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CIMM Committee Report

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Government of Canada Response to the Fourth Report of theStanding Committee on Citizenship and Immigration,
“Strengthening the Protection of Women in our Immigration System”

Introduction

The Government of Canada thanks the Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration (CIMM) for its Fourth Report entitled “Strengthening the Protection of Women in our Immigration System”.  This report was tabled in the House of Commons on February 25, 2015.  The Government supports the Report and welcomes the opportunity to have these issues examined from the broad perspective of the many stakeholders who participated in the Committee’s study.  Our Government has consistently shown its commitment to removing barriers that newcomer and immigrant women may face in their journey to becoming fully participating members of Canadian society.

Since CIMM began its deliberations in February 2014, the Government has taken many legislative, regulatory and administrative measures to address the issues of early and forced marriage and the vulnerability of spouses and partners in abusive relationships. These initiatives build on commitments set out in the 2013 Speech from the Throne to ensure that violence against women and girls, including early and forced marriage and other barbaric cultural practices do not occur on Canadian soil.

On November 5, 2014, Bill S-7, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, was tabled, proposing to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act(IRPA), the Civil Marriage Actand the Criminal Codeto strengthen existing inadmissibility provisions by adding a new inadmissibility for persons practicing polygamy; codify existing requirements for consent and monogamy in marriage; set a new national minimum age for marriage; and introduce Criminal Codeprovisions to address early and forced marriage as well as so called “honour”-based  and spousal homicides. Bill S-7 received Royal Assent on June 18.

As well, on June 10, 2015,  a regulatory amendment to increase the minimum age of a recognized spouse from 16 to 18 in all permanent and temporary immigration programs came into effect.  On the same date, a regulatory change that eliminates the recognition of marriages facilitated by proxy, telephone, fax, Internet or other similar means that may be associated with forced marriage for the purpose of immigration also came into effect.  CIC has also implemented a number of administrative measures including operational guidelines to address forced marriage, and a protocol has been developed between CIC and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) that will facilitate lawful information sharing in select cases of forced marriage.

In addition to the above recent initiatives, the immigration system already has a number of measures in place to help reduce vulnerability of women in the immigration system. These include:

  • On October 25, 2012, regulatory amendments came into force introducing a two-year period of conditional permanent residence for spouses or partners who are in a relationship for two years or less with their sponsor and have no children in common at the time of their sponsorship application. In order to ensure that this provision would not increase vulnerability, an exception to the conditional permanent residence measure was created for victims of violence who would find themselves in situations of increased vulnerability due to this requirement. CIC also disseminates the brochure “ Information for Sponsored Spouses or Partners”, which will be available in nine languages, to those subject to the condition who are victims of abuse or neglect, advising them that they do not have to remain in an abusive situation and indicating where they can find help.
  • In November 2011, a more robust spousal sponsorship bar came into effect which enables applicants to be better protected against sponsorship applicants who have a history of family violence.
  • Regulatory amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulationsin 2010 and 2014 aim to reduce exploitation by employers and third-party agents, implement stricter accountability mechanisms and combat the placement of Temporary Foreign Workers (including live-in caregivers) in poor or dangerous working conditions.
  • CIC produces many resources to support the prevention of gender and family-based violence.  Both Canada’s citizenship study guide Discover Canadaand the Welcome to Canadaorientation guide include information on gender equality and Canadian laws, and reinforce the fact that barbaric cultural practices are not tolerated in Canada. These documents are also used by different organizations such as schools, libraries, and settlement organizations to educate Canadians and newcomers about Canadian values.
  • Through the Settlement Program, the Government provides significant funding to nearly 700 service provider organizations across Canada to deliver pre and post-arrival settlement services to newcomers, of which more than half are women. The Government provides close to $1 billion annually ($614 million to fund settlement services outside of Quebec and $340 million for Quebec in 2015-16) that encourage newcomers to be fully engaged in the economic, social, political and cultural life of Canada. To achieve these goals, needs assessment and referrals, information and orientation services, language training, employment related services,  community connections, and support services (including limited crisis counseling support) are provided through online resources, publications, in-person services as well as through referrals to available community supports.  Services delivered by service provider organizations include activities for newcomers that support the awareness and prevention of gender-based violence by providing information and workshops on identifying violence, cultivating healthy family relationships, developing risk mitigation strategies and understanding rights, responsibilities and Canadian norms such as gender equality.

