March 29, 2008

BILL CURRY AND OMAR EL AKKAD

OTTAWA -- A government official has rejected concerns that Conservative immigration changes would see race, religion or country of origin used as grounds to block people from Canada, insisting such measures would violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Les Linklater, the director-general of Citizenship and Immigration Canada's immigration branch, was categorical yesterday in rejecting the concerns of those criticizing the proposed powers for the Immigration Minister.

"There is no basis for discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, that sort of thing," he said. "The instructions of course will have to be Charter compliant as the Charter applies to those who would apply through the process. It would continue to be a universal, non-discriminatory approach."

It was the first time since the government introduced changes to immigration law this month that a senior official has been made available to explain the measures in detail.

The proposed law gives the Immigration Minister broad powers to issue instructions to the department as to whether certain applications should be processed quickly and whether some should not be processed at all. But those instructions are not in the bill and would be made public only once it becomes law. As a result, MPs are in the position of having to take the government's word as to what those instructions will look like.
Immigration Minister Diane Finley has insisted the instructions will be focused on fast-tracking specific applicants who have specific skills that provinces want, such as doctors or nannies.

Randall Hansen, an immigration expert at the University of Toronto, said fears of discrimination do not hold water because of the Charter of Rights and because any government that invoked such a policy in Canada would pay a heavy political price.

Montreal-based immigration lawyer David Cohen, one of many immigration lawyers and groups opposed to the changes, wrote a letter to Liberal Opposition Leader Stéphane Dion urging him to vote against the proposed amendments.

Introducing discretion into an objective system would create a slippery slope, Mr. Cohen argued.

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