually came up with idea that was seriously considered and approved by the standing committee. This is a very flexible tool for dealing with fraud when it arises in our refugee protection system.
Manifestly unfounded claims would also be a factor, as I have said. The concept of the manifestly unfounded claim is well established with the UNHCR and is focused upon cases which are clearly fraudulent in nature.
These amendments provide for greater transparency around the criteria that will have to be met to designate a country, and also clearly limit the powers of the minister.
Regulations would also require that a designation can only be made if an advisory panel including at least two independent human rights experts recommends it.
These amendments go a long way in providing greater clarity and transparency around the process of designation.
Amendments also propose to schedule a hearing for designated country claimants earlier than for other claimants, within 60 days of the initial interview, as opposed to 90 days.
The bill also proposes that the refugee appeal division would hear an appeal from a failed claimant from a designated country within 30 days following an application, as opposed to the 120 days for claimants from other countries.
With these amendments, the same policy objective would be achieved but by speeding up processing timeframes rather than denying access to the new RAD at the IRB, which was initially proposed in Bill .
As well, faster processing, including prioritization of failed designated country claimants for removals, would ensure that designated country claimants could not stay in Canada for long periods of time.
The government further proposed an amendment to allow the RAD to expedite the appeal of a claim that is determined to be manifestly unfounded, that is to say, essentially fraudulent claims. This would ensure that appeals of such claims would take place in the same expedited timeframe applied to failed claimants from designated countries.
Manifestly unfounded claims would have 15 days to file an appeal at the RAD and appeals would be considered within 30 days of the filing. The processing time standard at the front end, however, would be the same as for claimants from other countries, 15 days for the information-gathering interview and 90 days for hearings following that interview.
This new provision would respond to spikes in fraudulent claims more quickly than would the designated country designation.
Also under the proposed amendments, if either designated country or manifestly unfounded claimants chose also to apply for judicial review, their removals would not be stayed and they would be subject to priority removal.
With these amendments we would still be providing fast protection decisions for those in need with quality first-level decisions by an independent quasi-judicial body. We would continue to provide for expedited processing of claims from designated countries without denying the claimants access to an appeal.
In fact, we would actually do a bit better under these proposed reforms and amendments than the bill as originally tabled. Claims from designated countries would be processed in an estimated 120 days, about half of the processing time of most claims and about 10 times faster than under the status quo.
Claims determined to be manifestly unfounded would have the same arrangement for expedited appeal as designated country claimants.
We have also agreed to other amendments which clarify the existing policy and respond to certain concerns that have been raised, including the fact that considerations associated with undue hardship would continue to be examined in applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
The risk assessment under sections 96 and 97 of the act would be eliminated from that process, as initially proposed, to avoid redundancies in the refugee protection system.
With the exception of the committee's decision to eliminate the one-year time limit for access to applications on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, I will be happy to say that I completely approve of the amendments approved by the committee.
With respect to the limitation on humanitarian and compassionate applications, the government continues to believe that these measures would contribute to the overall effectiveness of the system and deter abuse.
In general, however, the amendments proposed would continue to enable us to achieve our objectives of expediting processing, deterring abuse and giving claimants access to the Refugee Appeal Division.
As I said earlier, the amendments are actually an improvement from the original proposal, a real and unique win-win situation for all involved in this debate and for legitimate claimants as well as for Canadian taxpayers. That is because the fast-track process would be even faster than our original timelines.
I look forward to taking questions on the technical aspects of the bill and the associated regulations.
Let me close by thanking all parliamentarians and members of the committee who so diligently exercised their true role as legislators and for giving evidence and hope to Canadians that we can work together to achieve sound public policy.
I thank all of the hard-working officials at Citizenship and Immigration Canada who, quite frankly, have worked on this issue for years and with tremendous diligence in the past several months. I thank as well my own political staffers, particularly my policy director, Mr. James Yousif, who has done remarkable work in advising me and the government and making this day possible.
Mr. Speaker, first, I begin by expressing my heartfelt gratitude to the for the leadership he has demonstrated throughout this process of turning our commitment to refugee reform into reality. His openness to change, his ability to seize the one in a generation opportunity to deal with a sensitive and often difficult area of public policy is to be commended. It is proof that in our vocation, when we answer the call of public service, we can achieve great objectives for the sole purpose of demonstrating the fact that we are not in this place for some vanity trip or the power of self-indulgence. Rather we are here to bring about positive change to the lives of people and a great willingness to do good for society and show respect for our democratic institute and indeed the democracy within which we live in our country.