Other federal departments also have in place programs that address the vulnerability of newcomer and immigrant women and girls. The Department of Justice (DOJ) supports projects to address and prevent honour-based violence and forced marriage in communities (e.g., national training for front-line service providers), and has worked in partnership with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to develop an honour-based violence/early and forced marriage web-based course made available to all employees of the RCMP. Status of Women Canada (SWC) provides funding for projects to support communities to increase knowledge and their ability to address honour-based violence and/or forced marriage. Since 2007, $2.8 million has been approved for projects that address these issues. As well, the Minister of Health recently announced an investment of $100 million over ten years to support victims of violence by better equipping health professionals and supporting community-based responses. This investment will include resources and protocols to better support professionals to work safely and effectively with those who have experienced family violence. The Public Health Agency of Canada has launched an open call for proposals – Supporting the Health of Victims of Domestic Violence and Child Abuse Through Community Programs – that can support, among other activities, the development of health information and resources regarding practices such as female genital mutilation and honour-based violence. DFATD has made ending child, early, and forced marriage a foreign policy and development priority.  This includes human rights and consular initiatives, which provide a range of assistance in cases of forced marriage to Canadian citizens of all ages and both genders. 

Despite these efforts, more can still be done to protect vulnerable newcomer and immigrant women and girls in our immigration system. The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration has made five recommendations in this regard, to which the Government responds below.

Recommendation 1: The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada increase the minimum age for sponsored spouses from 16 to 18 years.

As part of the Government’s efforts to address the vulnerability of immigrant women, a regulatory amendment came into effect on June 10, 2015 which raised the minimum age of eligibility to immigrate to Canada as an accompanying spouse or partner, or to be sponsored as a spouse or partner of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, from 16 to 18.  This regulatory amendment is intended to decrease the number of potentially vulnerable young spouses immigrating to Canada who have not yet reached full maturity or who do not possess the ability to act in their own best interest, potentially preventing a forced marriage or a marriage of convenience from occurring.

Recommendation 2: The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada expand pre-arrival orientation to ensure sponsored spouses receive information in a language they understand and to ensure that the topics covered include gender equality, women’s rights, their legal rights, what constitutes abuse in Canada and how to seek help. This information should be included in Citizenship and Immigration Canada publications, such as Discover Canada.

CIC launched a Call for Proposals (CFP) in August 2014 for the delivery of a new suite of pre-arrival settlement services beginning in 2015-16. While these services will primarily be delivered in English and French to those selected for permanent residency, it is typical for key messages to be delivered in many different languages. The CFP prioritized services providing pre-arrival settlement information about Canadian rights and responsibilities and the prevention of family and gender-based violence. It is expected that, as a result of the CFP, the availability of these pre-arrival services will increase.

Furthermore, in an effort to provide vulnerable clients – including newcomer women and their families – with multilingual information on services available to victims of abuse, CIC is developing a brochure that will allow victims of abuse to make informed settlement decisions. To ensure broad reach, the brochure will be available in English, French, Urdu, Tagalog, Hindi, Punjabi, Spanish, Mandarin and Traditional Chinese. To ensure accessibility, the brochure is written in plain language and will be accessible in print and online. In addition, the newcomer orientation guide Welcome to Canadaincludes messaging on gender equality and family violence.   Finally, Canada’s citizenship study guide Discover Canadaemphasizes the fact that Canada’s openness and generosity does not extend to barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse, so-called ‘honour killings’, female genital mutilation, and other forms of gender-based violence.

Recommendation 3: The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada evaluate conditional permanent resident status and monitor the number and outcome of abuse exception requests, percentage of tips that result in removal, and incidence of reported abuse within these sponsorships with a view to understanding the effect of this policy instrument on domestic abuse and its effectiveness in terms of addressing marriages of convenience.

