Edmonton

Convicted Edmonton business owner seeks appeal on immigration charges

An Edmonton business owner says he was not given proper legal counsel before pleading guilty to charges under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. Now Bujar Rushiti is asking for the opportunity to appeal his case.

Bujar Rushiti argues he was given ineffective legal counsel prior to 2018 guilty pleas

Bujar Rushiti appeared in court Thursday backed by dozens of supporters including his wife Shqipe. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

An Edmonton business owner who says he was not given proper legal counsel before pleading guilty to charges under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act now wants to appeal his case.

Bujar Rushiti, 39, was convicted in June 2018 of communicating false information to induce immigration and providing wages that were substantially less favourable than offered.

On Thursday, Rushiti asked to appeal those criminal convictions at the Court of Appeal of Alberta, backed by dozens of family members, employees, friends and a local advocacy group who packed the gallery.

In a signed affidavit, Rushiti says the offences revolved around the employment of six temporary foreign workers who arrived from Kosovo in May 2013. 

Justice Kevin Feehan reserved his decision after hearing submissions from Crown prosecutor Shelley Tkatch and defence lawyer Anthony Oliver.

'Incorrect legal advice'

Oliver argued Rushiti had not been told he was pleading guilty to criminal offences or that the convictions would prevent him from adopting or travelling abroad.

"He's not guilty. He wants the chance to be heard and that was denied," Oliver told the judge as supporters nodded in agreement. "He was induced into the plea by incorrect legal advice."

An appeal is supposed to be filed within a month of a conviction but Oliver said circumstances, such as the amount of time it took to access legal counsel and disclosure, should warrant an exception.

Oliver said Rushiti's former lawyer said an appeal was not possible. He played audio in which the lawyer can be heard telling Rushiti's wife: "You cannot appeal … There's nothing left to fight."

But Tkatch argued Rushiti was experiencing regret after the fact, and there was no evidence he had been misinformed. 

She cited an affidavit that said the plea was the result of pressure from his wife. Tkatch said Rushiti had the assistance of experienced counsel and court was only hearing one side of the story.

"I urge the court to hold these kinds of allegations with caution," said Tkatch. "It's just that he doesn't like this and he regrets that now."

She described the offence as akin to human trafficking, which Oliver disputed.
Bujar Rushiti and his lawyer Anthony Oliver leave the courthouse Thursday. (Andrea Huncar/CBC)

Court heard Rushiti escaped a war zone in Kosovo nearly two decades ago. He became a Canadian citizen and launched a granite business in 2003. When faced with a labour shortage four years later, Rushiti began recruiting workers from Kosovo.

On June 29, 2018, Rushiti was sentenced to a two-year conditional sentence in the community. 

Outside the courtroom Thursday, Rushiti said the case has had disastrous consequences for his wife and children, as well as his company Pristine Granite and his employees.

"It's had a big, big impact," Rushiti said. "I've been focused on clearing my name."

CBSA investigation questioned

The case raises concerns about the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) investigation, Oliver said in an interview.

A prior business partner who oversaw payroll was ignored during the investigation and there is evidence witnesses were offered an open work permit in exchange for testimony, Oliver said, citing affidavits entered in court.

Dustin Ritz, one of 14 employees who used to work for Rushiti was among his supporters in the gallery. In his two years of employment, he said he and his colleagues were treated well.

"All the guys were very happy to work there," Ritz said. "He was pushed into pleading guilty…It was his dream to run that company and they ran it right out of business."