Commentary by Will Tao in Vancouver

The Liberal Government finally delivered on their long-standing campaign promise to end conditional permanent residency for spouses on April 28.

Previously introduced in October 2012 by the Conservative government, the conditional permanent residence regulation required those who were in a relationship for two years or less and had no children to live with their sponsors for two years after they became permanent residents. Some exceptions were carved out for individuals who were victims of abuse or neglect. The Toronto Star (Nicholas Keung) reported that only 57 individuals sought an exemption and were successful in 75 per cent of their exemption requests.

The negative consequences of conditional permanent residency were often borne by vulnerable women and their young newly-born children. New to Canada and without a support network, they were victimized by their abusive spouses, but often too scared to seek help.

While the exception provisions allowed for a streamlined process to contact Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in these circumstances, I had several women subject to conditional permanent residence tell me first-hand stories of being prevented access to computers, phones, even the internet. In one case, I had a woman tell me that she locked herself in a bathroom just to communicate with me as we prepared her case.

Another woman told me about feigning sleep in order to avoid the verbal and psychological abuse of a partner coming home violent and intoxicated. All of this because they were afraid to leave their spouses and put their status in Canada at risk.

I am glad these individuals can now sleep better at night and enjoy the security that all Canadians rightfully enjoy.

[quote align="center" color="#999999"]Conditional permanent residence created more harm than good.[/quote]

It is important to note that that these stories did not only come from vulnerable women. They also came from male conditional permanent residents who were abandoned by their spouses, as well as the LGBTQ2+. Many of these relationships broke down foremost as a result of infidelity, leading later to abuse and neglect – a sequence of events that the earlier exceptions policy appears to have overlooked. 

Conditional permanent residence created more harm than good, more uncertainty. For this, I am glad it is a thing of the past and we can move forward.

Immigrant Marriage Breakdowns ≠Marriages of Convenience

Moving forward, in my view, begins by re-framing the two issues of marriage fraud and marriage breakdown. We should not use the end of the conditional permanent residence requirement as a pretext to now second guess or re-scrutinize the genuineness and immigration intent of a majority (85%+) of bona-fide immigrant marriages. The end of conditional permanent residence, I hope, will not lend cover to sponsors trying to remove their sponsored spouses from Canada.

The reality with sponsorship of immigrant spouses is that a significant portion of genuine marriages will end up breaking down. While academic research is limited in this area, my hypothesis is based on the following:

First, I believe economic challenges have a greater negative effective on immigrant marriages and common-law partnership. Piecing together what we do know, recent Canada statistics show that 48% of all marriages are now ending in divorce, with financial issues and adultery among the leading causes. Poverty affects racialized individuals at a rate four times greater than non-racialized families and past studies have found immigrants who have been in Canada less than five years are 11 percentage points more likely to be in poverty than other Canadians. Furthermore, immigrant families, receive less in household income and are less likely to own homes than non-immigrant families. New Canadian immigrants, especially women, are often more likely to face labour market challenges and experiences with precarious work conditions.

Second, I suggest that cultural shock also contributes to marriage breakdown by creating consequences such as the return of the sponsored spouse to their home country, abandonment, and adultery. Carmen Munoz, Program Manager for the Cross-Cultural Peer Support Group Program for Immigrant and Refugee Women (CCPSGP) highlights in a piece she writes the challenges new immigrant women face which include experiencing “intense culture shock, isolation, depression, frustration and an overwhelming sense of confusion, which in turn, not only manifests itself mentally, but through physical reactions as well.”

The cultural pressures, the economic pressures, and often extended family pressures (from both the Sponsor and the Applicant) can coalesce and intersect into major challenges for immigrant marriages and common-law partnerships.

Unfortunately, conditional permanent residence lumped the issue of marriage breakdown unnecessarily into the marriage fraud debate, inputting bad intentions where more often than not none existed. Not only did it punish genuine couples often at their most vulnerable moments, but it also led to not enough focus being placed to eliminating the actual root causes of marriage fraud – unauthorized legal practitioners both in Canada and internationally who set up marriages of convenience for their own financial gain.

Ultimately, I suggest that Parliament should focus on creating conditions that strengthen immigrant marriages and prevent systemic abuse of our sponsorship system, rather than enforcing back-end restrictions that may aggravate the challenges faced by new Canadian families. 

Will Tao is a Canadian immigration lawyer based in Vancouver, B.C., with a practice primary focused on complex immigration applications and refusals on behalf of educational institutions and international students. Tao is a former member of New Canadian Media's board of directors and a current member of the Not-for-profit corporation. He currently sits on the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia’s Equality and Diversity Committee and on the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Communities Advisory Committee.

Published in Policy
Friday, 21 February 2014 18:04

Citizenship: Finding the Right Balance

by Andrew Griffith in Ottawa

Now that we know what the government has in mind for the Citizenship Act, let's talk about the longer-term implications of the proposed changes.

