Canada 'working very hard' to curb number of migrant children held in detention

While Canada's handling of asylum seekers is "obviously already better than the American system," there's room for improvement, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says.

While 'obviously already better than the American system,' practices here could be better, Ralph Goodale says

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says the federal government wants the refugee and immigration to be secure, 'but also humane and compassionate.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The Canadian government is taking steps to further reduce the number of migrant children and families held in detention centres, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale says.

"The numbers are low in Canada, but they are getting lower," Goodale told CBC News.

"We're working very hard to make sure that our system is as secure as it needs to be, but also humane and compassionate."

Goodale said Canada's handling of asylum seekers is "obviously already better than the American system," but he acknowledged it could be improved.

Human rights advocates have for years called on Canada to eliminate its practice of holding asylum seekers in detention centres, which are surrounded by barbed wire and resemble medium-security prisons.

A total of 595 minors have been detained at Canadian immigration holding centres in the past three years. Of those, 43 were unaccompanied by an adult, according to the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

U.S. policy 'heart-wrenching'

The U.S. adopted a policy in April of separating children from their parents after illegally crossing from Mexico. More than 2,000 children were affected.

President Donald Trump abruptly reversed the policy Wednesday in the face of intense international pressure.

Goodale called the U.S. practice "heart-wrenching," echoing comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a day earlier.

"You can barely imagine the kind of anguish that parents go through and then put yourself in the position of a four year old," he said, in an interview on CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

"Like the PM said, it is simply wrong, and that's not how we conduct ourselves in Canada."

Immigrant children are led by staff in single file between tents at a detention facility next to the Mexican border in Tornillo, Texas, earlier this week. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

In Canada, immigration detention is only used when there are serious concerns about flight risk, an individual being unidentified or a danger to the public.

Last November, Goodale issued a ministerial directive to the CBSA to keep children out of detention and keep families together "as much as humanly possible."

The number of children in detention has dropped slightly under the Liberal government, though it is on pace to rise again this year.

Two years ago, the federal government announced a $138-million plan to improve the situation, including upgrades to the three immigration centres in Toronto, Vancouver and Laval, Que.

New measures coming

The CBSA will be announcing alternatives to detention in the coming weeks, such community detention, which allows families to live on their own with the requirement of regularly reporting to authorities.

Goodale also said there are plans to introduce legislation to ensure greater oversight of the treatment of detainees in the holding centres.

The Canadian government is upgrading its immigration holding centres, including this one in Laval, Que., as part of a five-year, $138-million plan. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Rachel Kronick, psychiatry professor at McGill University who spent six months conducting research at the Laval detention centre, said the environment is "wholly unsuitable for children."

"Children are held in medium-security style prisons where they are constantly monitored by guards, where their personal effects are confiscated, where they don't have adequate education or access to what they need for normal development," she said.

She credited the federal government with making an effort to change policy so that fewer children are detained, but said more could be done.

Kronick is among a group of experts gathered at McGill this week for a conference on migrant detention. The group prepared a joint statement calling for an end to the detention of child migrants in Canada.

While she said what's happening in the United States was far more troubling, Kronick said, "We have to remain cognizant that we too do harm to children, and we don't protect them enough."

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler

Journalist

Benjamin Shingler covers politics, immigration and social issues for CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

With files from Daybreak and Brian Lapuz