Canada's welcome mat
Raynier Maharaj, writing from Toronto
Is Canada becoming a less friendly place?
That’s the feeling in the country’s vast immigrant communities in reaction to a series of moves by the Stephen Harper administration in an effort to make migration to the country easier and to save money.
In spite of its reputation as a cold country – temperature-wise – Canada has been the place of choice for many people from warmer climates.
The reasons are that it has always been welcoming, it offers a melting pot of cultures and its multicultural policies make everyone feel at home.
But over the past year, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney has announced a number of sweeping changes to the immigration system, making it far more difficult for would-be immigrants to make Canada their new home.
The changes affect not just the standard immigration system, but also the refugee system, and make it harder for people living in the country legally for the required four-plus years to obtain citizenship.
Clearing the backlog
The charges are being touted by the government as necessary to end substantial backlogs in the system, particularly as they relate to refugees and sponsorships of older people - that is, grandparents and parents.
One of the new pieces of legislation is the creation of a "Super Visa" for parents and grandparents, through which they can come and live in Canada for five to 10 years without gaining status (residency) or qualifying for benefits including free health care.
The Super Visa is granted only if the sponsors (children or grandchildren) take out private health insurance for their elderly relatives.
The government does not want the older newcomers to become a burden on the country’s free health care system.
Mr Kenney said that the Super Visa had been introduced to clear the backlog of parents and grandparents waiting to come to Canada to live.
Skilled workers programme
Another change by Mr Kenney has been the wiping out of the federal skilled workers programme, tossing some 98,000 applications in the trash.
Critics of this move were quick to point out that some 80% of these applications were from people in “minority” countries, meaning countries where black and Asian people make up the majority of the population.
The immigration minister immediately faced a barrage of criticism that race was playing a role in Canada’s new immigration system.
There were also accusations that the Conservative government was trying to woo a certain type of immigrant to keep the steadfastly changing demographics of the county in check.
As it stands, in the city of Toronto, Canada’s largest, minorities will soon make up the majority of the population of three million people.
This does not sit well with the status quo, who would like to see the economic and political power in the city remain in traditional hands.
Crime and marriage
Other changes include giving the immigration minister the power to bar people from being allowed in Canada for “public policy considerations”.
That bill, which is still before parliament, will also make it easier for the federal government to deport criminals who are permanent residents.
As it now stands, a permanent resident convicted of a crime to which a jail term of two or more years can be applied is subject to deportation. However, the resident has a right to an appeal.
Mr Kenney wanted that condition to be changed to six months, with no right to an appeal before the Immigration Board.
The immigration minister has also cracked down on spousal sponsorships, saying it is to prevent “marriage fraud” - people marrying Canadians just to gain entry into the country.
Under the new law, sponsored spouses must remain in a marriage for at least two years, and the sponsor cannot sponsor another spouse (in the event of a divorce and re-marriage) for five years.
Spouses who do not stay in the marriage for the two-year period will face deportation.
Only those suffering abuse or neglect are exempted.
Language and refugees
Mr Kenney has also made language proficiency a key to any immigrant’s successful application as well as for citizenship.
In order to be approved, an applicant must show skills in English or French, the country’s two official languages.
A vast number of applications come from countries where neither language is natural, such as China and Somalia.
And residents who are qualified for citizenship also now face a new hurdle.
They must have a clean record. Any criminal activity will result in a person being denied the right to citizenship.
Refugees have, in the past, always found safe refuge in Canada.
Nowadays, they do not feel so welcome.
People who land in Canada and are deemed “irregular arrivals” will be arrested and can be detained for up to a year.
This move was prompted by the arrival of several boatloads of Tamil refugees in 2009 and 2010 in British Colombia.
Those deemed to be “irregular arrivals” cannot apply for permanent resident status for five years, even if their refugee claims are approved.
Mr Kenney has been keen to explain his position.
“Too many tax dollars are spent on bogus refugees. We need to send a message to those who would abuse Canada’s generous asylum system that if you are not in need of protection, you will be sent home quickly,” he said in a statement.
“Our government is sending a clear message that our doors are open to those who play by the rules, including legitimate refugees.
