I call this meeting to order.
Good morning, everyone. Welcome to meeting number 16 of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration.
For health and safety, the Board of Internal Economy requires that the committee adhere to the following health protocols, which are in effect until June 23, 2022. All individuals wishing to enter the parliamentary precinct must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. All those attending the meeting in person must wear a mask, except for members who are at their place during proceedings. Please contact the clerk of the committee for further information on preventive measures for health and safety. As the chair, I will enforce these measures. I thank you for your co-operation.
As to hybrid meeting information, today's meeting is taking place in a hybrid format pursuant to the House order of November 25, 2021.
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Ms. Lalonde, you raised your hand.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'm not opposed in principle, but I think we want to ensure the committee is able to continue its regularly scheduled activities as well.
I would like to propose an amendment to add at the end of the motion, “during the Easter recess”, so that the meeting would take place during the Easter recess and we don't lose time on the important work we're doing. I would also like to propose that we add “the minister and” ahead of “IRCC officials”. Of course, the doesn't have to come, but to give the minister an opportunity to appear with his officials is appropriate. The minister is ultimately accountable for the decisions of the department, and I don't see why we wouldn't give him the opportunity.
Those are my proposed amendments. If we can accept those, we can proceed.
To organize that meeting during the Easter break, we would still need to set a date today, as we don't have many weeks left in our ridings.
I will send my schedule to my friend Mr. Genuis, but I can tell you that I have a lot of work to do in my riding, as we want to take advantage of any time we have over there. If I was at least given a specific date, it would be easier for me to accept this amendment, but “during the Easter recess” is too vague.
As you know, I am close to my constituents, who expect me to meet with them during that recess. I would like to be given a date, as it is much too vague for me if we are just told that the meeting will be held during the Easter break.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Respectfully, the context is that members of the government are putting forward a motion. I thought at a point when there's already.... I don't know what I can say, given that....
It's a matter of public record on the notice that there was consideration of a draft report at the last meeting, so people already know that there's already been consideration of a draft report on this subject. We have a proposal for another witness, and I want to accommodate that, if that's the desire of members, but my point is that since the government brought forward this proposal for additional witnesses, let's not slow down the work of the committee that needs to happen. We have limited time slots during sitting weeks. I'm trying to accommodate what the government and members want by saying we could set aside two hours in a two-week period.
Madam Chair, I don't know if I can amend my own amendment. I think maybe I can. I think I would like to add after “during the Easter recess” the words “following consultations with members about their availability”.
Okay. I think that maybe sometimes, rather than sub-subamending everything, it's more efficient to make sure the chair understands what the general direction of the committee is and to go from there, right?
We could specify it in the language of the motion, but I'm getting the sense that there's a consensus, hopefully, around saying that we should not do this meeting during a regular CIMM committee slot. It should happen during a sitting week, but in an additional time slot so that we're not detracting from the times that have already been set aside for the committee to do its work.
If there's a consensus around that, then we can I think agree by unanimous consent to pull the amendments and adopt the motion.
Is there agreement to direct the chair accordingly?
Is there unanimous consent on Mr. Genuis's suggestion that the meeting on the proposed motion by Ms. Lalonde be held in the sitting weeks but not during the regular CIMM hours? If that's the will of the committee, I will have to work with the clerk to see what time slot would be available, based on the services.
Do I have unanimous consent on that? Okay?
Everyone seems to be in agreement that we dispose of the subamendment and the amendment.
The Chair: Now we have on the floor the motion that has been moved by Ms. Lalonde.
Seeing no further debate, do I have unanimous consent on that motion?
(Motion agreed to [See Minutes of Proceedings])
The Chair: The motion is adopted.
Go ahead, Mr. Genuis.
(b) a list of which visa offices currently use advanced analytics to triage applications and which application they are used for; (c) a list of how many different advanced analytics triage models there are and which visa offices use which model; (d) any quality assurance reports for each advanced analytics model that is being used by a visa office; (e) the current instructions to decision makers regarding the implementation of the advanced analytics pilot model for any processing centers that use advanced analytics; (f) any training manuals or reviews regarding Watch Tower and a list of all priority flags that have been used in Chinook; (g) Chinook+ and GCMS Chinook user manuals; (h) all training manuals and documents prepared and used in training IRCC staff on the use of Chinook; (i) all contracts IRCC holds with Deloitte & Touche Llp, Accenture Inc, and McKinsey regarding artificial intelligence, digital platform modernization, Chinook, and the digital services response project; (j) privacy analysis conducted with respect to Chinook; (k) contracts between IRCC and ApplyBoard and between IRCC and ApplyProof since 2015; (l) project launch, terms of reference and roadmap documents for 'The Service Transformation Strategy and Roadmap'; 'The IM/IT Strategy & Roadmap Project'; TDSS' "Innovation Strategy"; (m) IRCC Policy Playbook on Automated Support for Decision-Making (All editions); (n) any additional programming information and instructions used for advanced analytics systems; (o) the raw and complete responses that IRCC employees provided to Pollara Strategic Insights for the Anti-Racism Study; (p) the current and historical processing times for each visa office and category, from 2015 until now; (q) the course content and materials used for any anti-racism training or information sessions conducted for IRCC employees; and (r) all materials produced for the IRCC Digital Transformation Interdepartmental Advisory Committee (DMA Level); and, that the said material be delivered to the committee within 40 days, along with any proposed redactions; versions of the documents with the proposed redactions shall be published on the committee's website within 10 days of receipt; the committee shall issue a press release highlighting the publication of these documents, and unredacted documents shall be distributed to committee members within the same time frame; the documents in redacted and unredacted forms shall be shared with the Parliamentary Law Clerk, who will then be invited to meet with the committee in camera to advise on the appropriateness of the proposed redactions; and, the committee may then make determinations as to whether to publish all, some, or none of the redacted documents.
