Opposition MPs are accusing the Liberal government of failing to protect immigrants from fraudsters and predators as it swings Canada's door open to more newcomers.
In a formal response to a sweeping study by MPs on the immigration committee tabled four months ago, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said the government is "seized" with issues related to inadequate protection from unprofessional or unethical practitioners, and conceded a strong system of oversight is essential.
But he did not commit to any of the committee's 21 recommendations, saying only that the government will carry out further study and expects to provide more information on a path forward next year.
"Given the complexity and inter-dependencies of the issues, the impact on public confidence, on clients and authorized immigration and citizenship consultants, the government will carefully consider the committee's report and undertake a thorough analysis of key recommendations before determining how these issues could be addressed successfully," his response reads.
A disappointed Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel said the response amounts to "typical inertia."
"There are very substantive proposals on the table on how to manage this, and the government really just needs to make a decision and implement it," she told CBC News. "The fact they're not willing to do it suggests a sort of paralysis on their part, and that's to the detriment of people who are being exploited."
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Rempel said it is even more critical that the government crack down on predators in the context of its aggressive immigration strategy.
"We tried self-governance. Clearly, that's failed," she said. "I'm willing to say the approach we tried failed, twice, and it's really now up to the Liberal government to do something, and the status quo is not going to cut it."
In the spring, the Commons immigration committee carried out weeks of hearings on unregistered representatives often called "ghost" or "crooked" consultants, hearing heart-wrenching stories from clients who were ripped off for thousands of dollars, or brought to Canada with the promise of work only to be dumped at the side of the road or left in a warehouse.
In all, the committee heard from 50 witnesses and read 24 written submissions before submitting a unanimous report recommending a radical overhaul of how immigration consultants are regulated in Canada. It called for the disbanding of the existing council and the creation of an independent, government-regulated body to oversee immigration consultants.
Committee's 21 recommendations
MPs on the panel also urged the government to raise awareness in foreign countries about unauthorized agents, and that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada improve the call centre to provide basic information in languages most commonly used by prospective immigrants.
Other recommendations included:
- The new regulatory body develop a system of tiered licensing for categories of services individual consultants are allowed to provide.
- The new body should have investigative and disciplinary powers when an immigration consultant fails to meet standards of learning, professional competence or conduct, and also be encouraged to engage in public education about the profession and engage in dispute resolution over fees.
- The government should provide enough funding for Canada Border Services Agency to investigate complaints about ghost consultants, and that fines and penalties be reviewed and increased.
- The government should provide more financial support to settlement agencies to provide basic immigration services.
'Very reasonable' response
Dory Jade, CEO of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants, called Hussen's response "very reasonable." He said it shows the government did not jump to conclusions based on witness testimony that does not fully represent what is happening on the ground.
"My only concern was that the government would lay down a road map with timelines, which I don't think they did and that is great," he said. "Because that will leave all options open for the minister and at the same time the stakeholders to put their input forward more adequately."
As part of his response, Hussen said until a plan is presented the government would expand outreach efforts to warn newcomers about potential exploitation.
But NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the issue is of "utmost urgency" and it is unacceptable that the government's response is to delay action for further study. While the larger structural changes could take time to implement, she said the government could implement "transitional" measures immediately, such as more funding for investigations and protections for complainants.
"There's no commitment that they will take action or even any real acknowledgement of the significance of the problems," she said. "At the very minimum, ensure there are protections in place for people who are being hurt by these unscrupulous actors."
Many immigrants do not report abuse because they fear it will jeopardize their applications, Kwan said.