Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

1st Session, 41st Parliament,
Volume 148, Issue 97

Tuesday, June 26, 2012
The Honourable Noël A. Kinsella, Speaker

Immigration and Refugee Protection Act
Balanced Refugee Reform Act
Marine Transportation Security Act
Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act

Bill to Amend—Allotment of Time for Debate—Motion Adopted

Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer: Honourable senators, I rise before you today to speak to the motion introduced by the government that would limit debate on Bill C-31, which proposes to establish the protecting Canada’s immigration system act. Bill C-31 is yet another example of an extremely complex omnibus bill that requires detailed study and extensive debate.

As the critic of this bill in the Senate, I have spent countless hours studying this particular piece of legislation and analyzing the impact it will have on individuals both in Canada and abroad. I assure you that there are very troublesome provisions in this bill that require our time and demand our attention.

Bill C-31 amends the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, the Marine Transportation Security Act and the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Act. In addition, Bill C-31 makes a number of changes to Canada’s inland refugee determination system by amending the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and by introducing entirely new provisions. It also amends the inland refugee determination process with respect to irregular arrivals of refugee claimants through provisions substantially similar to those previously introduced in Bill C-4, An Act to amend the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and the Marine Transportation Security Act. As well, the bill amends other areas of immigration law, notably by providing for the collection of biometrics from temporary resident visa applicants and expanding opportunities to sponsor immigrants.

As honourable senators can see, Bill C-31 is extremely complex. As I mentioned in a speech delivered at second and third reading, Bill C-31 will likely change the face of Canada as we know it, as it compromises several principles that define who we are as a nation. These are principles of compassion, justice and acceptance. As a chamber of sober second thought, we must not limit the time allotted to debate issues that will have such a substantial impact not only on our Canadian identity but also on those individuals who so desperately seek refuge in Canada.

Honourable senators, after hearing from a number of witnesses who spoke to the many challenges and controversies that this bill perpetuates, I received further confirmation that the bill should be reassessed and more closely examined. Today I will draw attention to a few of the concerns brought forward during our committee proceedings in an effort to demonstrate just how important it is that we all take the time required to closely study and debate this bill.

Honourable senators, Canada is a signatory to the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. As a signatory to that 1951 convention and its protocol, Canada cannot return people to territories where they face persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. Unfortunately, Bill C-31 violates this convention as it will turn its back on individuals who are desperately seeking asylum and place them in jail-like detention centres.

Honourable senators, Canada is also signatory to the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Bill C-31 violates this convention as it fails to acknowledge that refugees risk death, torture or cruel and unusual treatment or punishment and, therefore, require protection.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is also an important part of the legal framework for those seeking asylum in Canada. In 1985, the Supreme Court of Canada decided in Singh v. Minister of Employment and Immigration that the Charter also protects refugee claimants. This decision has been instrumental in setting the standards for procedural fairness that must be met in such cases.

Asylum seekers or refugee claimants whose claims for protection are deemed eligible are offered the opportunity of a hearing by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada.

Following an initial interview with an immigration officer, claimants for refugee protection proceed to a hearing before a panel of the Immigration and Refugee Board’s Refugee Protection Division. Unsuccessful claimants are removed from Canada; however, they may apply to the Federal Court of Canada for a judicial review and a stay of their removal order.

Unfortunately, as a lawyer who has practised refugee law for many years and who has filed hundreds of claims, I can assure you that the 15-day timeline provided by this bill is incredibly unrealistic. What is even more unfortunate is that if a claimant does not meet the imposed deadline, he or she will be disqualified.

More specifically, under Bill C-31, refugee claimants will have 15 days to deliver a written version of the basis of their refugee claim. This is not enough time for newly arrived refugees to seek legal advice, respond to complicated legal requirements and gather the evidence to prove their claim.

Refused claimants will have 15 days to complete an application to appeal an initial refusal. This is an impossibly short deadline and will render illusory the availability of an appeal to correct mistakes made by the Immigration and Refugee Board.

Honourable senators, our committee heard from a number of witnesses who stated that these timelines are indeed unreasonable.

Ms. Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, who is the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, spoke to these concerns and to the complex nature of this bill while addressing the committee. She stated:

The question now is how will history remember us at this juncture? Will we jail innocents? Will we send desperate people back to danger? Will we take them in only to mistreat them? Will yours be the hands that sign off on a bill that is unconstitutional under Canadian law, a violation of international norms and a violation of basic human rights? You have the opportunity to make a difference. This bill did not get adequate time in the House of Commons. Take it and study it. There is a lot to be concerned about. . . .

I suppose it goes without saying that it has been many years since Canada turned away refugees. I am grateful for that, but we certainly do have Supreme Court of Canada decisions saying that we are responsible for sending people to situations of danger and not just when they are innocent. Even for people who may have committed offences, if we want to send them back to a place where there is a death penalty, our Supreme Court has said that that is not on. It would be a violation of our Charter if we, responsible for this person — they are in our custody — send them back to a danger to their life, which is section 7 of the Charter.

Honourable senators, I want to remind you that in the document The Canadian Senate In Focus, the duties of the Senate chamber are described:

. . . its principal duty would be the revision and correction of legislation from the popular chamber, which would require “impartiality, expert training, patience and industry” in tandem with the representation of provinces, regions and minorities.

Not only is it our responsibility to represent provinces, regions and, in particular, minorities, it is also our responsibility to provide sober second thought.

Honourable senators, I understand that we may not always be in agreement about particular issues because we all come from different life experiences. However, what is wonderful about being part of a democracy is that we all receive an opportunity to express our views even if they are conflicting.

We have a duty to Canadians and to the thousands of refugees who come to Canada every year to take the time required to properly study and debate Bill C-31.

I would like to conclude by sharing a plea that Mr. Peter Showler, who was the chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board and is now a professor at the University of Ottawa, made to our committee during his testimony, urging all honourable senators not to pass this bill in haste. He stated:

This bill will damage the lives of asylum seekers. It deserves to be carefully and fully reviewed by Senate. I am asking you to please take the time to identify the flaws in the bill, craft reasonable amendments and return a far better bill to the House of Commons.

If you pass the bill in its present form — I am sorry to say this — you will be complicit in causing immense and unnecessary suffering to people who need Canada’s protection. If you do that with only three days of consideration of an immensely complicated bill, then you will have failed in your constitutional duty. That is a harsh thing to say, but I have personally seen the consequences of bad refugee decisions and the consequences of sending vulnerable people to prisons. I feel it is my duty to come forward and point out that you have an important and powerful role in the passage of this legislation. If you pass it in its present form, there will be immense human suffering and you will have had a role in that. I am sorry to say that.

Honourable senators, we have a very important job to do. Let us take it seriously.