How Canada keeps some immigrant women in their place

posted on March 8, 2014

By Lorne Waldman Audrey Macklin, the Star | Link to Article

By Lorne Waldman Audrey Macklin, the Star | Link to Article

Immigration Minister Chris Alexander will be speaking to the Canadian Club on the eve of International Women’s Day about what his government does to support immigrant women. His speech should be short.

About every six days, a woman in Canada – citizen, non-citizen, aboriginal, non-aboriginal – is killed by her intimate partner. A government that cares about women would want to protect them from domestic violence, right? Yet, consider this recent example:
A young woman is in a relationship with a Canadian citizen. They marry, and shortly thereafter she has a child. Her husband sponsors her application to remain in Canada. The sponsorship is approved but just before she is issued her permanent resident visa she flees the matrimonial home, a victim of domestic abuse. Shortly thereafter, she is called into an immigration office and she advises them of her circumstances. How do immigration officials respond? They arrest the woman, and tell he that she will be deported because the husband has cancelled the sponsorship. Fortunately, just before officials carried out the deportation order, a judge stopped it out of concern for her child.

If a Canadian woman is abused by her partner, the system is supposed to protect her, but when an immigrant woman is abused by her Canadian sponsor, she is treated as the wrongdoer. How did this happen? A couple of years ago, then-minister Jason Kenney decided that “marriage fraud” was a problem of mass proportions crying out for a policy response.

According to Minister Kenney, unspecified numbers of innocent Canadians were being duped by foreign spouses who used them to gain admission to Canada, and then took off. No credible studies were produced to determine the scope of the problem, or to carefully consider the pros and cons of various policy options. Instead, anecdotes were paraded as evidence, and used to justify a new policy that effectively puts sponsored spouses on probation, and deputizes their spouses as probation officers.

Today, when a woman is sponsored to Canada as a spouse, she gets a two-year conditional visa. If she separates from her spouse in the first two years, then she can be summarily deported. This amendment to the law, designed to prevent so-called marriages of convenience, has a more sinister and entirely predictable effect. It places many women in a horrible dilemma: stay in an abusive relationship or face deportation. Even if, in theory, she can come forward and asks for compassionate consideration, what happened to the woman we describe shows that there is no assurance that immigration authorities will hear her, believe her, or care.

We can clearly see the cost of this conditional visa policy, and who bears it. Since the government never produced credible evidence to justify the change, it will be impossible to ever determine whether the new law makes any positive difference. How convenient.

This is not the only policy enacted by the current government that harms immigrant women. At his Women’s Day Speech, Minister Alexander has indicated he will talk about the government’s initiatives that he says will strengthen Canadian citizenship. It appears to be the government’s view that citizenship is made stronger by being made more inaccessible. One of the announced changes will see increased reliance on formal language testing. But according to a study commissioned by Citizenship and Immigration Canada in 2010, the people most likely to be denied citizenship under more stringent language testing are refugees and women from Southeast Asia who entered Canada as spouses.

And despite this government’s opposition to the proposed Quebec Charter of Values, it proudly withholds citizenship from those women who have met all the requirements of citizenship if they also happen to wear niqabs. Apparently, the best way to rescue these women from what the government sees as gender oppression is to punish them. Policies that exclude women from citizenship make women more vulnerable.

In recent years, International Women’s Day has been an occasion to reiterate the government’s condemnation of misogynistic practices of other cultures that our new Citizenship Guide warns against – polygamy, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and so on. And undoubtedly Minister Alexander will do so.

But we urge Canadians to become aware of the ways in which Canada’s immigration laws – the laws that we create – exacerbate the vulnerability of immigrant women. Our immigration laws keep them in abusive relationships and deny them the security of citizenship. International Women’s Day is the perfect day to change course.

Lorne Waldman is an immigration lawyer and president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL). Audrey Macklin is Professor of Law at the University of Toronto and an executive member of CARL.

Read more