Pushing for Change: A Perspective from CARL Lobbycon 2018
“Public Interest is what the law is supposed to be about”
... Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada at the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers (CARL) Lobbycon 2018
As a 1L student, I was inspired and invigorated by Alex Neve’s words at the recent CARL Lobbycon conference. Advocating for change to serve the most marginalized in our society is something that is the responsibility of each of us. The aim of the CARL Lobbycon was to bring together students and lawyers from across Canada to discuss refugee law and consider how to make social change through litigation, grassroots organizing, and NGO work.
The second day of the conference was devoted to meeting with Members of Parliament to advocate for changes to legislation. In total, over 60 Members of Parliament heard from CARL lawyers and students about removing bars to Humanitarian and Compassionate Applications and creating an independent oversight body of the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). The whole conference, from the panel discussions to our actual lobbying of MPs, was transformative for me. It is rare to have the opportunity not only to learn something new but also have the chance to do something with that knowledge.
In the course of the weekend, I was struck by how Canadian laws and policies continue to marginalize the most vulnerable segments of our population. Of particular concern to me is the immigration detention regime which allows for Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers to detain a non-citizen if they are deemed to be a flight or security risk or if the identity of a non-citizen cannot be established.
The CBSA is the only law enforcement agency in Canada that does not have any independent oversight body. Yet they hold significant powers to arrest and detain as well as to search and seize. The CBSA is not statutorily required to report on their activities to the public, including deaths that occur in custody or the number of people detained. Besides an internal complaint mechanism, there is no formal means to initiate a more substantial review of an individual complaint or of a CBSA policy/procedure. Arguably, all Canadians should want to know who is being detained, for what reasons, and under what conditions.
A review body for the CBSA is reasonable given the serious consequences detention can have on an individual and their family. Many advocates have noted that the detention review system all too often fails to adequately review detentions and that once detained, it is not uncommon for detention to continue for longer than necessary. The seriousness of detention is further undergirded by that fact that in the last five years, there have been 10 deaths in immigration detention. The only reason that we know about the death of Lucia Vega Jimenez who died in December 2013 while in CBSA care in Vancouver, is that her family came forward to the press. CBSA hid the information about her death from the public for weeks. Furthermore, it is important to note that one-third of all immigration detainees are held in maximum security provincial correctional facilities.1 Holding these individuals in prisons is highly problematic considering that they are not serving a criminal sentence but rather are being held because they are inadmissible to Canada or suspected to be inadmissible. While some may be inadmissible because of criminality, they have already served their criminal sentence in Canada and are held in immigration detention while awaiting deportation. The consequences of detention are far reaching and those who are making detention determinations should be held accountable to an independent body.
One of the presenting refugee lawyers at CARL noted that advocating for non-citizens who have criminality in their past is an uphill battle because there is a moral judgement made that somehow these individuals as less worthy to be in Canada and that perhaps their treatment within the system is justified. Yet, as he astutely noted, human rights are supposed to mean that even if you are stigmatized, you also deserve the protection of your human dignity. Arguably, everyone in Canada, regardless of immigration status, deserves to be treated with respect. Canada is doing a poor job of protecting the human dignity of non-citizens and CBSA oversight is one piece of this problem.
My colleagues and I presented our case for CBSA oversight to MPs this week with the goal that they will consider our request. An oversight body for the CBSA would bring more transparency to the agency and hopefully increase safety for non-citizens. I am optimistic that our efforts will make a change. Regardless, my weekend at CARL Lobbycon reminded me that as a law student, I am in a position of privilege and it is my responsibility to use my growing skills to keep pushing for the rights of the most marginalized among us.