The Speech from the Throne last Friday, alongside the release of the Mandate Letter for the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship has raised some questions for me as to whether the policy roadmap of this new government satisfies the feminist in me.
There are three things I hope the Minister will focus on during his mandate.
First, the Minister’s Mandate Letter specifically states that he should, “Bring forward a proposal regarding permanent residency for new spouses entering Canada.” As well, the government specifically stated on Friday, “the Government will introduce legislation that will provide greater support for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault”. In making these statements, it is my hope that the Minister will take a good look at the previous government’s move to include section 72.1 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations (IRPR). This provision imposes a conditional permanent residence status on certain persons sponsored by their partners (whether common law, conjugal or married). The regulation earmarks those who have been in a relationship with a person for less than two years and who have no children with the sponsor and is a measure that imposes precariousness or temporariness to permanent status. The condition is that one must live with their sponsor for two years before their permanent resident status really becomes permanent.
Why is this problematic? It means that women who find themselves in abusive and violent relationships may not leave a dangerous situation for fear that they will lose their status in Canada. The condition can be used as a tool by abusive partners to keep persons within a violent relationship.
While a woman may seek an exemption from immigration officials, the bar is quite high both procedurally and substantively. Migrant women fleeing a violent situation not only have to contend with finding safe haven within Canada, but also need to provide evidence that “must clearly show the abuse or neglect”.
This problem with this exemption is that it presumes that women trapped in abusive relationships will have the knowledge or ability to obtain knowledge that this exemption exists. Given that some migrant women may have cultural and language barriers coupled with the isolation that may be imposed on them from an abusive partner, it is unlikely that many will take advantage of the exemption.
Beyond this, from a policy perspective, it is difficult to see how this provision meets its legislated objective – to combat fraudulent relationships. There is no evidence that relationship fraud is a significant problem in Canada and that a two-year conditional period will deter persons from entering into relationships of convenience who may simply wait out the conditional period. Further, there are other mechanisms in our immigration system that combat misrepresentation.
Second, the Minister’s Mandate Letter also emphasizes family reunification as a central objective of our immigration system. In emphasizing this, I also hope the Minister will examine whether there is a need for section 117(9)(d) of the IRPR. This provision imposes a lifetime bar on immigrants from sponsoring family members who, for a variety of tragic reasons as illuminated by the Canadian Council for Refugees, did not tell immigration officials of their existence. For example, women have been told they can never bring their children because they were afraid to tell anyone she had a child out of wedlock or at the time of their application process, thought a child was dead as a result of conflict and war. The promise of family reunification should not be shoved aside to strictly apply a law aimed at preventing fraud. Compassion and nuanced application processing should govern the process of family reunification.
Finally, the Minister is tasked with establishing “an expert human rights panel to help you determine designated countries of origin, and provide a right to appeal refugee decisions for citizens from these countries”. Such a regime allows the government to assume that all refugee claimants from a particular country are safe.
Why is this a problem? It means such persons will have to battle this presumption or bias that they are from safe countries in the eyes of their decision maker, but also gives them less access to some of the procedural rights afforded to all refugee claimants. The persons most disadvantaged will be minority groups such as LGBT or women fleeing physical and sexual abuse.
Feminists should be optimistic that this government so far has been more consultative and transparent, releasing mandate letters, and reaching out to academics, advocates and various organizations. Only time will tell whether any of our suggestions will be implemented.