Madam Chair, I want to emphasize that the list of things I'm asking for is not my own list. I reached out to the witnesses who had come to us and raised concerns about transparency issues, and I simply encouraged them to tell me what information they would need in order to be able to do their work in a more transparent way.
Members may have concerns with one or two of the letter items, and certainly we can amend the motion, but we had many witnesses tell us that there were concerns about transparency and access to information, so I asked them what information they needed, and they provided me with a list.
I am now coming back to the committee to ask us to use our powers as a committee to do something concrete, which is address the transparency challenges, gather this information, give the government the unfettered opportunity to redact where they think appropriate, publish the unredacted documents and then be able to review the redacted documents ourselves to assess the appropriateness of those redactions.
I think that's a reasonable procedure that tries to respond to a very real issue raised by witnesses. I hope this motion will have the support of colleagues.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Respectfully, I know that in the past Ms. Kwan has been a great champion of transparency around these issues, and I hope we'll see that continue.
Look, this motion is very different from asking officials to appear. Officials coming and answering our questions, or at least responding to our questions, is very different from requesting primary source documents and making those primary source documents public. Now, I suppose I could move this motion again, after the officials are here, but the officials are not going to come with all these documents in hand. If we want the officials to come with all these documents in hand, let's make it explicit in this motion, although this motion gives them much more time to do so. Again, I think in the interest of transparency, let's recognize that requests for documents are very different from hearing verbal responses from officials.
That's really all I have to say. We can proceed to a vote. The stakeholders will be able to see, of course, who's standing with them in their desire for transparency.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
It is difficult to disagree with Mr. Genuis' arguments; I think he is completely right. We will never receive the information requested in this motion from officials who will appear before us. It seems to me that is obvious.
Since our committee started working, in both studies we have carried out, we dealt with issues of lack of transparency and opacity at IRCC. This motion will enable us to obtain important information from that department. I don't see how someone could vote against a motion to obtain more information. That is a bonus for all of us as members of this committee. It will enable us to do our job properly.
It is very difficult for me to see how someone could vote against a motion requesting documents from IRCC if we want to fight the lack of transparency and the opacity within that department.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I just want to say very clearly that the motion we just passed is not only for officials to come before the committee. There's a component within that motion that clearly says they would have to provide undertakings on the public record that the committee members request. Some of the documentation that Mr. Genuis has requested in his motion would be some of the documentation that I would be interested in receiving. I have every intention to actually make those requests of the officials, and for them to provide it to us on the public record for the purpose of transparency.
I reject the notion that if I don't support Mr. Genuis's motion, I'm somehow against transparency. Nothing could be further from the truth. We will have an opportunity to undertake this work. If the officials come forward after our request for the documentation to be received on the public record before we write our report and the documentation is deficient, there is always an opportunity to follow up with respect to that.
I think from this perspective, I'd like to actually give the officials a chance and give the department a chance to do their work. For that reason, I think we can park this motion. That's what I would suggest.
In fact, I move to adjourn debate on Mr. Genuis's motion.
The motion passes. There's no more debate on that motion. The debate is adjourned.
We will now proceed to the witnesses for today's meeting.
Today's meeting is on differential outcomes in Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada decisions.
We have two panels. Based on the time available, we will have the first panel for 45 minutes and then the second panel for 45 minutes. Because of the budget, the services are not available to us.
I will take this moment, on behalf of all the members, to welcome our witnesses for the first panel.
We are joined by Mario Bellissimo, certified specialist in citizenship and immigration law and refugee protection, representing Bellissimo Law Group Professional Corporation. We are also joined by Jeric Mendoza, immigration consultant, representing J. Mendoza & Associates Canada Immigration Consulting Group. The third witness for the first panel is Vishal Ghai, representing Voices4Families.
I welcome the witnesses. Each witness will have five minutes for their opening remarks, and then we will go into our round of questioning.
We can start with Mr. Bellissimo. You will have five minutes. You can please begin.
Good morning, Madam Chair, and members of Parliament and fellow panellists. Thank you for the invitation to appear.
The study of differential outcomes in IRCC decisions is definitely a complex and expansive topic. I'm happy to take questions on that generally, but for purposes of my opening remarks, I'm going to focus on advanced analytics as part of AI, artificial intelligence, solutions.
My professional career has been dedicated to the practice and study of immigration, citizenship and refugee law, or immigration law for brevity. For the past near 25 years, I have accompanied applicants in the journey from the application stage to the Supreme Court of Canada and back, working to advocate preservation of the foundational legal rights of equality, fairness and individualization in immigration law and policy.
AI engages all of these issues. In fact, for some who, like me, are grappling with the enormity of the implications surrounding the expanded use of AI solutions, we can find ourselves equally in awe and in dread. Simply put, the awe part is the exciting and transformative possibilities, such as expedited processing, minimizing officer error or bias, enhanced user access and better information gathering, among other potential gains. However, part of the dread arises from concerns AI will only perpetuate existing racial, socio-economic and political divides and discrimination that are so entrenched in our society.
AI, as we all know, is already being used to triage applications, but the potential is so much more and the plans are far greater than triaging.
