Canada Immigration, now called Canada Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship, has undergone a significant transformation in approach under the Trudeau regime. Gone is the largely secretive, even hostile approach undertaken by immigration officials in their case work, replaced by communication and, yes, even kindness.
Under former prime minister Stephen Harper, it was simply not possible to have a conversation with a government official on a file or to expect any kind of back-and-forth discussion with a common aim of getting it right, whatever right meant. Living in apparent fear of reprimand and/or loss of promotion — or possibly washroom privileges — immigration officers appeared to be motivated by one, interminable goal: Go fast! Speed of processing and a distrust of lawyers and other counsel propelled the bureaucrats forward to render decisions and close files.
When the dust cleared from these hastily made decisions, many families, wrongly refused, lay in its wake. It was a period of injustice and of much litigation.
Things appear to have changed. My most recent encounter with an immigration officer is proof of a thaw in the cold war of immigration practice. My client in this particular case was typical of so many people striving for a better life in Canada. She had come to Canada alone, some 12 years before, and then she had stayed. The country of her birth was desperately poor and offered few opportunities and little hope. Once in Canada, she began working, without a work permit, as soon as she arrived. The jobs were mostly back-breaking manual labour, including child care, cleaning and factory work, but she persevered and supported herself. Then she met a man, with whom she had a baby. He did not marry her and disappeared from her life shortly after the baby was born. She became a single mom, with no health benefits such as OHIP and no employment insurance payments. When she took time off work to be with her baby, she had no income. She developed a large community of friends in the community and relied on babysitters to care for her child while she was at work. Every scrap of money she could save from her back-breaking work went to her baby’s needs or back home for her parents and siblings. Arriving home from work, after putting her baby to bed, she would collapse, exhausted — until it was time to get up to feed or change her child.
When her baby became school aged, she began showing signs of autism. She could not sit still or learn to read and became more than a handful. With the diagnosis of autism finally in hand, she accessed every available treatment possible at school and outside school. Autism is not curable — yet — but it can be treated. Her daughter was receiving the best treatment possible by the best specialists possible.
Still without status in Canada, my client came to me and we filed a humanitarian application. With the application, we filed a letter from a doctor in her home country attesting to the absence of any treatment for autism in that country. Given this evidence, this child’s best interests clearly favoured remaining in Canada — so, too, did her mother’s.
The kiss of death arrived in late September, when the immigration officer on the file wrote saying she had undertaken her own research and discovered that the country in question did have some programs available for children with autism. She included an email from an official in the country confirming that it even had a class for children with autism. The doctor on whom we relied appeared to be wrong. Did we wish to comment before a decision was rendered, asked the immigration officer?
What to do?
The good news was that the immigration officer contacted us and gave us a chance to comment. That alone was new and gave us hope. Under Harper, we were never given such chances.
We began our investigations and, as luck would have it, located a PhD student who had just returned to Canada from the country in question who had conducted interviews and research there on his doctoral thesis: the availability of autism therapy in that country! Did Was there therapy for autism in the country, we asked? No, he answered, absolutely not. What about the class for autistic kids? It is a holding pen, used by teachers to keep children with autism from disrupting the main class, he said. They are taught nothing there. It is a prison cell, he said, and confirmed that he had visited it. We prepared an affidavit for him to sign and sent that with a paper he had written to the immigration officer. We were met with silence for many months. On the last working day before Christmas, I sent a one-line request to the officer by fax. It is Christmas, I said in the fax; any news for us? The next day, we received the response — my client was approved! Merry Christmas.
It was a Merry Christmas indeed, thanks to the kindness and fairness of an immigration officer and the new openness of Immigration Canada.