Throughout this process the minister has demonstrated a great capacity and work ethic as well as political know-how and leadership. It is not always easy to negotiate. Sometimes it can be quite difficult. People have certain views on issues and they express them openly and sometimes forcefully, because that is part and parcel of what democracy is truly all about.
I want to underline the fact that the minister's willingness to share the credit with his fellow members of Parliament on both sides of the House of all political stripes really speaks to his generosity of spirit and dignity as a parliamentarian. For that, I want to express my gratitude for all he has done.
This issue really began over a year ago, in March of last year, when I asked the question of the in relationship to some of the major challenges that the refugee system in Canada was facing and had faced for a while. The issue of backlogs, for example, and many others were brought to light by an Auditor General's report that had some major concerns about Canada's refugee system and we needed to do something very quickly to rectify this issue.
Conversations took place with my caucus colleagues a number of times throughout this process to see how we could better improve the legislation. The minister in his answer essentially said that he would welcome discussions about the refugee system and really opened up a sincere dialogue between members of the opposition, myself included, and his department. He was actually very much involved in ensuring the concerns that were raised by my caucus, for example, were addressed in our own conversations about how to better address some of the challenges. The minister in his speech has really covered all the areas that we needed to address and he also clearly has outlined the concerns.
I am speaking at length about the process today, as we reflect on Bill C-11, because what is very evident to me, and I am sure to members of the committee who worked diligently on this and to everyone who cares about the refugee determination system in Canada, is that if there is a sense that there are issues that need to be dealt with in Parliament in a very open way, and if we, as parliamentarians, have the political will to bring about positive change, things can be achieved.
I read with interest an editorial in the Toronto Star, and this is a headline I am sure the minister will treasure for a while:
|| Miracle deal on the Hill.
|| Political miracles are still possible on Parliament Hill.
It ends by saying:
|| The real miracle would be to transform this isolated incident into standard operating procedure.
I think we need to reflect upon that. We need to reflect upon the fact that minority governments can produce great legislation. However, there has to be an openness. There has to be an openness to dialogue. The answer really does not lie in shouting at one another but rather in putting thoughts on paper, discussing, and being open to changes that may even mean giving up some things that are very dear to you.
When we look at what I hope will become a case study of Bill , I hope, with all due respect to other ministers in the government, that they take a page from the to see how they could facilitate a better performance of Parliament.
I can speak at length about the changes, the significant amendments that were made, but I am underlining the issue of co-operation, because I sense that it is what Canadians are really seeking. Canadians are seeking from Parliament a new style, a new way of doing things. They look at us, and they want to know that when we rise in the House, we are not thinking only about our own personal agenda. It goes beyond personality. Rather, it goes to the core of what proper representation in the House is truly all about. We can, as a House of Parliament, get up every morning with the ultimate reality in our minds, and that is that we need to come up with the best possible policy available to deal with the challenges Canadians face.
As I look at some of the significant amendments to Bill that were already mentioned by the minister, whether it was the Liberal Party pushing very hard on the humanitarian and compassionate applications, whether it was the work of the NDP and the Bloc on designated countries, whether it was the member for , if I can refer to myself, pushing for changes to timelines on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, or whether it was dealing with the minister—and may I say that receiving an e-mail at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m. was common during these negotiations—it speaks to a willingness to get things done.
As we look down the list of humanitarian and compassionate changes, timelines, the financial commitment of over $540 million made by the government, we can see that this is serious. We answered the call of Canadians. We answered the call of concerned individuals and organizations that deal with refugees. We answered the call of individual Canadians, who felt that our refugee system was, quite frankly, being abused. They wanted parliamentarians in the House to stand up for our country, for the dignity of our system, and for the integrity of our system. This is a bill that goes in the right direction. It is a thoughtful bill. It is a bill that in its original form was a bit flawed. However, with the work of parliamentarians on both sides, we were able to achieve positive change.
When we looked at the advisory panel, when we looked at the trigger points to designate countries, which was a major issue in my caucus, as some members may recall, eventually, we found solutions.
The minister, in his wisdom, when he found that a certain partner was not at the table, sought other partners. At the end of the day, the minister and the country got what we needed. That is more important than a political victory.
What is important is that we, as parliamentarians, have been able to deliver to the people of Canada what is rightly theirs: a bill and a policy that addresses their key concerns. It addresses those things they care about, those issues they talk about around the kitchen table, those concerns of families, of refugees, who have to wait years upon years for a decision to be rendered. Now they will not have to.
