Children, parents separated on arrival despite CBSA directive
Advocacy group says at least 182 children taken from a parent last year alone
Jean used to call Canada his "dream country," but his family's journey and eventual arrival here two years ago was nothing short of a nightmare.
After Jean arrived here seeking asylum, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) detained him and took away his children.
"I didn't want to leave my children. I said no. I cried, I cried," he said.
After fleeing violence in their home country, Jean, his wife Anna, their four-year-old son and two-year old daughter embarked on the long trek from Brazil to seek asylum in this country. A particularly arduous portion of that 20,000-kilometre migrant trail between Colombia and Panama is known as Death Road.
Radio-Canada has agreed to withhold their real names and country of origin because their asylum application is still being processed, and they fear reprisals if they're deported from Canada.
The family walked for days through the jungle without food or a compass. They lost everything when their personal belongings, including their travel documents, were washed away in a flash flood.
"There are no words to describe the fears we felt. We slept on the ground," Anna said.
When they finally reached Mexico, authorities there were giving priority to the most vulnerable heading to the U.S. and Canada. Jean convinced Anna, who was then more than seven months pregnant, to go on ahead, promising to join her in Canada with the children as soon as possible.
Anna finished the journey alone, arriving in Montreal 10 days before the rest of her family reached the Canada-U.S. border.
"When I arrived at the [Canadian] border I was afraid," Anna said. "I saw some women. They asked me if I had warm clothing for the cold weather. They gave me something to eat. The policeman was calm, nice. I said to myself, 'Wow, that's Canada. I made it.'"
The welcome her husband and children received at Roxham Road at Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., was very different.
'How can I leave my children?'
Because he lacked identity papers, Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) officers sent Jean to the immigration holding centre in Laval, Que., where he was detained. The children were sent to separate foster homes.
"The children were crying. They didn't want to go. It was torture," Jean recalled.
With no papers, Jean said CBSA officers didn't believe he was the children's father. He beseeched them to do a DNA test.
"How can I leave my children? I have travelled 20,000 kilometres with them," Jean told them. "I cried all night. I didn't know where my wife was, I was stressed out by the journey — imagine, my dream country!"
In Montreal, Anna soon learned what had happened to her family.
"It was like the ground was collapsing," she recalled. "I said, 'No, not my children. No, no, no, please give me back my children. You cannot kidnap a child."
2017 directive forbids separation
These events took place in 2018. According to a 2017 document titled National Directive for the Detention or Housing of Minors, CBSA must not separate or detain families except in extremely rare cases.
Yet according to new data from the group Action réfugiés Montréal, at least 182 children were separated from a parent detained in Laval last year alone. The organization, one of very few groups with rare access to the detainees at the Laval immigration centre, believes there are many more, because its numbers are based solely on families that requested its services.
Children were separated from their parents for weeks, sometimes longer.- Jenny Jeanes, Action réfugiés Montréal
"We were shocked to see children abruptly separated at the border," said Action réfugiés Montréal's Jenny Jeanes. "Children were separated from their parents for weeks, sometimes longer."
CBSA doesn't keep such statistics, a gap criticized by international organizations including Human Rights Watch.
Jeanes said Action réfugiés Montréal started keeping track of family separations when it became obvious that the 2017 CBSA directive, adopted by the Trudeau government to comply with international law, wasn't always being observed.
Minors also detained
Family separation takes different forms. Jeanes said she's witnessed many cases where the mother and children are released but the father is detained.
"Authorities seem to think it's better to do that than to house more children," she said. "But that doesn't take into account the suffering that separation can bring, and it goes against the national directive that puts emphasis on preserving the family unit."
The 2017 CBSA directive also says children shouldn't be kept in immigration detention centres, except as a last resort.
However, according to CBSA figures, that's exactly what happened to 138 minors during the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Most of the minors were accompanying a detained parent at the immigration centre in Laval.
Child welfare 'our top priority'
"The welfare of children has to be our top priority," said the office of Public Safety Minister Bill Blair, who oversees CBSA, in a response to Radio-Canada. "CBSA does not systematically separate children from their parents or legal guardians."
When CBSA does separate families, Blair's office said agents release children into the care of a parent, extended family or child welfare authorities. However, his office did not explain why so many children were separated from their parents last year.
Jean and Anna's children spent one night in foster care. With the help of different organizations, Anna, who had been staying at a YMCA in Montreal, was reunited with them the next day.
But Jean was kept in detention for close to a month, during which time Anna gave birth to their third child, alone.
"We started out our life here with fear in the pit of our stomach," she said.