The council that oversees thousands of immigration consultants in Canada is in the midst of what many describe as a crisis, beset by resignations, infighting and harsh criticism from lawmakers and lawyers.

The chief concern about the apparent crisis confronting the ICCRC (Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council) is that those who will suffer most are the immigrants and refugees who often use consultants in their efforts to live in Canada.

The regulatory council, which was set up in 2011,  sets the rules for how immigration consultants conduct themselves, providing education, licensing and discipline. It's needed to help and protect those who want to come to Canada, overseeing approximately 4,000 consultants. It is run by a 15-member board of directors.

"The council is there to protect the public," said immigration lawyer Richard Kurland. "It's not going after the crooked consultants adequately and at risk is the public — the immigrants, refugees and vulnerable visitors."

Everyone agrees that most immigration consultants do a good job of representing their clients.

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Conservative MP Michelle Rempel discusses refugee border crossings near Emerson, Man., on May 5. Rempel says she is 'deeply, deeply concerned about the status of operations and governance' of the agency that oversees immigration consultants. (Trevor Hagan/Canadian Press)

"I am deeply, deeply concerned about the status of operations and governance with the board (of directors) right now," said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel, a member of the Commons immigration committee that has been looking into the immigration consultant industry.

When board representatives appeared before the committee last month, Rempel upbraided them for allowing internal disputes to spill over into their professional work, labelling one letter submitted to the committee by the board of directors "garbage" that was "deeply disappointing."

ICCRC board chair Christopher Daw told committee members in March that the council "is fulfilling its mandate to protect consumer by effectively regulating the immigration and citizenship consulting profession."

No one from the ICCRC's executive would agree to an interview, but acting president and CEO Lawrence Barker did respond to written questions.

'Turnover can be challenging'

In an email Barker defended the organization, says it is "financially sound." 

"With respect to governance, the board of directors is elected by the membership and the resulting turnover can be challenging at times," said Barker, noting the agency is undertaking a review of the way it's governed.

The parliamentary committee is considering what changes to recommend to the government. The suggestions range from retooling the council to having the government take over regulation of the industry to scrapping it, allowing only lawyers or public servants to deal with immigrant and refugee clients.

Asked for a comment, Jennifer Bourque, a spokeswoman for the Immigration Department, told CBC News in an email: 

"The department is following this issue carefully. We remain confident that the ICCRC will resolve any internal issues. The department is in regular contact with the ICCRC and there are reporting requirements that the ICCRC must follow. The department will continue to monitor and will provide support as necessary."

Ryan Dean

Former board member Ryan Dean was removed by a narrow vote in April. Dean, who is appealing his removal, said he asked questions about the council's finances and its complaints process and could not get answers. (Steven D'Souza/CBC)

Since the beginning of the year, five of the council's 15 directors have resigned. Another, Ryan Dean, was removed by a narrow vote in April. Dean was elected to the board last fall. 

According to a notice the board sent to members on May 1, Dean was removed because he was "unfit for service on the board."  It accused Dean of "bullying and intimidation."

'This is about making sure we take care of our immigrant situation because it's such a big issue.' — Ryan Dean, ousted board member

Dean, who is appealing his removal, said the problem is not him. He said he asked questions about the council's finances and its complaints process and could not get answers.

"What happens to me doesn't matter at all," Dean said in an interview. "This is about doing the right thing for Canada. This is about making sure we take care of our immigrant situation because it's such a big issue."

Copies of letters and council documents obtained by CBC News show some directors who resigned were concerned about how the council was being run.

Debbie Douglas left halfway through a two-year term as a public interest director.

In her resignation letter in January, she wrote that the council "went from one crisis to another" over the previous year. The "practice of governance, its relationship with members and the backroom dealings that appear to be status quo are in opposition to my values of equity and transparency."

Debbie Douglas letter

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Another director, Paul Fisher, resigned even before taking his seat, according to a bulletin sent to members of the council from the board citing "unacceptable conduct and bullying." Fisher refused a request for an interview, citing a confidentiality agreement.

Ali Belbachir submitted his resignation in April, in part to protest the removal of Dean. In his resignation letter, Belbachir also said he realized he "could not be effective in a climate of crisis, with a lack of communication and information."

Ming Kun 'Makkie' Wu and Jin 'Fanny' Ma

Ming Kun 'Makkie' Wu, left, and Jin 'Fanny' Ma leave a Vancouver courthouse in April. They received 18-month sentences and will have to pay large fines for their roles in the province's biggest immigration fraud scheme. The women are former employees of New Can Consultants. (Jason Proctor)

Critics believe none of these roiling controversies helps the board focus on its core job: ensuring that the 4,000 consultants do their jobs properly and effectively. 

In an email, Barker, the acting president and CEO, said the council received 2,689 complaints between June of 2011 and June of 2016, just over half against licensed consultants . 

Daw, the chair, testified before the immigration committee that the disciplinary process is "robust."

Bar association intervenes

In its submission to the Commons immigration committee, the Canadian Bar Association's immigration section said the "prevailing trends of misconduct and numbers of unscrupulous consultants have not changed substantially over time — and there continue to be serious questions about whether immigration consultants are capable of self-regulation, even with significantly revamped oversight."

The CBA section said it is withdrawing its qualified support for immigration consultants after 20 years, and wants only lawyers to represent clients.

The ICCRC's Barker said that the CBA is promoting the interests of lawyers. Despite the criticism, he said, the agency welcomes input from the government.

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Seized passports and stamps used in an immigration scam by New Can Consulting are displayed by Canada Border Services Agency. (CBSA)

The youngest member of the board is defending her profession. Gabrielle Fredette-Fortin voiced some of her frustrations to the immigration committee earlier this month, noting that lawyers blame consultants for bad service and consultants blame lawyers.

"We must give the regulated immigration consultant profession the respect it deserves," said Fredette-Fortin, who was elected last fall on a promise to change the way the council does its work.

Dean and Kurland believe it may be time for the government to take over the running of the council, at least temporarily.

"Not a lot of choices. Scrap everything, hand everything over to the lawyers again. Or bring in an outsider to fix the everything," said Kurland.

The immigration committee is studying those options, according to Rempel, who recalls that former Conservative immigration minister Jason Kenney created the council in 2011 because of concerns about the previous regulator involving a lack of accountability and transparency and questions about financial management.

"It's been an issue for many years. It's been an issue across governments," said Rempel.