If this system works well, what we will need to remember is that public life is about people, at the end of the day. If we can relieve the pain that some of these individuals have felt over the years because of a flawed system, then we have done our job. If we can stand up as parliamentarians and say that we have a refugee system that has elevated Canada's status as a system that is fair, that is just, and that allows individuals to come to our country to seek refuge, then we have done our job.
Upon reflection, as we think of the process of that very first question to the minister, of his openness in his response, of the work done by members of Parliament on all sides, of the agreements and disagreements, and of the tension, and may I say, today, the relaxation, we begin to comprehend in a very real way that positive change in this chamber is indeed possible. Things can, in fact, happen for the better.
There are many refugees who have come to this country who have made great contributions. They have enriched the cultural fibre, the economic fibre, of our country. We welcome them with open arms, because we have a responsibility, as people in one of the greatest democracies on earth, to play our role as parliamentarians. We engage in an international and global society, a global village, where countries and citizens need one another to create the type of global environment in which we mutually benefit from each other and mutually benefit from the gifts we have been given.
I want to particularly say that from a governance point of view, Bill represents a good model to follow, because although we have certain views and some very strong views on issues, I think that the give-and-take is extremely important in the creation of good public policy.
There is a reason refugee reform is often not touched. It is difficult. It is sensitive. It is, at times, politically charged. People want to avoid that. However, I think that this citizenship and immigration committee has really demonstrated leadership in ensuring that these changes the minister stated in his speech were achieved.
As a final comment, I would like to see more of this in the House. I would like to see more Bill s in the House. I want to see ministers who are just as open. I want to see opposition members who are just as forceful and aggressive and who care about people. In the final analysis, when we make our contribution to public life, we need to look back and ask if we made a difference in people's lives.
If the answer is yes, as is the case in Bill , it is definitely a good day for Parliament. It is a good day for politicians. It is a good day for all parties involved. It speaks to the fact that when we gather our energies and focus on an issue of common purpose with good will and faith, we can succeed.
On a final note, during my negotiations, I was helped a great deal by a young man named Vince Haraldsen who works in the office of the . I want to thank him. Obviously, I want to thank the chair, my neighbour from Caledon, for his great work, and all members of the committee. I express to all of them my sincerest gratitude for what has been a great experience.
Mr. Speaker, since we are talking about smiles, I would like to start off on a lighter note. Over these past weeks and months, the most frequent method used to discredit adversaries was to accuse them of forming a coalition. This is the popular thing to do right now. Earlier, I calculated that there are 10 possible combinations. There is the possibility of a Liberal-Conservative coalition, a Bloc-Liberal coalition and so on. If we do the math, we can see that there are 10 possible coalitions. Based on what has been said during question period over the past few months, there is always one party that is not in the coalition and that will insult its adversary by saying that there is a new coalition. That is what has often happened and what is happening again today.
In fact, we have formed an 11th coalition, one that is perhaps surprising because it involves all four parties. This bill was passed unanimously. It is in front of us for a third and final reading. In all likelihood, it will be passed a bit later.
The people who are watching at home and who are seeing the minister and the critics from the other parties smile, laugh and converse might wonder what is happening in the House today. Anyone who watches question period expects the opposition to say that the government's actions make no sense and that it is not doing things the way it ought to. Then the government says that the opposition knows nothing. But this is different because, frankly, our committee work was infused with this same spirit of co-operation, which I believe is necessary and in line with the behaviour expected of us by the citizens who elect and choose us.
The committee worked very hard. We had long evenings of consultation. We had consultations during the day but also at night because we wanted the changes to be implemented quickly. However, we wanted to do our job properly and take the time to hear everyone's comments.
I believe we did everything we could. We did as much as humanly possible. I remember sessions on Thursday evenings when members were a bit tired and would start joking around a bit. I made a point of apologizing to certain witnesses who were wondering whether MPs took things seriously. With all due respect, I think we did good and necessary work.
At the same time, following lengthy consultations, there were exchanges between people from the different parties. Contrary to what people often think, we talk to our Liberal, New Democratic and Conservative colleagues. We had discussions that led to a rather interesting and effective situation in which we could proceed with a clause-by-clause review, in other words, that time in committee when we vote on the clauses of the bill and make amendments.