The hope is that if AI is applied properly, we can avoid the missteps we've seen and witnessed domestically and internationally when AI has reproduced bias, such as in the Supreme Court of Canada case of Ewert. Other examples internationally include the risk classification assessment tool used for detention in the United States or the iBorderCTRL lie detector used by the European Union at borders, or even the New Zealand technology to identify potential overstayers. These are just a small number of examples of AI use gone wrong. At its core, until we are all required by law to be on a relatable informational plane, applicants, the public and many stakeholders remain at a disadvantage in understanding how parts of their lives may be reordered by AI.
I remain optimistic that improvement is possible. Recommendations this committee has already heard with respect to an ombudsperson and enhanced IRCC training, as set out in the Pollara report, are potential important steps, but even more will be required in the presence of disruptive technology to avoid potential discriminatory consequences.
As set out in the 10 recommendations in our brief, efforts to transform immigration delivery must include legislative measures to be put in place for transparent, explainable and equitable AI governance, recognizing the technology is not neutral and that historical data values and norms propel AI. Training AI programmers, analysts and thought leaders, as one example, must not only be reflective and responsive to vulnerable persons and groups, but must also be required by law to ensure diversity and inclusion balances are maintained for those who train and drive the technology. An algorithm charter like that in New Zealand, external audits with enforcement powers, and mandatory external consultations are steps that have been recognized internationally as effective and essential for proper AI governance.
We cannot look only at where the use of the technology is today. The need to work with and leverage all stakeholders is acute, given the rapidly evolving challenges ahead. IRCC is staffed by many hard-working, well-intentioned individuals who want to make a positive change. Our council and the academic and AI community in Canada are also well positioned to make a meaningful contribution to IRCC's use of AI.
If we put in the collective work now, pressing for a strong and modern legislative framework predicated on collaboration, oversight, transparency, and responsible implementation, we have the potential to be a world leader. There is much work to do, but this is the time to reimagine, revolutionize and reorder Canadian immigration decision-making, built on a strong legal and technological foundation that is grounded in legislation, a foundation undisturbed no matter the international and technological pressure that may be on the horizon.
Thank you, Madam Chair and the members of the committee, for giving me the opportunity to provide input on today’s meeting.
My name is Jeric Mendoza of J. Mendoza & Associates, which is based here in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
The recent Pollara report on the systemic racism within the IRCC is a sad reminder that racism has not left the Canadian immigration system. More troubling is the fact that it's happening behind the scenes. Today I would like to expose more discriminatory policies or issues that, to me, are hidden from us in plain sight.
The first issue I would like to raise is the Canadian education equivalency requirement in most immigration applications. What can be more racist than to require an assessment to see if the education of a foreign national obtained overseas is equivalent to a Canadian education? How do we define “Canadian education”? Is there a special sauce that we need to find? Why is it that in most cases, a two-year post-secondary diploma in the Philippines, for example, is reduced to secondary education? Does it mean if someone takes, say, a two-year automotive course in the Philippines, they have already forgotten what they've learned? Even among schools in Canada, there are various factors in play that make it difficult to say whether one bachelor's degree is the same as or different from another. If we cannot reliably measure, then why require this assessment? Further, why measure it in the first place? What issue, backed by data, are we trying to address?
It is therefore my recommendation to eliminate education equivalency assessment requirements in all immigration programs at both the provincial and federal levels, because it's a racist policy.
The second issue that I would like to raise is the biased language skill requirements of different immigration programs. I fully understand the need for one to communicate effectively to become successful anywhere in the world. However, requiring a language exam in English or French is obviously discriminatory to non-native English or French speakers like me.
How do we reconcile this? Here are my recommendations.
First, eliminate the graduated points system whereby a native English or French speaker can possibly score higher points because of their language ability, despite a non-native English or French speaker having more skills or work experience.
For example, right now if someone applies under the federal skilled worker program, the person can obtain a maximum of 28 points in language skills, compared to just a 15-point maximum for work experience. Where has “experience is the best teacher” gone? Should it be “language is the best teacher”? Is a cook with a CLB level of 8 a better cook than a cook with a CLB level of 4? Do we ask Canadian citizens or residents for a IELTS or CELPIP exam result when hiring a mechanic or welder? If not, then it's racism.
As a compromise, I suggest using instead a pass/fail system against a minimum language level, below which it is difficult for someone to survive in Canada. I believe it's at the very least a CLB 3 or at most a CLB 4.
Next, allow employers to certify language skills as a substitute for a formal language exam if they're providing a job offer. Further, let employers or professional regulatory bodies, not immigration, require a higher language level, as they deem fit, for their occupation.
Finally, remove the expiry of language exams. Right now, language exams have a two-year expiry. If I can effectively speak English or French today, does it mean I lose this ability two or more years from now?
The third and final issue I would like to raise brings me back to the Pollara report. As evidenced by the Pollara report, racism in Canadian immigration happens behind the scenes. In this regard, I have the following suggestions.
First, require supervisor concurrence for all case refusals. By doing so, a racist, biased or incompetent case officer has a solid reminder that their decision will go through further scrutiny, which hopefully will deter them from deciding with bias.
Next, provide applicants or their representative with immediate access to case notes. Who can be a better guardians against racism than the applicants themselves? If applicants or their representatives are provided with immediate access to the case notes, they may possibly identify issues, including racism, early on while their case is in process, not after a decision is made.
Finally, set up a complaint or grievance system whereby applicants or IRCC workers can raise issues of racism, general bias or incompetence of immigration personnel.
Moreover, provide a way whereby case officers can be held accountable for the wrong decisions they make on applications.
Thank you, Madam Chair and honourable committee members, for affording us the time to speak.
I represent a self-advocacy group with an outreach of over 6,000 victims of IRCC's racist system. I use the word “racist” indeed, especially for families who have been separated forcefully by the and IRCC.
