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The Hill: IRB influenced by politics

The accusatory headline in the Ottawa Citizen was clear: “Ministerial chill eroding IRB: ex-chair.”

The Hill by Richard Cleroux
The Hill by Richard Cleroux
It reflected strong words and a strong accusation. It targeted Immigration Minister Jason Kenney by criticizing him for allegedly eroding the independence of the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The board isn’t just any old body. It’s an integral part of Canada’s complicated immigration and refugee system that decides who gets to stay in Canada and who has to go back to where they came from, sometimes into the hands of the tyrannical despot they fled.

We can only guess what happens to them then. Let’s just say we usually don’t hear from them again.

The accusation against Kenney, who makes a very public show that he loves refugees, didn’t come from just anybody. It came from Peter Showler, who was chairman of the board from 1999 to 2002.

He’s as knowledgeable about the workings of the board and our immigration system as people will find anywhere. Showler is still aware of refugee affairs today as head of the refugee forum at the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre.

Showler is also part of the newly formed Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, a group organized to stand up for refugees.

In seeking out Showler, reporter Don Butler went to someone who knows what he’s talking about.
But the very next day, just as big a headline appeared on the front page: “Kenney defends IRB appointments.”

The minister rejected Showler’s accusation about Conservatives appointed to the board who are “just instinctively less receptive to refugee claims.”

The problem for Kenney is that the evidence is convincing.
In 2009, Kenney made a big speech accusing Mexican asylum seekers of abusing the Canadian system.

It was rare in the past for immigration ministers to slam a particular ethnic community publicly for fear it could bias immigration officials and judges involved in the refugee determination process.

But that didn’t bother Kenney. His government slapped a visa requirement on Mexicans even though those escaping the cartels, corruption, and killings were dying in large numbers.

Mexicans seeking refuge in Canada went from the largest group of applicants to Canada down to a mere trickle.

Even as the Mexican government pleaded and prodded, the government held firm. It was a fine way to treat a NAFTA partner, according to the Mexican president.

The visa gambit isn’t new. The government did the same thing to Hungarians and Czechs in order to keep out Roma people. Of course, that decision followed a public lambasting of the Roma by the government.

Similarly, the Conservatives went after Tamil refugees coming over in rusted tubs commanded by snakeheads and promptly threw them in jail when they got here.

But two years later, the party was trying to line up Tamil candidates for Toronto ridings they wanted to win. They didn’t win any of them.

So is it coincidence that the people appointed by Kenney to the board just happen to think like the minister talks? It’s definitely a coincidence, according to Kenney.

Noted immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman says the problem is the system. The government appoints board members for two, three or five years, after which Kenney or his people assess their performance. Kenney decides who should be reappointed.

Does their performance while on the board affect their reappointment to their $120,000-a-year job? It’s rather obvious that it does. The law, in fact, says it should.

Right now, about 90 per cent of the board members, including chairman Brian Goodman and his two deputies, are appointees of the Conservative government.

The board is turning back more refugee applicants than ever before. But it’s just coincidence, as Kenney would say.

A major factor in the developing conflict between Canadian immigration lawyers and the government goes back to a report prepared by Osgoode Hall Law School professor Sean Rehaag, who examined who’s turning away refugee applicants.

Rehaag discovered that the 30 board members who turned away the most applicants were all appointees of the Conservative government.
Is it really just a coincidence?

Of course, Kenney would say.
Rehaag, however, discovered that one appointee, David McBean, didn’t approve a single refugee claim in 169 cases before him.

He must have done a good job because Kenney appointed him to another five-year term.
Noted immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman says the situation is so bad that when some of his clients hear that they’ll be before a particular board member, they break down and cry.

Nobody is saying there’s ministerial interference. There’s not even the slightest suggestion that Kenney calls up board members handling a case and tells them to reject the application. He doesn’t have to do that.

When the board member thinks as the minister does, it would make no sense to rule otherwise. After all, these people aren’t stupid.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .


0 # Purple Sky 2011-12-05 12:27
I have read with interest the insights shared in this article. Certainly, one cannot find fault in the concept of helping a refugee fleeing the threat of death, imprisonment or abuse from their country of origin especially in the case where they have taken risks in order to make a difference in their community. My concern is that I am conflicted on the idea of permanent immigration to Canada for them as part of the solution. How does that help the situations from which they are escaping in the long term? And are we not promoting a game of exclusivity and selective controls where only certain people get safe haven and those, often, these might be the most ambitous people? I think about those people who stay behind and valiantly continue to stand up and work at making change and improvements in their country? For example, I have read about some wonderful community programs in the Philippines. One might conclude that these people are the courageous ones. Thank you.
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-2 # Seriously? 2011-12-06 07:58
Seriously Richard, you accuse the Minister of bias while threading the article with your own. "We can only guess what happens to them then. Let’s just say we usually don’t hear from them again."-nothing biased about that statement. "In seeking out Showler, reporter Don Butler went to someone who knows what he’s talking about." Are you sure you weren't just looking for the last Liberal to be chair of the IRB? Hand in your Red card and report fairly.
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0 # Dalwinder Hayer 2011-12-06 18:33
This is very good article, it is not only happening with refugees, it is also happening with IAD as well. I am doing immigration appeals against refused cases from visa office for last 23 years. I have noticed change now, I can sense by looking at the member what decision we are going to get. This is very sad that Board members are playing with peoples lives and then they say that they are here to provide justice
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0 # Purple Sky 2011-12-07 18:51
To Dalwinder Hayer:
As someone experienced in this field, what do you see as alternative options to those refused cases at the Immigration Appeal Division? The outlook around the concept of immigration to Canada from overseas is changing and the illusion of Canada being a place of prosperity and promise is deceptive. Questions are being asked about the huge numbers (250,000, etc.) in the last few years. There are historical matters with the indigenous peoples which still need to be dealt with. Environmental impacts and unequal/unfair distribution of wealth has become a major concern. I totally am supportive of the idea of helping people in need; however, we need to think of more innovative and creative ways to help people from overseas who are in need. There needs to be a back up plan so that there are other choices besides immigration.
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