5 April 2014
The federal government has been holding consultations recently surrounding the subject of Canadian citizens and permanent residents who wish to bring their foreign-born spouses into the country or a partner or marriage visa under the family sponsorship policy. Largely the brainchild of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, these consultations have focused on language and education requirements. Those backing the new proposed requirements see them as providing greater protection for immigrant women in particular and making it easier for them to integrate more fully into Canadian society.
Many critics have suggested that the language barrier will effectively rule out spouses from joining their spouses in Canada, especially from poor developing countries where neither English nor French is the dominant language. Critics of the proposed new measures are also concerned about other issues, in particular the possibility that the sponsors of immigrant spouses will have to provide evidence of a minimum income in order to qualify. This is a measure that has been introduced in other countries, for example the UK where it has been the subject of several lawsuits.
Avvy Go, Executive Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, sees the potential introduction of language and education requirements as ‘a direct attack on Canada’s family reunification program.’ Chris Alexander’s office is neither confirming or denying the speculation on education and language requirements. It does say, however, that it is primarily concerned with denouncing any form of violence, racial hatred or cultural practices which are unacceptable in Canadian society.
Consultations and meetings nationwide have been held with the Immigration Minister gauging public opinion on a whole range of immigration issues. The purpose of these meetings is, in the words of his office, ‘to strengthen the integrity of the immigration spousal sponsorship program’. Issues of education and language requirements have been discussed here but the Press Officer for the Immigration Office is at pains to point out that policy will not be decided solely on these discussions; that would be ‘irresponsible and unproductive’.
A contentious issue which has become the focus of some of these discussions, is that Alexander used the case of the murder in July of last year of an Afghanistan-born woman, Nasira Fazil, by her husband as an example of how immigrant women who cannot integrate properly may be in more danger. Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, disagrees. ‘Keeping spouses,’ she writes, ‘with little English and without a high level of education from Canada is not going to protect immigrant women from violence.’
The Fazil case seems to be one that has been misreported and misunderstood. Nasira came to Canada as a child and it was she who sponsored her husband’s arrival four years before her death. There is no evidence that she ever asked any authority for help in what was presumed to be an atmosphere of domestic violence. The fact that she grew up in Canada and fully understood the country’s language and culture tends to make Alexander’s use of the this case a controversial one.
Avvy Go’s major concern is the ‘imposition of the new language, education and financial requirements’ and that however well-intentioned the government is on this issue, the net effect will be to disadvantage immigrant spouses from poor countries with little education offered, especially to women and girls. Various possible schemes involving raising the sponsorship age from 16 to 18; an attempt to stop polygamy; and bringing in self-employment schemes to allow and help women to set up in business, will all fail against Go’s objections.
At the extreme end, Mario Bellisimo, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration law department sees the Immigration Minister’s proposed measures as an example of the government trying to shift the emphasis away from family reunification, possibly to the extent of preventing some families from ever being allowed to live together in Canada. Although critics do accept that there is no legislation currently in the pipeline to implement any of the issues which have been discussed in the meetings, which are still on-going, the concerns that have been voiced are important ones.