This system is inequitable, archaic and systemically biased. We submitted our recommendations in a petition that was signed by over 5,600 people, and it included their comments.
As a group, we have been pushing for immediate family reunification. The has proven time and time again that if there is a will, there is a way, just like the MI—the ministerial instruction—that is allowing Ukrainians into Canada within 15 days, sidelining other refugees and waiving all fees just because of white privilege. There are Afghans, Hong Kongers and victims of the Lebanon bomb blast who were not afforded the same treatment by the Minister of Immigration.
We basically deal with spouses from the outland application stream. Today I would like to highlight that systemic racism and racism exist almost at the bottom rung of this system and process.
Through a lot of crowdsourcing, we have now identified ageism in the process of outland applications. If you have an age difference, you're discriminated against. A previous marital status, a divorcee, is automatically flagged by the AI. Social, educational or economic status differences are flagged by the AI. Cultural and religious differences also flagged by the AI.
What is AI? AI is a program, and a program is as good as the person who codes it. If the person coding it is racist or is unconsciously following data over six years, they're going to bring that racism forward all the way to the bottom rung, unfortunately.
Today we are glad that victims of the spousal outland application are finally able to represent themselves today.
I bring forward a message from one of the youngest advocates, Tito. He's 10 years old and has autism. He has been separated from his dad, Carlos, for over four years. They were afforded an interview by a writ of mandamus over service standards. However, there are no panel physicians for them to be able to do their premedicals, so yet again they are stuck. In his own words he says, “Can you please tell the committee and the that families are made of love, not black, white, brown, he or she?” That is a 10-year-old saying this. He would like one day for his dad to take him to school so people can believe that he does indeed have a father.
I will gladly take questions. I will give you real-life examples of the racist hurdles that outland applications face, with proof in black and white that locally engaged staff have put in writing in GCMS notes that we can provide to you. This is the bottom rung of the racist organization. Racism is embedded deeply in the immigration system from the top to the bottom, and it is about time we address how we are going to solve these issues.
Unfortunately, the sole discretion and the use of cultural norms given to locally engaged staff are the major barriers for spouses of Canadians trying to get to Canada—
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I want to thank all the witnesses for being here today. I apologize that we started late, but we'll make the best of the time we have.
In that light, I just want to make a note to you, Mr. Ghai. You mentioned examples you have, and you may get some questions on that, but I would encourage you to please write some of those down and submit them to the committee in written form, because that would be very helpful for us to look at later, and we may not have enough time to talk about them. I would suggest that for you.
Mr. Mendoza, thank you for being here today.
In the third point you mentioned on racism, you suggested having supervisor concurrence, providing case notes and some sort of a grievance system. Those recommendations obviously came out of some experiences you have had and some cases you have had. Can you give us some examples of what those cases might be to give us some context?
Basically the first application under the new caregiver program that we submitted was in December 2019. We only had an approval, a work permit, this January 2022. That is more than two years for processing.
I have another client for whom we submitted an application before that. We submitted an application as well for a work permit. Basically she is just considered unemployed. Her work permit is already expired, but basically she is working on an implied status because we submitted the application before the expiry, but up to now, more than two years later, we haven't received any decision on the work permit, so we have a client here who might not have access to health care or other government services because she has an expired work permit. Basically, that is the kind of situation we have.
I have never yet seen, since the new caregiver program was launched, a quick processing time. Right now, after two years, I have had only one result. For the rest, we are still waiting.
Thank you for the question.
It would really be in two parts. I think Canada generally needs AI legislation, and then we need legislation specific to immigration. The economic action plan that was passed in 2015 was seven years ago. It's on that very broad legislation, with very little detail, that all of this AI is being actioned, but there was not even a debate on it at the time. Although it was emerging, there were no comments.
When we speak about the companies and who's driving the technology, what's important to understand is third party use of technology like AI. IRCC, to their credit, are developing AI in-house, but other places, like the Canada Border Services Agency and Employment and Social Development Canada, are outsourcing to a third party. It's very easy at that point to begin to lose traction. Who has the business assets? Who has the proprietary control?
On general legislation, we can look at countries that are further ahead of us, such as New Zealand, England and Australia, and the measures they've put in place. In terms of legislation, I think we need to start right away with an algorithmic charter that sets out the types of algorithms. I noticed that during the debate there was a lot of discussion today about models, but the meat of everything is in the algorithms and, in Immigration Canada's case, the undisclosed officer rules. Those rules are not even disclosed to the officers who are deciding the applications, but that's the basis on which they're triaging, so we have a lot of work to do to get up to the ethical standards we've seen and the recommended governance standards we've seen throughout the world.
I want to go back to the algorithm part, which connects back to the person who's giving the service out. I think with IRCC, AI collects information that is then presented to an agent, who then goes through the application. I think it's important to note that.
In terms of the discriminations that we know show up in AI, it's behind the algorithms. Are you saying that then we should look into who is collecting the algorithm, at who's behind it, basically? This goes back to the companies that are offering the services versus the companies that are using the services.
I want to get back to the Pollara report before my time expires. We did talk about the report, and everybody knows what's in the report, so I'm not going to get into it.
I wonder, Mr. Mendoza, what you think about a system whereby IRCC continues to have regular reports, such as the Pollara report, to make sure that if there are changes being made at IRCC, we can track them.
Also, I don't know who, but someone mentioned the ombudsperson. What other roles would you want to see the ombudsman take at IRCC?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Mr. Ghai, you were upset during your testimony when you talked about cases of racism. I must admit that I was touched.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada told us there were unconscious biases within the department. However, there is a difference between an unconscious bias and racism.
