Canada 'failed' latest victim of alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur, migrant workers groups say

The alleged murder of a Sri Lankan refugee claimant has several migrant worker groups calling on the federal government to make what they say are long overdue changes to Canada's immigration laws.

Death of refugee claimant Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, highlights need for change to immigration system

Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam's death provides harsh lessons on the exploitation of Canada's immigration system that leaves migrants vulnerable, advocates say. (Suthakaran Thanigasalam)

The alleged murder of a Sri Lankan refugee claimant has several migrant worker groups calling on the federal government to make what they say are long overdue changes to Canada's immigration laws.

Accused serial killer Bruce McArthur is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam. The 37-year-old fled the civil war in Sri Lanka eight years ago. Police believe he was killed in late 2015. 

McArthur, 66, is already facing first-degree murder charges in connection with the deaths of seven other men — many of whom are of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent and are from vulnerable communities. 

Law makes migrants vulnerable

The circumstances of Kanagaratnam's arrival in Canada, which a CBC Toronto investigation uncovered last week, has members of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Workers Action Centre and the Caregivers' Action Centre imagining what might have been different for McArthur's latest alleged victim if the Canadian government granted permanent resident status more readily.

Syed Hussan, coordinator of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, described his anger and frustration with Kanagaratnam's death in an interview with CBC Toronto. 

"The first thing that happened to him was he was imprisoned and the last thing that happened to him was that he was murdered," Hussan said.

Nearly 500 Sri Lankan asylum seekers were brought to shore off the B.C. coast in August 2010 after a three-month journey from Thailand on the MV Sun Sea.

Kanagaratnam was one of 492 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the MV Sun Sea, a cargo ship brought to shore off the B.C. coast in August 2010. 

The passengers claimed refugee status due to the armed conflict between the Sri Lankan government and Tamil fighters, but were detained on suspicion that some of them had links to the Tamil Tigers terrorist organization.

The first thing that happened to him was he was imprisoned and the last thing that happened to him was that he was murdered.- Syed   Hussan , Migrant Workers Alliance for Change

Family members previously told CBC Toronto they believe Kanagaratnam went into hiding after the Canadian government denied his refugee application. Kanagaratnam's mother, Santhanaladchumy, says she last spoke to him in August 2015. Homicide investigators believe Kanagaratnam was killed between early September and mid-December — weeks after his family stopped receiving daily phone calls. 

"Every step of the way, Canadian law, Canadian society and the government failed him," Hussan said. 

He believes the problem was a result of current immigration rules that were created by Liberal and Conservative governments over the years and allow for a precarious temporary status.

The last time Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam's family heard from him was in August 2015. Toronto police believe he was killed by alleged serial killer Bruce McArthur weeks later. (Suthakaran Thanigasalam)

The result, he explains, is "vulnerability on top of vulnerability, that's neither moral nor just. I don't think that's the society any of us want to live in."

Hussan listed a number of sectors he believed are affected by instability, including farm workers, caregivers, other refugee claimants and international students.

Most of these, he said, come through the temporary foreign workers program, which according to the government website, "Allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available."

'Exploitation' built into immigration system

In 2017, there were 46,520 temporary foreign workers through the program as compared to a high of 115,940 in 2009. Canada admitted 286,465 permanent residents last year. 

Anna Malla of the Caregivers Action Centre said among the centre's 1,800 members issues, such as workers paid less than minimum wage, not being paid for overtime and even violence, stem "from precarious immigration status."

She asserts many are afraid to ask for help because they don't believe they have the same access to social services as permanent residents.

With the temporary "immigration system there's exploitation built into that," she said.

At the Workers Action Centre, Deena Ladd said: "Canada has moved to a system of less and less folks being able to come into Canada with status and the ability to have citizenship and moving into supporting themselves and their family in the way that they would love to."

Here was somebody who had fallen through the cracks.- Ram Selvarajah, Tamil Workers Network

​Ladd added her own family would have been excluded from immigrating to Canada in 1987 under current rules. Her father was a mechanic and mother an office worker, it was "easier to come in through the points system. Now it would be virtually impossible."

There's a harsh lesson in Kanagaratnam's death, she said.

"What workers need is the ability to come to this country with dignity and respect just as my family did, just as generations upon generations of people have come to this country and were able to get status and not be held in limbo."

'How did we let this happen?'

Most recently, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said it was time to change the 40-year-old policy regarding medical inadmissibility rules for immigrants.

Under the revised policy, newcomers won't be denied permanent residency if they or any of their children have developmental delays, special education requirements, or a hearing or visual impairment.

Last year, former Conservative leadership candidate Dr. Kellie Leitch vowed to deport asylum seekers caught sneaking into Canada after hundreds crossed the border near Emerson and Manitoba RCMP took them into custody.

But in the recent case of Kanagaratnam, there's more of a dubious legacy according to Ram Selvarajah, a community activist with the Tamil Workers Network.

"Here was somebody who had fallen through the cracks," he said. 

"The community is struggling to figure out how do we support this. How did we let this happen right under our nose?"

About the Author

Stephanie Matteis

Stephanie Matteis is a senior reporter with CBC News, filing stories for television, radio & online. She's a pathological truthteller and storytelling junkie whose work appears on CBC Toronto, The National and Marketplace. Contact Stephanie: stephanie.matteis@cbc.ca and @CBCsteph on Twitter.

With files from Nicole Brockbank, Natasha MacDonald-Dupuis