Traditionally, Canadian citizenship policy has balanced “facilitation”—making citizenship easier to acquire — and “meaning” — ensuring integrity in citizenship tools and processes. Past governments inclined towards facilitation through a relatively easy and short acquisition process that eased integration through the extension of voting rights and other privileges.

The Conservative government made major shifts towards the “meaning” end of the spectrum: a more comprehensive study guide, the Discover Canada orientation package for newcomers a more difficult citizenship test, more rigorous application of language requirements, anti-fraud (residency) measures, an increased public profile for the citizenship program and ceremonies, and support for the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC) and its various activities. Taken together, these measures improved the integrity of citizenship.

More hurdles for citizenship applicants

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander’s proposed changes take this further. They're taking place in a context of ongoing economic and social globalization, driven by cheap travel and communications, making identity more fluid and varied — and making links between diaspora and domestic politics more complex.

Let’s look at how his proposed changes stack up. One of former Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Jason Kenney's lasting legacies in the portfolio was greater integrity in the citizenship program. Most of the proposed changes focus on further increasing the integrity of Canadian citizenship, making it “harder to get and easier to lose.”

And so, Mr. Alexander wants to make it crystal-clear that residency means being in Canada and wants to extend the residency period required. He wants to expand the knowledge and language assessment to cover both younger and older applicants. He wants stronger penalties for fraud, and streamlined and broader authority for citizenship revocation, including a “national interest” provision for dual nationals.

He is ending the practice in place since the Diefenbaker government of treating all citizens the same, whether born in Canada or naturalized. The potential implications of such a policy change are broader than the specific issue of 'national interest’ revocation.

Mr. Alexander also wants an “intent to reside” provision. As this only applies during the application process, and not after citizenship is granted, this appears largely symbolic.

One of the weaknesses of previous changes to the citizenship program pertain to implementation short-cuts and approaches that made citizenship less fair and more difficult to obtain for groups with lower educational or language levels (e.g., immigrants or refugees from Afghanistan, Somalia, Cambodia, Burma and Vietnam).

Mr. Alexander is silent on providing every applicant a fair chance. No commitment to focus group test citizenship materials for comprehension and readability. No commitment to provide additional citizenship knowledge and test preparation for groups that are having difficulties.

However, to Mr. Alexander’s credit, the remaining “lost Canadians” (largely descendants from those born before 1947) will have their citizenship recognized, and the children of Crown servants born abroad will be able to pass on their Canadian citizenship.

Harder to get and easier to lose

Importantly, Mr. Alexander has managed to maintain the overall competitiveness of Canadian citizenship compared to other countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the U.S. The government has managed to ratchet up requirements significantly without dissuading the increasingly educated and mobile immigrants Canada seeks from choosing Canada.

The proposed changes also reflect the need to improve citizenship business processes. Most are non-controversial, such as the removal of citizenship judges from the decision-making process, the ability to cancel incomplete applications, and allowing for electronic means to verify citizenship.

These changes, along with temporary increased funding, allowed Mr. Alexander to commit to reducing the processing time from the current two years plus to less than one year. Yet, unlike in Australia, he offers no ongoing quarterly reports to show compliance (ad hoc press releases do not cut it).

Mr. Alexander’s overall approach stresses enforcement, not citizenship promotion. Perhaps he believed the previous initiatives were adequate. However, there is an ongoing need for citizenship education, for applicants and for existing Canadians, as any survey about knowledge of Canada attests. More ambition here would reinforce the overall agenda of strengthening citizenship, including in Quebec, where there are opportunities and a need to do more.

Challenges remain

The challenge for all governments is how to balance citizenship as a “place,” assuming citizens remain in their country of immigration, and citizenship as a “status,” a more instrumental view of citizenship as a means to secure employment and other rights.

It is hard for any government to craft options that address the diverse needs of people applying for citizenship. Immigrants who choose Canada for economic reasons may have a more instrumental view of citizenship. Providing them with greater flexibility, and encouraging them to choose Canada, without weakening the meaning of citizenship, or providing additional opportunities for citizens of convenience, will always be a challenge. With the longer residency requirements and “intent to reside” provision, Mr. Alexander may be reducing the attractiveness to the more highly skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants.

Mr. Alexander has come down firmly on the side of citizenship as “place.” The emphasis on integrity and streamlined business processes is understandable, with the possible exception of differential treatment of Canadian citizens and dual nationals in revocation. His inattention to fairness issues and citizenship promotion is regrettable. However, taken together, Mr. Alexander’s proposed changes remain largely within the Canadian context of encouraging immigrants to become citizens, and remaining competitive with other countries.

Andrew Griffith is the author of Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias: Resetting Citizenship and Multiculturalism. He is the former Director General for Citizenship and Multiculturalism at Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC). He has worked at Canadian Heritage, Service Canada, Industry Canada and Privy Council Office, in addition to Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada, where he had a number of domestic and international assignments. 

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Published in Commentary

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