02/17/2019 16:47 EST | Updated 02/17/2019 16:52 EST

Outrage Builds Against 'Discriminatory' Parent and Grandparent Sponsorship Program

Some say the process amounted to little more than a typing competition.

Re-thinking Canadian Parents and Grandparents Immigration Program/Facebook
One of the images designed by a member of the Facebook group

As an only child, the burden of responsibility on Penny Li to care for her aging parents is particularly heavy. When Li, 31, finally became a Canadian citizen last year — eight years after she began a University of Saskatchewan master's program and secured a lucrative living in the commodity trading industry — finding a way to bring her mother and father closer was the first thing on her wish list.

Health concerns and imminent retirement made frequent travel financially and physically precarious for the couple. Li dreamed of her parents coming to Canada for more than six months at a time — the stretch allotted for visits on a temporary visa.

Just before the immigration department's brand-new Parent and Grandparent (PGP) sponsorship site was set to go live on Jan. 28 — a departure from last year's controversial lottery system — Li assembled her documents, double-checked her Wi-Fi connection and anxiously awaited her shot.

The first hurdle was to successfully submit an "interest to sponsor" form, which would be added to a pile of 27,000 on a first-come, first-serve basis. Later, those 27,000 people would be vetted for eligibility and invited to apply for one of 20,000 spots available this year.

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Saskatoon resident Penny Li hoped to sponsor her parents through the 2019 Parent and Grandparent sponsorship program. She says the process was discriminatory and poorly designed.

Li felt like she was bidding on concert tickets. When the form appeared at 12 p.m. EST, she diligently filled in all the required information. Although after-the-fact corrections could be submitted via email, the government advised that the process would take around 10 minutes. She was confident she had plenty of time to get it right the first time, and figured it was wrong to submit an incomplete or mistake-riddled form to the government.

But when Li hit "submit," a notification informed her that the 27,000 quota had been filled and the program was closed. It had been nine minutes since the site had gone live.

"It was devastating," Li said. "I was in complete shock, because I had done everything exactly as they told me to."

Li wasn't alone. Messages of disappointment began to bubble up on social media. Some people reported receiving the same message around the same time, others said they could not access the form at all.

I was in complete shock because I had done everything exactly as they told me to.Penny Li, would-be sponsor

More than 100,000 people attempted to access the interest to sponsor form at noon on Jan. 28, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said in a statement. In response to the mounting complaints, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) said there was no evidence of technical issues, and that the number of would-be sponsors simply exceeded the number of spots available for them.

"It is important to note that the Department did extensive testing to ensure systems were able to handle the volume," Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Hussen, told HuffPost Canada. "In addition, IRCC also implemented anti-bot features in order to ensure that submissions received were legitimate."

Justin Tang/CP
Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen in Ottawa on Feb. 4, 2019.

Li was dissatisfied with the government's response, so she took to Facebook where a group for failed applicants began to organize within hours of the form closing. Concerns in the Re-thinking Canadian Parents and Grandparents Immigration Program group included discrimination on the basis of physical typing ability and digital savvy, superior English or French language comprehension and access to reliable and fast internet — none of which are criteria for sponsorship itself.

Natalia Korobkova, who works for global nonprofit World Vision International, is one of the group's administrators. She is managing the group's petition and helping organize a series of protests across the country set to take place Monday — which is Family Day in many provinces, coincidentally.

"People lost out in a huge way because of the government's poor design and communication," Korobkova said. She was not able to submit the sponsorship form for her grandmother in Russia and her mother in Costa Rica. "There was the assumption that you should be very detailed and accurate and take your time, like every government form, but that was not the case. In fact, it was simply a competition of who could type the fastest."

People lost out in a huge way because of the government's poor design and communication.Natalia Korobkova, organizer

Vancouver lawyer Will Tao believes there is a solid case to be made under Sec. 15. (1) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees equality rights "without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability." His firm has stepped in to represent 30 complainants in a motion to stop IRCC from further processing.

His firm, Edelmann & Co., was approached by two people whose physically disabilities barred them from fully participating: one person with a temporary hand injury and another who is dyslexic. The firm is trying to cover one of these clients through their pro bono funds.

The government has not responded directly to the petition or the pending legal action.

"They are taking a wait-and-see approach," Tao said. "They won't rush to follow-up because they think this will cool off. But the momentum is growing."

Some applicants paid for outside representation

Some would-be sponsors also hired outside law firms to fill the form on their behalf. While the practice was not explicitly prohibited by the government, Li felt it stacked the chances of success in favour of those with cash to spare.

"If you don't ban that [the use of outside representation] outright, it's discriminatory against people who don't have the means to hire professionals who speak perfect English or French, and can fill out legal forms very fast," she said.

Li found several ads on Chinese social media app WeChat offering clients a range of services in relation to PGP sponsorship, including filling out and submitting the form.

It is unclear, however, whether hiring outside helped put an applicant ahead of the curb: Toronto-based lawyer Wennie Lee told the Toronto Star only half of her firm's clients were able to submit applications.

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Problems with the PGP program are not new. But the Liberals have made family reunification a centrepiece of their immigration platform, and protesters charge the program's shortcomings don't square with that commitment.

"The majority of people who are protesting are Canadian citizens for many years," Korobkova said. "But we are considered second-rate compared to Canadians whose families are already in the country."

"The more years pass, the more immigrants will be welcome to Canada, the more immigrants will want to live fulfilled lives with their families," she added. "How do we ensure that all Canadians are equal? How do we ensure social cohesion? These are the questions the government must answer."

So far, the government is staying tight-lipped about any possible changes to next year's PGP program.

"While IRCC regularly reviews its programs, policies and procedures to assess whether changes or improvements should be made, no formal review of the program is being done at this time," Genest said in an email to HuffPost. "It is too early to speculate on any future program or policy changes."

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