Federal government quietly offered a settlement to halt lawsuits over immigration program

The federal government made a secret settlement to quash two lawsuits that claimed its contentious online application process to reunite immigrant families was flawed and unfair, CBC News has learned.

At least 70 applicants were given spots to sponsor parents, grandparents in return for dropping lawsuits

The federal government made a legal settlement to stop litigation over its contentious online application process for family reunification. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

The federal government made a secret settlement to quash two lawsuits that claimed its contentious online application process to reunite immigrant families was flawed and unfair, CBC News has learned.

To resolve the group litigation, the government awarded at least 70 coveted spots to applicants allowing them to sponsor their parents' or grandparents' immigration to Canada.

Legal actions were launched in Toronto and Vancouver after the widely criticized online application process went ahead on Jan. 28 — a process which left tens of thousands of people frustrated and furious because they couldn't access the form or fill it out fast enough.

The process opened at noon and closed less than nine minutes later.

A flurry of angry complaints erupted. Some said the sprint to file applications worked against those who couldn't fill them out quickly, such as people with disabilities or literacy issues, or those living in places with slow internet connections.

CBC News learned of the settlement through a legal source who was not directly involved in the lawsuits.

Lawyers who were involved in the settlement of the lawsuits, which included a non-disclosure agreement, declined to provide any details to CBC. There are no public court records on the settlement.

Immigration lawyer Mary Keyork said she was unaware of the legal settlement and called it "very unfair" to those who didn't know about the lawsuits, or couldn't afford to join them.

20,000 spots were available

"I think they're going to feel very disappointed and I think they're going to feel like they were cheated somehow," she said.

"As much as people who have means are entitled to go and get a lawyer and start procedures and fight for their rights ... when it happens personally to you, it's very painful, especially when you have people who have been trying to bring their parents here for many, many years."

This year, the federal government offered 20,000 spots for sponsoring parents or grandparents, and confirmed that more than 100,000 had attempted to access the online form to express interest.

A government official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the case, said the government opted to settle the legal challenges because the number of applicants was relatively small, because it included plaintiffs with disabilities and because a court proceeding could have suspended the entire set of applications.

Immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman — who said he also was unaware of the settlement — said the online application process was extremely problematic and opened up multiple grounds for legal challenges.

"Obviously, what the government's hope is ... that by settling it quickly and by keeping the matter secret, other people won't launch challenges as well," he said. "So they're trying to keep a cap on the number of people who will benefit from the legal challenge."

He said he expects that once people learn about the settlement, they'll seek similar concessions from Ottawa.

"When it's made public, it's basically an invitation to everybody else who didn't get a spot to commence an action and demand the same equal treatment," he said.

Waldman said the government ultimately must find a way to reform the program so that people are selected fairly, not arbitrarily.

Records from a federal court challenge filed in Toronto Feb. 12 by 13 applicants called the online registration process "so deeply flawed that thousands of interested parties, including the applicants ... were denied a reasonable opportunity to sponsor their parents for immigration to Canada."

'Arbitrary, unfair, unjust'

"The online registration process in both its design and implementation was arbitrary, capricious, procedurally unfair and unjust," the court document reads.

Dan Miller, the lawyer representing applicants seeking judicial review of the government's process, said he could not state if their case was related to the litigation. He would not discuss the matter except to say the case has been resolved.

The parent and grandparent sponsorship program has been plagued with problems for years.

The Liberal government moved to a first-come, first-served online application system this year after scrapping a controversial lottery system for reuniting immigrant families. The lottery system was contentious, with critics claiming it essentially gambled with peoples' lives.

The lottery process had replaced another first-in system which itself was unpopular because it led to a "mad rush" every January, with people lining up overnight at the doors of processing centres or paying placeholders to stand in line and deliver applications prepared by consultants or lawyers.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's office says the government is reviewing the online application process for sponsoring parents and grandparents after a flood of complaints. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

A statement from Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen's office said the online application process was brought in to ensure fairness and to safeguard against abuse, but added the system is now under review.

"We are continually monitoring all of our programs to find ways to improve them. It is too early to speculate on potential changes to next year's application process," the statement reads.

"Our government remains committed to family reunification, which is why we quadrupled the intake of parent and grandparent applications to 20,000 this year from 5,000 under the Conservatives."

Canadian citizens and permanent residents also can apply to bring their parents and grandparents to Canada for up to two years at a time with a 'super visa', which allows multiple entries for up to 10 years.

Under that program, applicants must show proof of private medical insurance and financial support.