We managed it in just a few hours without any drama. I believe that the majority of the votes were unanimous and a few were on division. There was no animosity in the discussions. We finished relatively early that evening and we would have finished earlier still if we did not have to go back and forth between Parliament Hill and downtown Ottawa three times to vote in the House. Maybe the fact that we got some air and walked around a bit got our minds in gear and allowed us to come up with this solution.
As those who spoke before me have pointed out, there is a general sense of satisfaction with the result of the committee report.
This is not the sort of compromise where you go home saying you had to give up this, you got that, you had no choice and you have to live with the end result. We are pleased with what we accomplished. Of course, it is not the bill that I would have written or that the members for or would have written, and it is not the bill the minister had drafted. It is something else, the result of everyone's contributions, but it is not an awkward compromise, an agreement we are forced to accept with resignation because we have no choice. It is good work.
We want to thank everyone who had a hand in amending the bill. Needless to say, we want to thank the minister, who was open and wise enough to come and talk with the critics from the various parties and who was open to new ideas. He did not reject them out of hand, just because they came from party x or y or a separatist party, which unfortunately sometimes happens in the House. We had good discussions. In some cases, the minister also convinced us that some amendments might not be appropriate. We worked hard, and as the member for said, I hope many other ministers will take a page from this minister's book.
We would obviously also like to thank the parliamentary secretary, who worked hard as well. He was always very respectful and very open to the proposals made by the other committee members and the witnesses who appeared. I want to thank the Liberal and NDP critics, with whom I worked closely in many ways. Together, we achieved something very worthwhile.
We also want to thank the people who were our raw material, the people who appeared before the committee to tell us what they knew about the reality of refugees. We heard from lawyers, representatives of the Quebec and Canadian bars, refugee advocacy groups, the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Fédération des femmes du Québec and all sorts of groups that work with these people every day and have an intimate knowledge of what they go through. We even heard from refugees who had gone through the process and who came to testify.
These people provided the material that helped us achieve this result. I honestly do not think we can simply say that we did a good job as parliamentarians. It is true that we did, but it was only possible because of those who got involved, participated in these consultations and provided us with the material we needed to get results.
I find it interesting that, although the public is unfortunately too often cynical and disillusioned, this refugee protection reform will perhaps be a positive example for all those who hesitate to get involved in politics or to appear before this type of committee, who hesitate to take the time to draft briefs, thinking that nothing will change, since everything is already decided in advance. These people will perhaps realize that they can contribute and help make changes to legislation.
Personally, I would also like to thank all those within my party who worked to help me, particularly my researcher, Marie-Eve Therriault, as well as Annie Desnoyers, from the office of the House leader, who is a formidable resource on House procedure. I am sure that many parties in the House would love to have her work for them, but her heart is obviously with the Bloc Québécois; she is already taken.
Let us talk about the bill, because that is what we are discussing today.
First of all, I would like to point out the major improvements that appear in the version before us today, things that were not present at first reading or second reading. The Bloc Québécois will support this bill, albeit with some reservations, because we still have some concerns. We want to ensure that it will be implemented. It is a good bill and it is far better than the status quo. No one will be surprised to hear that I am especially pleased that there is now a refugee appeal division that is accessible to everyone.
I thank the minister for pointing out that the Bloc Québécois has been fighting for this for quite some time. I personally took up this fight and brought it to this Parliament with my private member's Bill , which was introduced in the House in my name. It reached second reading and report stage in committee, but it was unfortunately defeated in the House by a single vote.
I could certainly make some sort of political statement, but in the spirit of co-operation that abounds today, I will refrain from doing so, for I am very pleased that we now have an appeal division. It is very important to have such an appeal division in order to be fair. All justice systems that are administered by human beings, who are not perfect and can be wrong and make mistakes, must have a mechanism to correct those mistakes. This is quite obvious, since all of our natural justice systems—our tribunals and courts—always provide the opportunity to appeal, even in matters that are far less serious. People go to court for a squabble between neighbours over a fence and if they are not satisfied with the verdict, they can appeal it to a higher court, explaining why they feel the decision was wrong.
It is obvious to me that in a matter that, quite frankly, is much more serious—whether or not a person will be sent back to a country where they risk persecution, torture, or even death—we must be absolutely sure that we do not make a mistake. In fence disputes, even a judge may be mistaken five or six times out of all the cases in a year, which is not very serious. However, in an application for refugee status, a mistake has serious consequences.
By establishing a refugee appeal division, we are assured that a mistake made at the first level can be corrected at the second level. I believe that the system will be more efficient with the appeal division. It will ensure that real jurisprudence, a body of jurisprudence, is established, and that decisions will be much more consistent.