During a meeting of this committee, a witness said concerning racism that we should call a cat a cat—in other words, there is indeed racism at IRCC—even if that made people uncomfortable. I think we must first and foremost be able to name a problem if we want to resolve it.
Do you differentiate between an unconscious bias and racism? Do you disagree with IRCC on that issue?
Thank you very much, Mr. Ghai. I absolutely wanted to give you a chance to speak out on this.
Mr. Bellissimo, that's fantastic because, during the last question round for the Liberals, I heard them talk about a position of ombudsman. I told myself that the idea must be making the rounds, even among members of the current government party. I want to hear your comments on that.
A number of people have told us, study after study, meeting after meeting, that an immigration ombudsman would help us move the process forward much more quickly and would resolve many problems.
I would like to hear you on the possibility of creating a position of immigration ombudsman in the Government of Canada.
Thank you for the question. I have a two-part answer to that question.
First, with the nature of the ombudsperson that we're creating, in terms of resourcing and enforcement powers, will they actually have the ability to move the needle or will it potentially become another organization that has hundreds of thousands of complaints and also becomes backlogged? How you position it will turn on its effectiveness.
The second part of my answer is this: As I said in my opening remarks, I think we have an opportunity to reimagine and reorder the way we deal with immigration in Canada. By this I mean we can always deal with the problems or symptoms that flow, but really we need to get to the underlying condition and begin from the other way. Instead of always having more remedial mechanisms, the idea would be to leverage the technology in an effective way.
For example, Australia had an immigration college about 15 years ago where they sent all of their officers to retrain and to remember that it was about facilitation and not enforcement. I think there are a lot of innovative ways we can go by re-addressing and revolutionizing.
Every time I hear about more panels or ombudspersons, I think it just adds to the layers rather than getting into the issues that we really need to address, which is a reordering and reimagination of the program. There are exciting possibilities now.
I could go first, if possible.
We talk about transparency. It is non-existent, especially all the way down the rungs, which is when an applicant or sponsor is looking for answers. When we raise ATIPs, we don't even get replies. We don't get answers. However, ATIP requests from lawyers tend to get answers. Is that access of information fair? Does it serve everybody? Absolutely not.
When you do an interview, apparently it is not recorded. You are not able to bring counsel. If, God forbid, you are refused, it takes almost a month to get the transcript. The transcript of the interview only includes what the interviewing visa officer actually wants the committee or tribunal to hear. It isn't actually what happened on the ground. This has been confirmed by several people. Later on you are going to hear this, probably.
Thank you very much, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses.
Mr. Ghai, I'd like to follow up on the issue around interviews. As the brief from Voices4Families notes, you are asking
the government to direct IRCC to suspend the interview process. It is suspected that officers choose who to interview based on “typical cultural and/or social practices” as per the local immigration employee beliefs. [For many] [t]he interviews remain unscheduled for years.
Mr. Ghai, you said that you've been waiting to reunite with your family for five years. You finally just got an interview, after five years of applying, and it was a 10-minute interview.
Could you tell the committee what you're asking for? Are you asking that the government suspend the interview process, and that the interview process needs to be waived or conducted within a maximum time frame of 30 days, like an additional document request?
Absolutely. When IRCC requires a document or any additional information from you, there is a time frame of 30 days, but when we need to wait for an interview, it is indefinite. Unfortunately, when you're flagged as “complex”, there are no time frames, which is totally racist, because a standard application for anybody under the age of 30 is 12 months. God forbid you are above that age, and God forbid you find love across the nation on an outland application that requires a visa. You'll get stuck on that rung. We absolutely have waited three years, and some of these interviews take five minutes.
There are two things we would say.
The first is for it to become virtual. The Honourable Marco Mendicino did announce that they should be virtual, but they're not. In India there are more than 30 interviews happening in a day. Some last literally five minutes. They ask you only if you know where your spouse works and how much they earn. There you go: You waited three years to get three questions and to be told that you're approved.
Another thing we're seeing right now is that those who are approved and who are from the 2018-2019 backlog are only brought up to pre-arrival. We are not getting PPR, while other people in the same interview rooms are getting PPR within a week.
Therefore, yes, we would like it to be waived, seeing as how it has taken so long.
Mr. Ghai, if you could send that in writing, that's what the members would like to see.
Mr. Vishal Ghai: Absolutely.
The Chair: Thank you once again to all of the witnesses for appearing before the committee today. With that, the first panel comes to an end.
Our witnesses for the second panel are already logged in. Without wasting any time, we will proceed to our next panel. I would like to welcome our witnesses for the second panel.
We are joined by Imam Yusuf Badat from Toronto. We are also joined by Debbie Douglas, executive director, Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. Our third witness for this panel is Marie Carmel Bien-Aimé, co-administrator, Spousal Sponsorship Advocates.
I welcome all of the witnesses for appearing before the committee. All of you will be provided five minutes for your opening remarks, and then we will proceed to the round of questioning. Our first witness on today's panel is Imam Yusuf Badat.
Imam Badat, welcome, and thanks a lot for appearing before the committee in spite of Ramadan. I know you must be very busy. You will have five minutes for your opening remarks.
Imam Badat, please begin.
Thank you for affording me the opportunity to be here and present on this panel.
I am an imam within the community of one of the largest mosques in Toronto, and a lot of the family members or spouses who have applied for immigration for their partners or family members from abroad constantly bring me the concern that it's been months or years and they're unable to have their families join them.
