On November 4, 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed John McCallum as the Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship.  He replaced Chris Alexander, who had been the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration since July 15, 2013.  Mr. Alexander was one of 60 Conservative Party of Canada Members of Parliament who lost their seats in the October 19, 2015, federal election.

Had the Canadian public on election night not replaced CPC with the Liberal Party of Canada as government, or had Chris Alexander at least even won his own seat, it would have perhaps been difficult to summarize Mr. Alexander’s tenure as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.  However, at least one of the causes of the Conservative defeat was the Canadian public’s rejection of a party that increasingly encouraged what can only be described as intolerance and callousness.  Both of these descriptions will likely be remembered as the defining features of Mr. Alexander’s term as Minister.

It is difficult to write this because I do not know how much influence Chris Alexander actually had within his own department.  It was often speculated by immigration policy observers that Mr. Alexander was running CIC under the subtle direction of his predecessor, Jason Kenney, and that Canadian immigration policy was also increasingly being dictated by the Prime Minister’s Office.  I do not know how accurate how these theories are. Nonetheless, regardless as to what extent Chris Alexander’s actions were dictated by either Jason Kenney or the PMO, I can only judge Mr. Alexander’s tenure based on what occurred, and not on whatever deliberations may have transpired internally.

With this caution aside, I will now review below what I consider to be The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Chris Alexander’s tenure as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration.  In light of what will be one of the defining terms of his tenure, I have renamed the “Ugly” the “Barbaric.”

The Good

Chris Alexander’s biggest accomplishment as Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration was his presiding over the launch of Express Entry, an application intake management system that ranks prospective applicants to Canada’s economic immigration programs and then only accepts into processing the number of applications that CIC can process in a timely manner.  Much like with Barak Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Express Entry initially experienced several technical glitches that CIC has mostly fixed, and will not in the long run negate its successes. (Ironically enough, as I write this the entire Express Entry portal has crashed.) Processing times in the economic immigration programs are now a fraction of what they once were, and CIC can be satisfied knowing that those immigrating to Canada through Express Entry are likely to thrive here.  Arguably the greatest testament to the overall success of Express Entry is that during the 2015 Election the Liberal Party of Canada promised only to slightly adjust how its rankings are calculated, while the New Democratic Party’s Olivia Chow pledged to create an “Express Entry system for children.”   

Mr. Alexander also introduced and oversaw the implementation of Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, a comprehensive reform of Canadian citizenship law.  Although some of its more controversial provisions are likely to be amended or repealed, Bill C-24 introduced several positive measures including the streamlining of processing, the regulating of citizenship consultants, ending the uncertainty over what constitutes residency for the purpose of calculating time spent in Canada, restoring citizenship to lost Canadians, and at least taking measures to address what has emerged to be a disturbingly high amount of fraudulent citizenship applications that were submitted in the early 2000s.

As well, subsequent regulatory amendments will finally enable CIC to inform the Canada Revenue Agency when citizenship officers discover evidence of tax evasion.  If the Liberals are indeed able to increase government revenue by cracking down on tax cheats, they will likely be able to look towards Minister Alexander’s information sharing reforms as a contributing reason for their achievement.

Finally, while Chris Alexander was Minister CIC changed its website in two ways that greatly enhanced transparency and procedural fairness.  The first was the publication of formal guidelines to immigration officers regarding the processing of reconsideration requests of refusals.  The second was the ongoing transferring of CIC’s operational guidelines from PDFs to text on the CIC website.  Although this is a subtle change, the result is that for the first time CIC’s internal procedures and requirements are easily searchable by the general public.

The Bad

Although Bill C-24 contained many positive provisions, it will primarily be remembered for its introduction of what has become known as “two-tier citizenship.”  Even those who support the notion that the Canadian citizenship of dual nationals should be revocable for the most serious offences (such as terrorism or treason) were generally dismayed by the realization that under Bill C-24 a bureaucrat, rather than a judge, would revoke citizenship, that the bureaucrat would not be able to consider humanitarian & compassionate factors, and that while the revocation decision could be judicially reviewed, there would be no de novo appeal.

As well, as a result of Bill C-24, the Citizenship Act now requires that all permanent residents if granted citizenship intend to continue to reside in Canada.  While cracking down on “Canadians of convenience” may be a laudable goal, requiring that new Canadians have the intention to never work or live abroad seems absurd.

Absurd is also a good word to describe the government’s rationale for why it decided that ESL students would no longer be able to work off campus, as the Conservatives decided that working in an English environment would distract students from learning English and that they should instead focus on their textbooks.  Many of the remaining reforms to Canada’s international student program remain unknown, as the CIC website states that CIC is developing a new compliance regime, and that additional details will be publicized in late 2014.

