With all parties in the federal election courting Canada’s ethnic communities, Conservative changes to immigration laws are going to be a major issue.
And it’s an issue that should be of particular interest to queer voters.
Earlier this year, as part of a budget implementation bill that the Liberals refused to defeat, the Conservatives passed an amendment that gave the immigration minister sweeping new powers to decide who gets into the country, especially on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, and which groups or countries won’t be considered.
The changes will not affect those filing refugee claims, which are filed from within Canada. But anyone filing an application on humanitarian and compassionate grounds from outside the country could be arbitrarily dismissed. The result, say immigration lawyers, is that applications from gays and lesbians facing imprisonment or death in their home countries could be ignored.
“It’s exactly those files that are expected to be most vulnerable to these new rules,” says Toronto immigration lawyer Michael Battista. “Historically this has been a very important avenue for gays and lesbians. A lot of immigration experts think those applications would go to the bottom of the pile. There’s a feeling that the Conservatives have never been particularly friendly to the LGBT community.”
Toronto immigration lawyer Robert Blanshay agrees that the changes could have a devastating effect on queer claimants outside of Canada.
“The Conservatives’ solution is to do an initial screening on the humanitarian and compassionate grounds and say if your case isn’t strong, it’s goodbye,” he says. “That’s quotas but they’re very careful about saying that. But the gay guy in Syria may not be able to make it to Canada to apply. Now he doesn’t have any guarantee that it will be even be processed.”
Blanshay and Battista both say the Conservative approach to refugee claims within Canada has been just as bad. Those cases are decided by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), whose judges are appointed by the government. The Conservatives have delayed appointing judges and clearing the refugee backlog, say the lawyers.
“I don’t think the Conservatives really give a shit about refugees,” says Blanshay. “There’s a very bad backlog at IRB.”
Battista says the Conservatives have deliberately expanded that backlog.
“It was created by the Conservatives who have deliberately not appointed enough judges or implemented a Refugee Appeals Division,” he says. “The other concern on the Conservative front is the quality of the judges. The concern is the Tories will not appoint those to the board with the necessary skills and experience.”
All the opposition parties have promised to repeal the Conservative changes, but both Blanshay and Battista worry about how seriously those promises will be taken.
“I’m not sure how much of a hot-button issue this will be for the parties,” says Blanshay.
Battista says it remains to be seen if Liberal leader Stephane Dion, in particular, can be relied on if he wins.
“If Dion can be taken at his word, or if he can be held to his word, we might see some changes,” he says. “It goes to the trustworthiness of Dion which hasn’t really been tested.”