In particular, I see three areas repeated by congregation members, including questions from Immigration Canada about the validity of marriage, some of the questioning of individuals who are supposed to be coming to Canada to join their spouses or family members, and the issue of the the length of time it takes to process some of these cases.
When it comes to the validity of marriage, sometimes people who practise Islam are very conservative and traditional, so sometimes it's an arranged marriage. No dating took place prior. Families got together and arranged a marriage. When questions are asked about when the dating started or where the locations were where they met up prior to the marriage, there is no such data like this available. The particular individuals don't follow the culture that we may be used to here in Canada of how we date, get to know our partners and then marry.
This is similar for the concept of common law. In many cultures where Muslims live and where Islam is practised, there is no such thing as living together prior to getting married. These challenges delay the process in genuine cases when a spouse is trying to sponsor their family member.
In some situations, I've been approached by congregants saying that they have their first child and it's been three years or five years, but the immigration case is just not being approved.
These are some issues. I echo the sentiments of one of the witnesses in the previous panel that in the cases of divorce, it's very challenging. The amount of effort it takes for many clients to prove that they were divorced and the process that it goes through extensively delay the cases.
In some situations, because the cultures vary, women specifically find it very challenging to answer some of the questions.
I'll give you a simple example. In some of the cultures where Islam is practised, when we talk to someone whom we respect, oftentimes we're looking down. Women specifically, in some of the cultures that we come from, may often look down when they're talking to someone who's interviewing them. If the interviewer doesn't know the culture, they may assume that something is being hidden or something is not accurate and that's why they're looking down. It's actually a cultural element of respecting the person who's interviewing.
These are all facts that make things challenging when we assume that all cultures are similar to the Canadian culture or the Canadian context. The way we may get married, the way we date or the way we have common law in this context here in a Canadian situation is not the same. Judging each application based on our culture here in Canada can delay the process and cause individuals to be very far from accepting an applicant who is a genuine spouse or genuine family member.
In summary, these are some of my remarks for the panel.
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this important study.
I'm the executive director of OCASI, the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants. We are the umbrella organization for immigrant- and refugee-serving agencies across Ontario. I will begin with four actions that I believe the government should take to address racial inequities and racism in the immigration system.
One, conduct a comprehensive racial equity review of legislation, regulations, policies and practices. Two, collect disaggregated intersectional race data across all IRCC activities. Three, conduct a comprehensive racial equity review of IRCC funding in its settlement and integration programming. Four, establish an independent ombudsperson office for IRCC.
The Pollara report confirmed what some have known and many of us have suspected for a long time: that racism and racial discrimination and bias are present in the immigration system internally towards IRCC employees—and you see that in the senior leadership of IRCC and the absence of racialized employees—and very likely, as we know from what we've heard in testimony and what we hear from many communities, in immigration decision-making.
First, with regard to the racial equity review of legislation, our member agencies have frequently mentioned immigration challenges faced by racialized clients. They hear that we are questioning whether spousal relationships are genuine and frequently denying spousal sponsorship applications from particular areas of the world, as well as questioning whether parent-child relationships are genuine, demanding DNA proof and often denying these applications. We often see this demand being made on African clients in the same way that we often see the spousal sponsorship question being asked of applicants from South Asia.
There are many other challenges, but my time is limited. We need a comprehensive racial equity review of legislation, policies and practices in order to identify systemic bias and identify areas where individual bias and racism can colour decision-making.
Second, with regard to disaggregated data, a comprehensive racial equity review would be supported by ongoing disaggregated intersectional race data collection across all of IRCC's activities. Data will help to identify patterns of systemic discrimination and bias. Data should be collected on all section 15 grounds of the Canadian charter, as well as on immigration status, which is not currently in section 15. IRCC already collects data on most of these factors, including immigration status, but not on race or ethnicity, or religion or faith. I don't believe they have started on issues of sexuality or sexual orientation either. The data should be publicly available.
Third, with regard to a comprehensive review of funding, a racial equity review would show who and what activities get funded. Citizenship and Immigration Canada, now the IRCC, defunded 13 settlement agencies in Ontario in 2011. Six of these agencies worked directly with racialized communities. Of the six, four were African community agencies. There was no explanation and no warning—just a complete defunding during the 2011-12 funding cycle.
Immigrant and refugee settlement agencies are a focal point for community activities and community-based leadership. They are not simply third party service providers. They know the communities they serve and are trusted, which is integral to credible and effective service delivery. I often speak of community-based organizations, especially ethnospecific ones, as cultural brokers, as the bridges between newcomers and the communities where they are planning to settle. We need data on who and what is funded to know if racialized communities are equitably served and community organizations are equitably resourced.
Last, with regard to the independent ombudsperson, we strongly urge the establishment of an independent ombudsperson office for IRCC. It should be external to the department, adequately resourced and have a legislative mandate to take action on individual and systemic bias and discrimination.
I am aware that the ombudsperson proposal has been recommended to this committee during previous studies. Given the significance of the immigration program to Canada as a whole and the vast powers IRCC decision-makers have on individual applications, it would serve the public good to establish such an office.
Madam Chair, honourable committee members, good afternoon.
I am appearing before you on behalf of Spousal Sponsorship Advocates. I am honoured to be here to provide you with an overview of the situation and of the recommendations we consider important.
According to the Polaris Strategic Insights report results, racialized employees are marginalized based on their place of birth or the colour of their skin. Their applications are not taken into consideration for promotions, and they are kept in temporary contract positions. As a result, they cannot report discriminatory or racist incidents they witness for fear of reprisal. Have the staff and managers in question been penalized since the report came out?
