Nova Scotia 1st province to stop imprisoning migrants

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia became the first province to stop locking up migrants in its provincial jails who were detained for administrative reasons by the Canada Border Services Agency.

Federal government has yet to decide what will happen to immigration detainees

A hall of jail cells.
Cells are seen during a media tour of renovations at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility in Halifax. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Earlier this month, Nova Scotia became the first province to stop locking up migrants in its provincial jails who were being detained for administrative reasons by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA).

The Nova Scotia Department of Justice confirmed to Radio-Canada/CBC that it ended this practice on Aug. 8, 2023.

"This is very good news," said Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic.

"A person who is in distress and who comes here seeking protection and refuge should not be deprived of their freedom and human rights", she said.

Foreign nationals detained by CBSA under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act are not accused of a crime. The vast majority have been detained because CBSA believes they will not appear for immigration processes such as a removal.

Feds still have no plan as other provinces follow suit

Provinces must generally give Ottawa a year's notice to rescind their contracts, under which they are paid to imprison immigration detainees.

As agreements are about to expire in several provinces, including Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia and Quebec, the federal government still has no alternative plan for the migrants.

The new federal Minister of Public Safety responsible for CBSA, Dominic LeBlanc, is echoing the same message as his predecessor, Marco Mendicino.

In response to Radio-Canada/CBC's queries, his office continues to say that it is working with the provinces "to further reduce the use of immigration detention and identify lasting solutions."

Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc is sworn in at Rideau Hall.
In July’s cabinet shuffle, Dominic LeBlanc was named Public Safety Minister, replacing Marco Mendicino. (The Canadian Press/Adrian Wyld)

However, Radio-Canada/CBC has learned that CBSA has obtained an extension to its agreement with Manitoba, as it did previously with other provinces.

Manitoba, which said it would stop imprisoning migrants as of Jan. 1, 2024, has agreed to push back its deadline to April 1, 2024, according to its justice department.

The lack of a plan or of a clear message from the federal government is "worrisome," says Chamagne.

She fears this could lead to an even more "unfair and random" system where border officers could transfer many immigration detainees to jails elsewhere in the country, away from their loved ones, lawyers and community.

She says that in the months preceding the end of the agreement with Nova Scotia, some migrants were transferred to jails in New Brunswick.

A woman in a black jacket faces right as she speaks to the camera.
Julie Chamagne, executive director of the Halifax Refugee Clinic, is happy to see some provinces rescinding their immigration detention agreements with Ottawa, but is worried the federal government still has no transition plan. (Robert Short/CBC)

Proposed solution

Chamagne believes that community organizations such as the one she oversees are best placed to take care of migrants while their cases are being processed and help them find housing, legal services and psychological help.

"We are calling on the federal government to reallocate resources that were going to correctional facilities," she said.

Nova Scotia received about $400 a day for each immigration detainee —$12,000 a month — according to a Human Rights Watch report.

Between 2015 and 2020, across the country, roughly a quarter of the 8,000 migrants detained on average each year by CBSA were sent to provincial jails.

By 2021-2022, the number of immigration detainees had fallen to about 3,000, but close to a quarter of them were still being held in provincial jails. The others were mostly detained in one of the three federal immigration holding centres, in Laval (Québec), Toronto and Surrey (BC).


Brigitte Bureau is an award-winning investigative reporter with Radio-Canada. You can reach her by email: