03/11/2014 12:38 EDT | Updated 05/11/2014 05:59 EDT

Minister Chris Alexander Cried Last Week, But Not for These Women

The new citizenship and immigration minister, Chris Alexander, delivered a speech last week, the day before International Women's Day. The surprising part was just short of the end, when Alexander paused, stared down at the podium. He was crying. But Alexander and his government created a fast refugee system, not a fair one.

The last minister of citizenship and immigration could be counted upon to deliver a few surprises in a speech. Whether an unexpected policy announcement or the subtler form of policy-making, new rhetoric like "bogus refugees," a Jason Kenney appearance was something of a wild card.

The new minister, Chris Alexander, delivered a speech last week, the day before International Women's Day. Some views were bland but the kind you still want your immigration minister to say: Violence against women will not be tolerated; immigrant women are building the country. The rest of his views were expected. The surprising part was just short of the end, when Alexander paused, stared down at the podium, and finally managed his last few sentences in a wobbly voice. He was crying.

It was a touching moment because Alexander's young daughter was in the room, and the trigger phrase was about girls growing up without fear and achieving anything. But that's just a guess. He could have been thinking about the community of Canadian women with Afghan heritage, who Alexander and his wife have befriended on return from his diplomatic post in Kabul. Or maybe an immigrant and mother, who Alexander evoked earlier, who was murdered by her husband.

To these candidates, I want to add three women who escaped violence in their home countries, who are every bit as full of ambition as any Canadian-born child. They are refugees living in Canada and these are true stories.

First is a woman from Afghanistan, and her story will be familiar to Alexander. She was among the first women to go back to work under the Taliban after 1996. Her career progressed quickly, she learned English on the job, and she left her abusive and drug-addicted husband, who didn't want her employed. International organizations vied for her talent, especially those working on women's rights. It was dangerous work since the Taliban made most foreigners enemies, and certainly those who promoted women's rights. She began to receive anonymous threats -- from husband? Taliban? She lived alone and in a war zone, a "locally engaged staff" outside the security detail enveloping foreign workers. She asked a brother to book her ticket to douse family or Taliban suspicion of her departure, and she boarded a plane to Canada.

Second is a woman from Hungary, a Roma. Her family lived with racism for so many generations it was a conversation point if a non-Roma was polite. She was a street vendor and racist insults by passersby were routine. Worse was seeing her young daughter treated as a second-class girl by teachers and lighter-skinned peers. Worse still was the rise of neo-Nazi thugs whose hate chants were echoed by elected politicians, but who did the dirty work of attacking Roma families themselves. She and her husband sold their belongings and, with their two daughters, boarded a plane to Canada.

Third is a woman from Israel. She was raised in a patriarchal, insulated, honour-driven tribe in the desert. She was sometimes permitted to go to school, but missed many days because of severe beating for this or that lapse of honour. She managed to finish high school which meant she had to next enlist in the national service. The contacts she made through the army with the outside world of Israelis ended up saving her life. She refused an arranged marriage with a man over twice her age. Beating worse than she'd ever received did not change her mind, so the men in her family decided to kill her. She knew the date of her planned murder and narrowly escaped to Tel Aviv with the help of army friends. She boarded a plane to Canada.

But it is unlikely that Alexander was thinking of these women or others like them because they are refugees, and the less privileged class of refugees, called inland claimants. All three women eventually won the right to stay in Canada. And although each had a legal right to claim asylum, these women belong to the group who Alexander and other federal ministers have indirectly labeled "bogus refugees." The ministers have done this by stigmatizing the whole population of asylum claimants as "bogus" and by neglecting to caveat the rights and protections granted to those who arrive in Canada seeking protection.

Lawyers Audrey Macklin and Lorne Waldman wrote, "Minister [Kenney] has done an excellent job of relentlessly vilifying refugees, and of encouraging us to believe that he 'knows' that they are all bogus by the fact of their arrival." The label is almost laughably deceptive, it's like calling all applicants to university "bogus students" before they are either declined or accepted.

Canada's refugee system has been reengineered to this malign way of thinking. On arrival in Canada if they landed today, all three of the women above, from Afghanistan, Hungary, and Israel, would be badly hit by the changes that came into effect just over one year ago, in December 2012. A sampling of the impacts:

1. All three required primary health care upon arrival. Under the new system, they would have far more limited health coverage. The Afghan had stomach pain upon arrival and would have to pay for her own medication. The Israeli had a bad tooth and would have to pay to get it pulled. The Hungarian was pregnant while her claim was being decided, and today, not only would she have no prenatal care, but she would have no care for other health problems that pop up during pregnancy unless the sickness was a public health or security concern.

2. All would have found the new timelines between asylum claim and asylum hearing nearly, if not totally, impossible to fairly argue her case. The new period before a hearing is a maximum of 60 days but as low as 30 days for nationals of a so-called safe country, officially a 'designated country of origin' (DCO). Hungary and Israel are DCOs so these women would have between 30-45 days to gather evidence.

The Hungarian would have to balance meeting basic needs of her family and ignoring the psychological turmoil of escape and culture shock, with writing to her extended family, some of whom have low literacy, with appeals for testimony. The Israeli would have no witnesses because she had to protect the identity of those who helped her escape, she was in hiding herself so could not simply post a letter to Israel, and she had zero method for reaching her nomadic family even if she wanted to.

3. Two of the women, from Hungary and Israel, were unsuccessful at their first hearing. They were allowed to stay in Canada, respectively, on humanitarian and compassionate grounds, and on successful appeal of the first, wrong decision. Under the new system, neither woman would be able to appeal. People from DCOs do not have that right. They would be deported very fast.

Alexander and his government created a fast refugee system, but not a fair one. So no, he was not crying over women like these. If he was, we wouldn't be in this mess.


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