Changes in budget bill reintroduce discrimination in system, contends legal community

GLORIA GALLOWAY
Globe and Mail Update
April 3, 2008 at 10:24 AM EDT

OTTAWA — The first parliamentary debate on proposed changes to Canada's immigration system begins today as the Liberals accuse the Conservatives of trying to reform immigration law by stealth.

"Canadians have every right to be concerned about this government's hidden agenda on immigration," Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion said yesterday of the changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that are included in an omnibus budget bill.

"Why is the government attempting to make radical changes to the immigration system through the back door instead of bringing forward independent legislation and being honest with Canadians?"

Conservative House Leader Peter Van Loan responded by suggesting that the Liberal outrage is just so much bluster.

"We are very honest with Canadians. We tell them where we stand and then we vote that way," said Mr. Van Loan, who pointed out that Mr. Dion and the Liberals could kill the bill by voting against it.

Many Liberals - particularly those in urban ridings - have expressed concern about the proposals that would give the Immigration Minister more discretionary power over who is allowed into Canada. The issue was raised at the Liberal caucus meeting yesterday.

But Mr. Dion has indicated that members of his party are likely to plug their noses and allow the budget bill, a confidence matter, to pass in order to prevent an election. He said he would then reverse the Conservative immigration policy if his party is returned to power.

Olivia Chow, a New Democrat MP, said yesterday that immigrants and their families will suffer if the Liberals sit on their hands and the policies are enacted, even for a limited period of time.

She will introduce an amendment today to scrap the government proposals. The first votes on the budget bill and Ms. Chow's amendment will be voted upon next week.

Members of Canada's legal community say the passage of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act in 2002 finally eliminated discrimination from the system by taking away the discretionary powers of immigration officers.

Under the new proposals, the Immigration Minister would define categories of workers whose applications would be selected for processing, a determination that would be made according to the demand for their skills in this country. It would then be up to immigration officers to decide which applicants meet the criteria set out by the minister.

"Under the proposed changes, Canada's immigration system will remain universal and non-discriminatory," department officials said in response to written questions from The Globe and Mail.

But David Cohen, a Montreal lawyer, refers to comments posted late last year on his Internet discussion forum from someone claiming to be an immigration officer.

Mr. Cohen will not divulge the person's name because of privacy laws, but says the Internet protocol address was traced back to a Government of Canada computer and the person, through 40 subsequent postings, displays intimate knowledge of the immigration system.

In a first posting, the self-described immigration officer says he or she is tired of dealing with "liars, cheats, frauds etc. ... I'm tired of finding so goddamn many immigrants who arrive here and jump on the welfare system before they've even been declared landed. Then they think they are fooling someone when they get off welfare for two months to submit a sponsorship application."

The posting ends with: "Well this felt good to rant a bit and I'll probably do more of this ... but for now I have to go deny a few people entry to my country."

Mr. Cohen said he believes the vast majority of immigration officers do not hold such views.
But the proposed changes will see people with the "biases that all humans all have, picking and choosing which files come to the front of the queue."

CORRECTION
Posted on 04/04/08
Negative comments about immigrants posted on the Web forum of lawyer David Cohen and quoted in a story in yesterday's newspaper were from someone purporting to be an immigration officer, not an immigration lawyer.

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