The Government is monitoring conditional permanent residence for sponsored spouses or partners in a number of ways, including tracking the number of spouses and partners who are subject to the conditional permanent residence measure; the volume and outcome of conditional permanent residence exception requests and, to the extent possible, the instances in which the exception for those in abusive relationships is used. This information is collected through internal compliance exercises and through CIC’s internal database which allows the Department to track the incidence of reported abuse within these sponsorships. In addition, CIC completed an evaluation of the Family Reunification Program in 2014 and the next evaluation is scheduled to begin in 2017-18.  However, in its ongoing commitment to providing victims of abuse and other forms of violence with the tools they need to fully integrate independently into Canadian society, the Government will continuously monitor the success of policies that impact these vulnerable women and girls on an ongoing basis.  Implementation and results of the conditional permanent residence measure will be assessed through program-specific performance measurement strategies, as well as through CIC’s comprehensive departmental evaluation plan. Taken together, these activities will provide information which will enable the Government to monitor the impact of this policy and will help to ensure that the exception for the condition is being implemented according to guidelines.

Recommendation 4: The Committee recommends that the Government of Canada amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, section 72.1(6) to include forced marriage as a ground for exception from the condition on permanent resident status.

A regulatory amendment is not necessary as the current regulations for the Conditional Permanent Residence provision are already broad enough to address situations of forced marriages. Under subsection 72.1(6) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations,a victim of abuse or neglect may request an exception to the condition to reside with their sponsor. It is explicit in the regulations that this includes physical, sexual, psychological, or financial abuse, which are forms of abuse that are inherently part of forced marriages. 

Further, the changes in Bill S-7, the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, that make forced marriage a stand-alone crime in the Criminal Code, will assist in identifying forced marriage as a ground for exception from the conditional permanent residence provision. Following the passage of Bill S-7, the Government will update and clarify the conditional permanent residence guidelines to ensure it is understood that victims of forced marriage can request an exception to the condition, as forced marriage constitutes a form of abuse and an ongoing violation of the victim’s fundamental rights, for which the exception to conditional permanent residence should apply.  

It is also notable that to assist CIC officers in processing requests for exceptions due to abuse or neglect and in handling sensitive information related to these requests, officers were provided with training, including a session on domestic violence, which was provided by a non-governmental organization with expertise in domestic violence. Officers have also been provided with instructions regarding safety considerations when communicating with a person who may be a victim of a forced marriage, given the link between these marriages and violence or homicide committed in the name of so-called “honour”.

Recommendation 5: The Committee recommends that the CIC designated help-line for victims of domestic violence be assessed to ensure that victims have timely and efficient assistance in their usual language.

CIC’s national Call Centre serves as the single point of contact in Canada for persons enquiring about general and case-specific information related to CIC’s citizenship and immigration programs. CIC’s Call Centre answers millions of calls each year in the official languages of Canada.

The CIC Call Centre has a dedicated line to provide immigration-related information to victims of abuse.  The CIC Call Centre routinely monitors the calls received by its dedicated line, and provides the necessary assistance and training to its agents to answer these calls.  Quality assurance is routinely conducted to ensure all calls received by the Call Centre are answered in a timely, efficient and respectful manner by Call Centre agents.

The CIC Call Centre prioritizes calls received from sponsored spouses and partners who are victims of abuse or neglect or who are victims of forced marriages.  Sponsored spouses who are subject to the conditional permanent residence can also call in and speak to a dedicated agent to request an exception from the condition at any time during the two-year conditional period.

 The Call Centre cannot provide a service for the dedicated line in the usual language of every caller.  However, the Government has developed written information in other languages for victims of violence that can be easily accessed by service providers.  The DOJ publication Abuse is Wrong in any Languageprovides information about abuse and resources, with specific reference to forced marriages and violence or homicide committed in the name of “honour”. This publication can be easily accessed via the CIC website.  Beside the two official languages, this publication is available in Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tamil and Urdu. CIC is also working towards having the brochure Information for Sponsored Spouses or Partnersavailable on CIC’s website in other languages, including Urdu, Tagalog, Hindi, Traditional Chinese, Mandarin, Punjabi and Spanish, which will include new provisions that will be introduced after the passage of Bill S-7.

Conclusion to the Government Response

Since protecting those who are vulnerable within the immigration system is a priority for the Government, many robust steps have already been taken since 2006 to address potential barriers faced by newcomer and immigrant women and in the immigration system. The Government will continue to examine and enhance measures for victims of abuse in all its programs. This includes working to address any gaps that may still exist, with a goal of combating these kinds of abuses which are completely inconsistent with fundamental Canadian values and unacceptable to Canadians.