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Fighting to change Canada's 'Draconian' immigration system

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Recent protest held at Christie Pits Park aims to stop amendments to Bill C-50

May 8, 2008 12:14 PM

Stories of unpaid wages, low pay, fear and intimidation and threats of detention and deportation are all too common for temporary foreign workers and workers without status in Canada, said Faria Kamal, spokesperson for No One is Illegal-Toronto.

On May 3, the community-based organization aimed to raise awareness of the plight of immigrant workers and of the proposed amendments to the Immigration and Protection Act Bill C-50 by way of the National Day of Action for Status held at Christie Pits Park. The protest was held in concert with similar events occurring in other Canadian cities. Marchers also congregated in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood, joining those at Christie Pits for the rally.

The proposed changes to Bill C-50 would give Ottawa the power to limit the number of immigration applications Canada accepts, deny admission to applicants already approved by immigration officers and block the entry of would-be immigrants "by category or otherwise".

Moreover, a Toronto daily reported federal Immigration Minister Diane Finley may be looking to transform the Canadian immigration system "into a lean, business-friendly recruitment tool".

Despite the soggy conditions, a couple hundred people including a number of citizens groups and workers unions gathered to rail against Canada's "racist immigration system." About two dozen police officers kept watch from the south side of Bloor Street West.

There's an estimated 200,000 people currently living in the Greater Toronto Area without status, Kamal said.

And No One is Illegal-Toronto said a pattern of escalating attacks has emerged on undocumented migrants since the Conservative government came to power in January 2006. She highlighted the arrests of high school students Kimberly and Gerald Lizano-Sossa in front of their classmates at Dante Alighieri Academy in North York in April 2006. The two were deported.

"In the case of Kimberly and Gerald Lizano-Sossa, it was the first time in Canadian history that federal immigration officials brazenly went into a school to arrest these students ... by doing so, they were using them as bait to get their parents to come out of hiding," she said. "Even in the U.S. you don't see that type of enforcement."

Thinking locally, one change No One is Illegal-Toronto is pushing for is a municipal Don't Ask Don't Tell (DADT) policy to prevent city workers from asking questions about an individual's immigration status. The idea is to ensure those without status could still access essential services such as health care, education, emergency services and social assistance without fear of reprimand. The Don't Ask Don't Tell policies originated stateside and have been implemented in more than 40 cities in the U.S. but no Canadian city has followed suit to date.

"For instance, if you go into a food bank, a library, or a community centre, (the staff at those locations) would be barred from asking people about their immigration status as a prerequisite to receiving that service," she said. "And if that same staff somehow learned of an individual's status, they would be barred from sharing that information."

If Toronto did establish a Don't Ask Don't Tell policy, it would also prevent immigration enforcement within its limits, she added. That's something Ontario Coalition Against Poverty strongly believes in.

"Most Canadians have no idea about the reality of our immigration system. There's a huge amount of misconceptions about immigrants and refugees or how easy it is for people to come here, when in fact there are shocking barriers for people to even arrive on Canadian soil," said Sarah Vance, a Parkdale resident and spokesperson for Ontario Coalition Against Poverty. "Given Canada's relative wealth ... we have a huge responsibility to allow people to enter this country and to remain and be safe here."

Adrian Roberts, a York University student and Little Italy resident, said she came to the rally with concerns that Canada has been moving toward a "Draconian" immigration policy.

"We're systematically excluding people who should be allowed to enter this country and then we criminalize them once they get here," she said. "I'm not sure if we've seen enough critique and knowledge being disseminated (regarding Bill C-50)."