Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney speaking in Burnaby yesterday. Photo by David P. Ball.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was in Burnaby, B.C. yesterday to explain changes to how would-be newcomers connect with employers in Canada, and to answer questions about the controversial Temporary Foreign Workers Program, which has come under scrutiny this week over 200 Chinese coal mine workers in B.C.
The minister told the crowd gathered at the Executive Hotel that his immigration crackdown -- from marriage fraud to human smuggling and what he called the "abuse of Canada's generosity" -- is not driven by ideology or racism.
"One thing that is unique about Canada is that this is the only developed democracy in the world in which there is no serious or organized anti-immigrant or xenophobic sentiment in our public discourse," he told a crowd hosted by the Burnaby Board of Trade and the Immigrant Employment Council of BC. "I want to keep it that way.
"I'll be blunt with you: Because government and politicians didn't want to take any risks, didn't want to be accused of tampering with Canada's tradition of immigration, no one was willing to address the problems we all know exist in our system... Why? Because we Canadians are so polite! We don't like saying no to anyone. There's an infinite number of people around the world who would love to come and pursue opportunity in Canada. But as open as we are, there's obviously a finite number of people we can admit."
For one of the activists outside the speech, Kenney's claims of no serious xenophobia in Canada were hard to stomach. Citing the case of refugee claimant Veronica Castro, who was beaten to death in Mexico this April five weeks after her deportation from Canada, Lee Williams said Kenney is hypocritical.
"We're talking about immigrants coming here, people of colour exploited for labour, being sent out of the country, denied status, who cannot have their spouses come over, who can't have access to health care. I'm curious to know how that's not xenophobic," said Williams, a member of the migrant justice organization No One Is Illegal.
Williams claimed she was inexplicably blocked from attending the event, despite having registered for the $35 reception on Wednesday. The Burnaby Board of Trade insisted it had no record of her registration, leading some activists to suggest attendees were being politically screened by Kenney's office. Another activist was dragged out of the hotel lobby by her arms and legs after she was denied entry to the talk and refused to leave the building.
The minister was in Burnaby to discuss his plan to revamp the overseas application process for immigrants, with a push towards evaluating professional and educational experience and encouraging those who have jobs lined up here already.
One concern raised by No One Is Illegal -- a group Kenney characterizes as "hard-line, anti-Canadian extremists" -- is a new policy forcing spouses to remain married for two years after immigration to Canada.
After facing criticism from women's and immigrant groups who warned the rule could trap women in abusive relationships, Kenney added an exception whereby immigration officials could evaluate claims of domestic abuse.
"We get a lot of fake marriages, which victimize some Canadians who get duped into sponsoring someone from abroad -- then they get really hurt emotionally by the whole situation," Kenney told The Tyee. "It's created an industry of commercial marriages, where tens of thousands of dollars change hands in order to do a fake immigration marriage.
"That's why we brought in the policy. We did listen to concerns by groups that deal with immigrant women... Our officers will receive specialized training to identify cases of domestic abuse. We have no intention of denying permanent residency to people who have had to leave their spouse because of abuse."
But Williams said that even with the abuse clause, the marriage fraud policy is a threat to women's safety, and many could be hesitant to come forward in case they risk deportation.
"The question becomes: how do you prove the abuse that you're in?" she said. "The burden is on the woman to provide this proof.
"Also, who is she speaking with, and in what situations is it safe or even possible to disclose this information? What kind of language barriers are there? There are a number of things that put the burden and onus on the woman to prove her situation."
Kenney said his reforms are simply common sense, and help protect Canada from being taken advantage of.
"We're trying to reinforce the integrity of our system -- to respond to various forms of abuse of Canada's generosity and fraud in the system," he said. "It's a unique situation that we have broad public support for immigration in general, but that support is not unqualified. It's not a blank cheque."
David P. Ball is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver and regular contributor to The Tyee.