For example, two brothers from the same country and with the same experiences were brought before two different board members. One application was accepted by one board member whereas the other was refused. I do not know which board member made a mistake but one thing is certain: one of the two board members made a mistake. The same case was presented but the outcome was different. I have often pointed this out. Lawyers have told me that they cannot tell their clients whether or not they will be accepted because it depends on which board member hears their case.
With an appeal division to which rejected claimants will be able to apply, or if the minister finds a decision maker to have been too lax in his decision, it will be possible to validate the decisions and to determine, after a period of time, which cases are accepted or not according to case law.
I also commend the fact that the committee has decided to maintain the possibility for refugee claimants to apply on humanitarian grounds. This is the safety net of our process.
In many cases, a person may be in situations of extreme difficulty and grave concern, and yet not meet the strict definition of refugee and be inadmissible. The definition of a Convention refugee is quite narrow. A person must not simply be seeking refuge and require assistance, but be truly persecuted and unable to find a place in the country where he would be protected. The hope is that, with a claim on humanitarian grounds, persons in this situation would be accepted.
There remain certain concerns, such as country designation. At first, I was not convinced. I was always concerned about whether diplomatic or political issues would interfere in the process.
I am relatively satisfied with the final text and the way it is drafted. Unlike some, I did not want the word “safe” to appear in the enactment, because in my opinion it would have introduced a value judgment. Countries could have brought diplomatic pressure to bear to obtain this label of safe country, whereas the more neutral term “designated country” does not pose this problem. I think that the two tools are balanced.
We also considered whether an interview is better or not as good as the previous form. Each method has its advantages and its disadvantages; time will tell. I think it is reasonable to trust in the professionalism of our public servants to conduct interviews properly in the best interest of the system.
Finally, I remain concerned by the complete absence of any possibility of reopening a case between the time someone receives a final decision from the refugee appeal division and the time he or she is actually deported. There might be personal events in his country: for example, his family might be massacred, with the result that when the final decision was made he was not a refugee, but he subsequently became one.
I hope that the system will be able to deal with this sort of case and that the Immigration minister of the day will take the proper action if such cases should arise.
I will close on what is perhaps a lighter note. In the end we decided to keep the title of the bill, since it can now be said to be truly balanced. However I can assure the minister that the committee will return to the charge on these next two bills, whose titles are frankly ridiculous. We will see to it that the titles contain objective criteria only, and not political opinions.
Personally, I emerge from this experience very satisfied: it is very rewarding. There are often difficult moments in our work as members. Sometimes, I stop at my desk, listen to question period, and ask myself what I am doing here, what is going on. But a moment like today is a good moment, and whatever happens to me in the years ahead, the day I leave politics I will be able to say that at least I did something important which had an impact on people’s lives, and possibly for many decades.
Mr. Speaker, refugee laws have the ability to define a nation and sometimes it is not obvious until decades later.
Had the former prime minister of Canada, Mackenzie King, eased up on the refugee laws at the time, several hundred thousand Jews might have been saved from the Nazis.
Hiding behind the argument of the national self-interest of Canada, then immigration minister Thomas Crerar, with his official Fred Blair, barred Jews from entering Canada. Mr. Blair said it was “for the reason that coming out of the maelstrom of war, some of them are liable to go on the rocks”--he was talking about refugees--“and when they become public charges, we have to keep them for the balance of their lives”.
Between 1933 and 1945 the United States under Roosevelt accepted 200,000 Jewish refugees. England accepted 70,000. Bolivia, a relatively poor country, accepted 14,000. Sadly and shamefully, Canada, a rich and vast country, accepted only 5,000 Jewish refugees.
Even the young Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in an election rally in November 1942, stated that he feared “the peaceful invasion of immigrants more than the armed invasion of the enemy”, an obvious reference to Jews.
It was only when the Jewish community through the People's Committee Against Anti-Semitism protest action that Canada began to ease its refugee policies. The people's committee sent a delegation to Ottawa representing 10,000 Canadian Jews and met with minister Crerar. Because of the huge and sustained outcry, finally in 1944, 450 Jewish refugees were allowed into Canada.
By 1945, the 972 very highly skilled, professional male refugees who had been in jail since 1940 were finally released from jail and became a professional pool of musicians, teachers, artists, writers, theologians and scientists.
Why do I bring up the history? Because establishing a fair and humane refugee policy is very difficult. Oftentimes doing the right thing is not necessarily the most popular thing to do and any mistakes made can result in beatings, torture, jail, and sometimes death.