In addition, it is clear that integrated systemic biases play a role in decision-making when it comes to immigration files. Immigration officers have preconceived notions on applicants from racialized countries. For example, some African countries are designated as part of 30 corrupt nations, and Nigerians are said to be corrupt or untrustworthy. According to an article published in CIC News on March 15, IRCC has a backlog of over 1.8 million applications. For family reunification, the backlog is 55,301 spouse and common-law partner files.
In January, announced that the spousal sponsorship application process was back to 12 months of processing for new applications. Recently, that was changed to 19 months. Why are there no solutions available to families that are suffering right now? The red tape must be reduced to clear the huge backlog.
One common bureaucratic issue is the loss of humanity for those who are being served. We want to make the staff in charge of managing the immigration process related to family reunification understand that what is involved are our most irreplaceable personal connections, as well as our families' mental, physical and financial health.
That said, allow me to share our recommendations to help eliminate the backlog in the family reunification category.
I will first present our short-term recommendations. The department must provide a special temporary resident visa for families by granting an exemption to subsection 179(b) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations and really accept dual intent applications. An ombudsman's office is also needed to process complaints. Creating a position of ombudsman would reduce the number of cases the Federal Court and the Immigration and Refugee Board, IRB, have to process. Transparency would be actively demonstrated in the measures taken to resolve disputes, and families would not be financially strained. Couples who are recommended must also be interviewed. Finally, interviews must be recorded to avoid misunderstandings.
I will now present my long-term recommendations. First, immigration officers must be required to rotate every two to five years, so as to avoid familiarity and jaded employees. That rotation must also be part of the job requirements. Mission staff must be increased or missions must be added to improve the situation. For example, the Accra office handles 12 countries, and the Dakar office handles 16 countries. The department must also implement mandatory training on cultural differences, to be attended every six months by hired staff and visa officers. Transparency must also be prioritized.
In short, we are favourable to the study underway. However, you should know that many spouses are diagnosed with depression and that suicidal thoughts are on the rise. Canadian citizens and permanent residents feel betrayed. Bureaucracy has no place in family affairs, and all the families involved are victims of the system.
In closing, remember that no one is born equal, but that people born with privilege must lead by example.
I now look forward to your questions on the issues raised.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses, and in the first panel as well, for sharing not just your hardships but also the emotions that a lot of other people are probably reaching out to you about as well, through the hardships that all of you are facing.
I want to touch on the recording of interviews, because that seems like a theme. It's something we hear about in our offices as well. Sometimes when a decision is made, we see that the officer has something else in his notes, and our constituents are often telling us something different.
Imam Badat, you touched on the point that sometimes there are cultural differences that maybe the officer does not understand as well.
Ms. Bien-Aimé, can you elaborate a little more on how recording these interviews would create more transparency and would not just hold the officer more to account but would also give the applicant a little bit more power in their hands in the process?
Thank you for the question.
Basically, the reason I say that we should tape or record these interviews is that I'm in the process myself. My husband went through the interview. What he told me happened and what the agent wrote in the GCMS note were completely different.
It's not the first time I've heard this. As a spousal sponsorship advocate and administrator, I'm also a therapist during those times, because I hear the same thing over and over again. They always say, “I said this, but it's not in the notes.” Recording these interviews would hold the visa officer more accountable. If this person had implicit or explicit bias, they would not have any space to project their own bias onto the person they're interviewing.
I think it's very important. It should be mandatory to record all of them.
Thank you for the question.
Basically, to make it short, IRCC should give all of the spouses a special TRV. First of all, paragraph 179(b) should not even be considered. Yes, obviously they have ties to Canada, because the spouse is here, but why would an officer say that they feel that the spouse will never go back to their country? Why would a principal applicant ruin their chance of staying permanently in Canada by overstaying their visa? For me, it makes no logic.
To answer your question, they would help the economy, they would pay tax and they would be with their family. They would also see if they liked the country. Maybe they won't like it. Maybe the family will move out and go to the home country of the principal applicant.
Basically it would help, because right now we need labour. We have tons of jobs but nobody to fill them. These people are spouses and very hard-working people. I don't believe they would stay on the couch and watch TV, so it would definitely be beneficial for the spouse, the children, the families and this country as well.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Madam Chair, I will echo your comments that you made to Imam Badat about Ramadan. I would love to wish him Ramadan mubarak on this religious and spiritual occasion.
I also have a question for the imam as well. I know many applications are passed, but many people come to my office with issues, particularly with regulation 4, which was brought in by then immigration minister Jason Kenney and the Conservatives. I would love to see regulation 4 abolished today, because it asks the couples, number one, to prove that their marriage is genuine. It already presents many difficulties, not only in the Islamic community but also for Sikhs, Hindus and others in India and Pakistan, which I have experienced.
The first one is on the genuineness of the marriage and the second is when you entered into the marriage. It was a marriage of convenience if you never met before. I am also one of those who had an arranged marriage 34 years ago.
Imam, I would like to ask you how many such cases do you see, and would you agree with me that regulation 4 should be abolished?
As an imam, at the particular mosque where I work, we have at least three or four thousand coming for the Jumu'ah prayer, which is the main prayer of the week. I would say at least one-third of those who have applied for immigration are coming up with these concerns and these questions about the delay and why their marriage is not considered valid.
I was actually brought for expert testimony by IRCC on a case. The spouse was away from the other spouse for 10 years, and they finally gave the go-ahead. They weren't moving the case forward because they did not believe that they were actually married. There was also a child who was born, and the spouse who is here, a citizen of Canada, was going every other year to spend some time with the other spouse. They just couldn't believe that the marriage actually took place, and the concern was, “Why don't you have photographs of your wedding? Where's the invitation card?” Some of these villages where people come from back home don't have all these flashy weddings. It's just a simple thing and they don't meet beforehand. It's just an arranged type of marriage. Finally the case was completed, after 10 years.