Yes. Late 2014.  Indeed, saying “we don’t know why CIC is doing what they’re doing, or what they plan on doing.. we only know that they seem to be behind schedule in doing it” appears to have become a common maxim amongst immigration representatives.

This uncertainty of what was going on at CIC was best demonstrated during what is known in immigration circles as the “CEC debacle.”  Starting in November, 2014, many immigration representatives began speculating that the application quota in the Canadian Experience Class, Canada’s most popular economic immigration program, had been reached.  CIC, however, insisted on both its website and in e-mails that the program was still open.  In January, 2015, however, CIC quietly announced that it had made a mistake, that the quota had in fact been reached the previous October, and it returned CEC applications that had been submitted thin the autumn.  Thousands of individuals and Canadian businesses were left scrambling, and many foreign workers had to leave Canada as a result.

Finally, with the exception of Express Entry, CIC’s processing times have soared in most temporary and permanent resident programs.  This was especially noticeable in the Family Class.  Eventually, it became hard to conclude anything other than that family reunification under Minister Alexander simply wasn’t a priority.

The Barbaric

One of the most memorable moments of the 2015 election was Minister Alexander’s announcement that a re-elected Conservative government would establish a tip line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices” and that there would be an integrated RCMP task force to step up enforcement of the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act.  Many Canadians both laughed at the idea, and were at the same time aghast as they subsequently learned about some of the uglier things that had been transpiring in Canada’s citizenship and immigration portfolio.

Even when the actual measures that the Conservatives were proposing or had introduced, like cracking down on forced marriage and violence against children, were laudable, the government’s repeated description of these crimes as “barbaric cultural practices” were widely decried as promoting fear and intolerance.

Chris Alexander’s decision to appeal the Federal Court’s striking down of the CPC’s niqab ban at Canadian citizenship ceremonies was especially antagonizing.  His statement that “we need to stand up for our values.. we need to do that in citizenship ceremonies. We need to do that to protect women and girls from forced marriage and other barbaric practices..” left little doubt that Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration at best believed that the religious values of Muslim Canadians are separate from, and incompatible with, what it means to be Canadian.

It simply got nasty.  In 2014, the Federal Court ruled that the Conservatives denial of health care to certain refugee claimants was “cruel and unusual punishment” that “perpetuated the myth” that asylum seekers are bogus queue jumpers.  Minister Alexander appealed.  And when the Canadian Bar Association raised concerns about the constitutionality of Bill C-24’s revocation provisions, Minister Alexander described its members as “activist immigration lawyers” who were attempting to “drum up business by promoting the interests of convicted terrorists.”

The approach to cessation applications has also been callous. When Jason Kenney in 2012 amended the laws around cessation so that that the loss of protected person status would also terminate permanent resident status and lead to removal from Canada, he reassured Parliament that cessation would only apply to “people who claim protection from a country, receive Canada’s protection and immediately go back to that country that was supposedly the source of persecution.. and who fraudulently obtain a protected person status.”  However, the government launched cessation proceedings against long-term permanent residents who had made one or two trips back to their countries of origin to visit dying parents.  It initiated them against individuals who had simply applied for a passport despite never travelling on it.  It even launched them against individuals who the government agreed would be persecuted if they were removed from Canada.  And throughout it all, the government argued in court that when cessation proceedings were being initiated no procedural fairness was owed to those facing deportation.

Finally, Minister Alexander on numerous occasions, including after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, and when the refugee situation in Syria became a global crisis, promised prompt assistance that ultimately only materialized after intense media pressure months or years later.  Although it is unfair to blame Minister Alexander for the death of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned at sea, young Kurdi’s death did sadly during the election come to symbolize the intolerance and callousness of Canadian immigration and refugee policy under Minister Alexander.

A New Party

Reading the above, it is clear that had Minister Alexander not engaged in such hyperbole, simply dropped the niqab and refugee health care court proceedings, and addressed the CBSA’s approach to cessation, then his tenure as Canada’s Minister of Citizenship and Immigration would mostly be viewed positively.  I do not understand why things went off the rails.

It is difficult to imagine the incoming John McCallum banning the niqab at citizenship ceremonies, denying health care to refugee claimants, or promoting racial intolerance.  Indeed, Prime Minister Trudeau’s renaming of Citizenship and Immigration to Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship suggests that the Liberal Party of Canada is going to approach immigration matters with a much greater humanitarian focus.

The Liberal election platform essentially promised only to tinker with the “Good” described above, and to amend or repeal most of the “Bad” and the “Ugly/Barbaric.”  It is thus easy for me to wish them the best of luck.

Steven Meurrens
Steven Meurrens is a partner at Larlee Rosenberg LLP, an immigration law firm in Vancouver. He is the chair of the Canadian Bar Association of British Columbia’s immigration subsection and also a member of the City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s Working Group on Immigration.

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