There is an important lesson to be learned from that dark chapter of our history. We have to work with the people who are most affected, people who work with refugees, and then the government laws and policy will be perfected.
Today, in these difficult times, many refugees have to leave their countries because they suffer persecution. Last year, 43.3 million people faced persecution because of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. They were forcibly displaced worldwide. This is the highest number of people uprooted by conflict and persecution since the mid-1990s and represents more than our country's population. If Canada makes a mistake and we end up turning away some of these people, it could be a matter of life and death.
That is why we must learn from that dark history and provide fast and safe entry for genuine refugee claimants and turn away those who are trying to exploit Canada's system.
New Democrats have always supported the creation of a fast, fair and effective refugee system. When this bill was first presented, we said we feared that no country is truly free from any form of persecution, whether it is hate crimes directed toward gays and lesbians, and transsexual people, or a woman fleeing domestic violence, genital mutilation, or an honour killing. Those countries may be democratic but they are not safe.
We are very pleased that people from those countries will now have the same rights of appeal. They will have the rights for humanitarian and compassionate consideration and the right to counsel.
That is why we are extremely glad that we are fast-tracking Bill . We are compressing the timeline for report stage and third reading into one afternoon to give the bill fast passage so that the bill can become law, hopefully by the end of this month, or maybe even before the end of this month.
Allowing people to have humanitarian and compassionate consideration is critically important. Sometimes refugees may not know whether they belong in the refugee stream or the humanitarian stream. This is now built in and it is protected.
There are also extremely important regulations coming with the bill. We look forward to seeing them come into force. We are looking forward to the hiring of close to 100 refugee protection officers to clear the backlog. I believe there are over 60,000 claimants who have been waiting in limbo for close to four years for a decision. The Canada Border Services Agency's computer system will be upgraded. Those who are ordered to leave the country will be tracked by CBSA so they could be asked to leave Canada without Canada losing track of them.
New Democrats presented over 20 recommendations during the discussion at the citizenship and immigration committee. We would have preferred to see some other changes. For example, in the beginning we were quite uncomfortable with the interview process because the personal interview forms would no longer be used. We were worried about the cost of the humanitarian and compassionate application fees of over $500. We were worried that new information may not be able to be submitted to the refugee appeal division.
We were also worried that if countries had a last minute change and if refugees were deported to those countries, without the pre-removal assessment review, the refugees could face real problems when they returned home.
We also wanted all the clauses to come into force at the same time and that there be a built-in evaluation process. However, in the spirit of working together and of making compromises to make a better bill, I withdrew my recommendations in support of the humanitarian and compassionate grounds consideration, and allowing appeals for all refugee claimants and making sure that all claimants have a right to counsel. Those are things that we believe are extremely important.
Did we get everything that we wanted? No, however, it is a bill that is far more balanced. We believe when it becomes law, it will be worthy of celebration because at long last we will see the implementation of the refugee appeal division.
I want to thank people for the hundreds and hundreds of submissions that we received at committee. People took the time to write about the kind of changes they wanted to see. We heard from refugees themselves. It was extremely brave for them to describe their experiences and how happy and safe they feel now that they are in Canada.
We also heard from passionate refugee advocates who described their work with refugees and urged the committee members to we pass a bill that was balanced, fair and fast. They organized public meetings in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal and many other parts of Canada and allowed people to speak out.
Our committee could not travel because we did not have the time, but we were able to hear from quite a large number of people through the Internet and video conferencing. Because of their wisdom, their persistence and their insistence that democracy means calling their member of Parliament when a bill needs to be improved, they did call us. I understand that a lot of members of Parliament received submissions, calls and visitations from people who have worked with refugees or refugees themselves.
That, in itself, was extremely precious because at the end of the day, when we come together collectively, whether we are refugees, refugee advocates, immigrants, organizations, members of Parliament, critics, the minister and his staff or public officials, the key component is that we must listen to each other and work together because we do want, collectively, the same thing, which is a fair and fast refugee determination process.
I hope that passing this law will mean that we will not repeat the tragic past of many years ago when we saw 907 refugees on board the St. Louis being sent away which resulted in half of them perishing. That is a lesson that we need to remind ourselves of over and over again as we talk about refugees and immigration issues because we do not want that terrible history to repeat itself. Canada is really a safe haven for many people seeking to make their homes in Canada and today, because we are passing a balanced, fair and fast refugee process, we have a lot to celebrate together.