Again, to answer your question, it's a sizable number. I would say at least one-third of my congregation who have some form of immigration application on file are waiting, and it's delayed anywhere between two and 10 years, as I said.
Mr. Dhaliwal, I would suggest that in addition to what the imam has suggested, we also take a look at the collection of data on this aspect.
We have lots of anecdotal information. I often say that what gets measured gets addressed, so let's get the hard data so we can continue to prove that our communities have absolutely been correct that they are facing differential treatment based on their countries of origin, religion and race. Until we have that data....
We are very clear as Canadians that we expect the department to answer when we see the disproportionate impact on particular communities, and then to put these things in place. I think cultural education is really good. We have to begin to hold those with decision-making power accountable for the decisions that are being made by the department. If folks know that jobs are on the line, that they will need to publicly report on the decisions and on the various communities that are disproportionately being affected, I believe that also changes behaviour.
I think there are a number of tools that we need to use. Education and cultural training absolutely are good, but let's also collect the data, report it, and have the department talk about what it's doing to address the findings of the data collection.
Thank you, Madam Chair.
I'd like to thank all the witnesses for being here this afternoon.
Ms. Bien‑Aimé, I listened carefully to your testimony. I especially liked that you made several suggestions and recommendations to the committee; that will be very helpful to us. I also liked that you shared your personal story with us.
I have a few questions for you.
You suggested that a special temporary resident visa be issued for the purpose of family reunification, but with the 179(b) exemption.
Would that put an end to the debate on dual intent, in your view?
Thank you for your question.
When an immigration officer has been there for 5, 10 or 15 years, they develop bad habits, whether you like it or not. So when that officer has decisions to make, they base them on what the local employee says and what they see. Rotation will prevent them from developing bad habits.
I did say “jaded”, yes, because when you're always in the same position and always interviewing people for the same reasons, it becomes a little easier to reject applications based solely on your own biases.
They should rotate every two to five years and it should be a requirement for the position. That way, people who apply and are in the process will know, for example, that they will have to stay in Accra for two years and then go to Egypt or another country for three years. They will know that they have to rotate.
This will help them build a wider knowledge base. They will also become more open to other cultures, because travelling and seeing other people is also a form of self-education.
I know because I'm currently in an ongoing process. My husband is from one of the “30 most corrupt countries”. He's Nigerian. I've been waiting 35 months for him, but he still hasn't arrived here.
Yes, it's true. I'm living proof of it. Our group has 5,000 to 8,000 members who all tell us the same thing. They all say it's taking a long time and they don't understand why it happens faster for white countries.
I see that there's a backlog. I also see that there are biases that have a huge impact on decisions.
Why are applications from countries requiring visas not handled the same way as those from countries that do not?
It should be consistent. The treatment should be the same. Unfortunately, that's not the case. I am living proof: I've been waiting for 35 months.
I would like to go to you, Ms. Douglas, on the issue around discriminatory policies within IRCC. I would like to touch on the caregivers program.
Caregivers are made to go through inordinate hoops while separated from their loved ones. One of the issues that was touched on in the last panel was around language requirements. The intended purpose of the language proficiency requirement for immigration is to help ensure that immigration applicants have the necessary language ability to transition successfully to a life in Canada.
Caregivers, having obtained their work permit here in Canada and working here in Canada already, have already proved that they have the language proficiency to do their jobs here in Canada. Why should they be made to do the language proficiency test requirement to pass level 5? Do you think the government should do away with that requirement?
Imam Badat, Ramadan mubarak. Thank you for being with us.
I want to distinguish between two issues—the issue of the principle of marriage verification and the issue of how it's been implemented. Clearly, you identified some problems in implementation. The government has been in for seven years. They haven't improved on the implementation at all. I think the policy objective is maybe a good one, but the implementation is clearly problematic and not being done in a culturally appropriate way.
Could you share with us some suggestions on how we could implement the policy objective of ensuring that we're verifying that we're talking about real marriages but doing it in a way that's culturally sensitive and that responds to the realities of how marriage operates in different cultures?
[Ramadan mubarak, Imam Badat.]
Imam Badat, I totally agree with you that the Harper government complicated the process, and it was terrible. Since 2015 the government in power has reformed it—and I could give you some examples—by reducing the unification time between spouses for up to 12 months and continuing, but COVID complicated the issue.
I understand your pain, because I have a lot of Muslim communities in my riding. Mind you, when we put doubt in the mind of the agent, he has to go further in the applications. Honestly speaking, in my riding we found a couple of marriages that were fake. When this comes to the minds of the staff, they have to verify for security whether there was some terrorist activity beyond that.
However, in order to come to a point to solve this issue, I will request you, if it's possible, to submit to this committee in writing what your concerns are and recommendations to solve this and clarify a way to continue our efforts in solving this problem.
Absolutely. Thank you for that question.
We especially applaud the government on the extension of the definition of “family”. It is something that we absolutely support, but these family reunification measures must also be extended to other communities, to Afghans and to other refugee populations and other folks who are also displaced.
I think it's long overdue for us to recognize that the nuclear family is a western construct. It doesn't necessarily represent the majority of the world. If families are willing to support each other to bring each other into Canada, it makes absolute sense that they be supported to do so.
I believe that after redefining “family” for the purposes of Ukraine, the government needs to extend that redefinition to all communities who want to come to Canada, whether they are coming here as refugees or through family reunification.