“However, we will crack down on those who endanger human lives and threaten the integrity of our borders.”
To prevent fraudulent refugee claimants, the minister and his team also came up with a list of “safe countries of origin”, naming 27 countries that are capable of providing protection for their citizens.
In a nutshell, this means that refugee claimants from any of these countries will not be eligible to remain in Canada.
The immigration minister has also cut health benefits for refugee claimants, saying it would discourage people from coming to Canada as refugees simply to access the country’s world-famous free health care system.
Canada will also collect fingerprints and photos (loosely termed biometric identification) from immigration and visa applicants from 29 countries, including Jamaica.
This sparked an outcry from members of the Jamaican community, who believe their country is being unfairly targeted.
In one letter to the editor in a local newspaper, well-known Jamaican community activist Kingsley Gilliam noted that this move came in spite of the “strong” relationship between Canada and Jamaica.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller visited Canada as part of celebrations marking the 50th anniversary of her country’s independence in 2012.
Mr Gilliam pointed out in his letter that, during the state visit, “major ceremonies were held on Parliament Hill”.
“As well, significant emphasis was placed on the outstanding contributions of the Jamaican community in Canada,” Mr Gilliam wrote.
“In light of the glorious accounts of the positive contributions to Canada, something must have gone terribly wrong between 22 October 2012 and 11 December 2012, when the government of Canada announced new [biometric] restrictions for 29 countries, including Jamaica.
“To add insult to injury, Jamaica has been grouped with Haiti and Colombia as the first group to start undergoing this new restrictive process.”
Mr Gilliam went on to ask: “So, Prime Minister Harper, is this the value that you place on 50 years of diplomatic relations between Canada and Jamaica?”
Mr Kenney justified his decision, saying “Biometrics will be an important new tool to help protect the safety and security of Canadians by reducing identity fraud and identity theft.
“As fraudsters become more sophisticated, biometrics will improve our ability to keep violent criminals and those who pose a threat to Canada out.
“In short, biometrics will strengthen the integrity of Canada’s immigration system while helping facilitate legitimate travel.”
He pointed out that these measures would put Canada in line with other countries such as the United Kingdom, the wider European Union, Australia, and the United States.
“This would help prevent known criminals, failed refugee claimants and deportees from using a fake identity to obtain a visa. The use of biometrics would also bolster Canada’s existing measures to facilitate legitimate travel by providing a fast and reliable tool for confirming identity,’ Mr Kenney added.
St Lucia and St Vincent
The Conservative government also annoyed St Lucians and Vincentians when it imposed visa restrictions on them for the first time.
St Lucian Prime Minister Kenny Anthony said his government was “disappointed” by the decision.
He said that the Canadian government did not give it an opportunity to address the concerns regarding the claims of unreliable travel documents allegedly held by some St Lucians.
The unreliable documents claim is the reason Canada said it was imposing the travel restrictions on St Lucians and Vincentians.
The immigration ministry has said that many people from St Lucia and St Vincent are making false claims while seeking resident status.
“In particular, criminals from these countries can legally change their names and acquire new passports. In some instances people who were removed from Canada as security risks later returned using different passports,” the immigration department said in a statement.
This put these Caribbean nations alongside countries such as Botswana and Swaziland as countries from where visitors to Canada would require visas.
Mr Kenney said the requirements would better protect the safety of Canadians by preventing foreign criminals from coming to Canada in the first place.
In a recent visit to Toronto, St Lucia’s Kenny Anthony said that he remained unhappy with the visa issue and still had not been given a full explanation by the Canadian government.
St Vincent’s Prime Minister, Dr Ralph Gonsalves, blamed the visa restriction on Vincentians making “bogus refugee claims” in Canada and described the decision as “unfortunate”.
Are the measures working?
In February, Jason Kenney trumpeted the news that his new immigration plan was working, saying that refugee claims were down by 70%.
He added that the new measures would save his country US$1.95bn ($2bn Canadian).
“Canada is a fair and generous country but the message has been received loud and clear that we will not tolerate continued abuse of [the system],” Mr Kenney said.
“The recent reforms are a clear success.”
Not everyone thinks so.
Indeed, most minority Canadians see it as the welcome mat being pulled.