"human rights are on the line": two former immigration ministers decry rush to pass c-11

The Harper Government is trying to ram through its dangerous refugee "reform" bill, and the Liberals can't help them enough. The bill contains some highly suspect, unjust provisions. It's a centrepiece in the Conservative agenda to remake Canada in its own image, and it's being rushed through in the undemocratic manner that is the hallmark of this government.

The NDP and the Bloc are insisting on more debate and amendments. The only reason the bill even went to committee was through the leadership and tenacity of NDP Immigration Critic Olivia Chow. But the outcome is all up to the Liberals. How sad that the fate of so many refugee claimants should be left in such weak and ineffectual hands. Can Ignatieff show a little backbone and force his lame-duck Critic to do his job?

Here are two former immigration ministers, writing in the Ottawa Citizen. Emphasis mine.
Don't ram through refugee reforms

By Elinor Caplan and Flora MacDonald

There are few areas of law and policy in Canada that have been revised as often as our approach to protecting refugees. Over the years, there have been numerous reforms to Canada's immigration laws, seeking to improve the system, ensure fairness, and limit abuse. We are in the midst of yet another effort. But it is being rushed forward at worrying speed.

We know of what we speak. We have each served as ministers of immigration. Between us we were responsible for overseeing Canada's refugee laws and policies for more than four years, on behalf of both Liberal and Conservative governments. In fact, we each spearheaded earlier comprehensive reform efforts. We have had direct experience in dealing with the competing pressures of fairness and efficiency.

And if there is one thing we have learned through those experiences, it is that there are no easy solutions. Refugee protection must take account of and respond to human suffering, to human aspirations and to human determination. It arises in a complicated and ever-changing global context. Many assume that there must be a system that would readily and quickly identify those who meet the definition of a refugee and those who do not. But it is not so simple.

We also deeply respect the broad public interest in Canada's approach to refugee protection. Over the years, of course, hundreds of thousands of women, men and children from all corners of the world have come to Canada as refugees -- some selected and approved before coming to Canada; others accepted after making claims for protection here in Canada. They, their families and their communities have experiences and points of view that are obviously germane to any debate about refugee reform.

At the same time, the wider public also has strongly held opinions about Canada's approach to protecting refugees. Many Canadians are rightly proud of Canada's reputation as a compassionate nation dedicated to providing protection to people in need. There are also, unfortunately, a minority of Canadians who would prefer that Canada not roll out the welcome mat for refugees. And there are of course many Canadians who feel torn -- who do want to be generous, but only when it is appropriate and deserved. Sadly, much of that debate takes place in a context of myths and misunderstandings.

That is why we feel compelled to speak out and share our concerns about the approach the government is taking to the most recent effort to reform Canada's refugee determination system. Bill C-11 was introduced in Parliament on March 30. Unlike most other previous reform efforts, however, it was not preceded by a period of public consultation.

The first opportunity Canadians have had to learn about and respond to the proposal, therefore, is now. Given the complexities of refugee protection and given the wide public interest at stake, we feel strongly that there must be sufficient time and opportunity for Canadians to understand and share their views about the intended changes.

But things are moving ahead at what we consider to be an unreasonable and worrying pace. The bill is already through second reading in the House of Commons and is now before a parliamentary committee. The committee has set aside only a limited number of sessions to hear from organizations and individuals -- many have been told that they cannot be accommodated and will not have an opportunity to appear before the committee. It seems clear that the overriding intention is to push the bill rapidly through the House -- even before Parliament breaks for its summer recess. These issues are important: They have serious implications for the lives and safety of thousands of people. We should not and cannot rush.

This is particularly important given the nature of some of the proposals in the bill. There is, on one hand, good news -- such as the decision to establish a long-needed appeal process for individuals whose claims for refugee status are turned down. At the same time, there are other intended changes which would lead to shifts in fundamental principles at the very heart of Canada's approach to protecting refugees.

That includes an unparalleled proposal to treat refugee claimants differently, depending on their nationality. Under Bill C-11, the government would be authorized to draw up a list of countries that are determined to be safe, according to definitions and criteria that are not in any way laid out in the bill.

Refugee claimants coming from those countries would be excluded from the new appeal process. It is unprecedented and troubling to discriminate when it comes to something as basic as access to justice. Furthermore, the very notion of being able to reliably and objectively divide the world into lists of countries that are safe and countries that are unsafe is, to say the least, debatable. This deserves careful and thoughtful deliberation.

Human rights are on the line in any proposal to change Canada's refugee laws. We need to get that right and not rush ahead in haste. Parliament should slow down, and ensure an opportunity for broad public consultation and input before making any final decisions with respect to Bill C-11.

Elinor Caplan was minister of citizenship and immigration between 1999 and 2002. Flora MacDonald was minister of employment and immigration between 1984 and 1986.

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