The Doc Project

Any child in immigration detention is one too many, says psychiatrist

Three researchers were given rare access to an immigration holding centre to study the effects of detention on adults and children. They encountered a system that stripped everyone of the agency to help.

Dr. Rachel Kronick describes a sense of 'sadness and grief' inside CBSA holding centres

A guard stands outside the gates of an immigration holding centre in Laval, Que. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Originally published on April 2, 2020.

As of March 21, asylum seekers entering Canada at unofficial entry points along the Canada-U.S. border were being returned to the U.S. as a temporary measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

As of June 15, the Canada Border Services Agency said there were currently no minors in immigrant detention in Canada. 

Dr. Rachel Kronick has never forgotten the girl she met inside the Canada Border Services Agency's (CBSA) Laval detention centre. Overjoyed to see her father, the girl, who was about 10 at the time, started running toward him in the holding centre's yard, waving and shouting out "dad."

"She was terrified by being separated from her father and she didn't know what was happening to him when she didn't see him," said Kronick.

The girl was an asylum seeker from the Middle East.

Seeing the girl run towards her father, a CBSA guard shouted: "You can't greet anyone," recalled Kronick, a psychiatrist at Montreal's Jewish General Hospital.

"She had this moment of joy .... and to see her be scolded for expressing love."

Dr. Rachel Kronick is a youth and family psychiatrist at the Jewish General Hospital and an assistant professor at McGill University's psychiatry department (McGill University)

In 2011, Kronick, then a student, was part of a research team based at McGill University, working alongside Janet Cleveland, a researcher with a public health institution and Cécile Rousseau, clinical psychiatrist at the Montreal Children's Hospital. 

The CBSA granted them access to migrant holding centres in Toronto, Ont., and Laval, Que.

The researchers' goal was to see if detention was leading to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. They would collect data for their study by speaking to the detainees inside the detention centre and conducting follow-up interviews once they were released.

It took about a year of back and forth with the CBSA before they were let into a detention centre. 

"People within CBSA did have concerns whether [...] vulnerable refugee claimants might be negatively impacted by detention. I'm thinking for example of pregnant women or children."

Independent researchers are rarely allowed into these types of facilities.

"There's a lot of secrecy around immigration detention. We're talking about the use of imprisonment [and] detention for people who have not committed any kind of criminal offence," said Cleveland. "It's convenient for governments to keep it that way." 

Inside the Laval Immigration Holding Centre

The detention centre is located near an industrial park in Laval, a mostly suburban community just north of Montreal.

"It's surrounded by high barbed wire fences with those razor spirals on the tops," said Kronick.

Outside the Laval immigration Holding Centre, 2016 (CBSA)

The Laval detention centre can house about 100 detainees and provides separate living spaces for men, women and families or unaccompanied minors. Kronick spent much of her time in the family area. 

"It's just a big, fairly shabby space with a couch. There's a television sort of mounted on the wall, and there's a table that families can sit at."

Kronick would sit in the detention area and speak to families, often with a guard not far off. 

"As the research progressed, I became more and more angry at the practices inside immigration detention."

According to their research, they heard of:

  • Three cases of parents being handcuffed in front of their children 

  • A mother and her children who had to wait outside in the snow for 40 minutes before eating breakfast at around 5 a.m. 

  • Two mothers separated from infants they were nursing 

They also heard of detainees not knowing what was happening to them. 

"We're talking about the use of imprisonment [and] detention for people who have not committed any kind of criminal offence," said Cleveland. 

Inside the men's area of the Laval Immigration Holding Centre, 2016 (CBSA)

The CBC cannot independently verify the claims which were published in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry.

"I knew if I spoke out, yeah, I could have gotten in trouble and might not have been allowed back in," said Kronick.

Last year, the CBSA detained 7,212 people in immigration holding centres, including 118 minors who were either detained themselves or ended up inside a holding centre because a parent was held. The majority of the children held were under the age of 11. 

Children usually end up being detained because they are asylum seekers and the CBSA wants to check the validity of their parents' immigration documents. In an emailed statement to CBC Radio, the CBSA said it only holds children as a "last resort." 

An example of a sandplay tableau made by a child seeking asylum in Canada. (Rachel Kronick )

When the research paper by Kronick's team came out in 2015, it said that detaining children for even a short period of time was frightening, and in some cases, traumatizing.

Kronick recalled the girl she had observed in the holding centre's yard, and how she had changed from being hopeful to hopeless. The girl stopped eating and became withdrawn.

"She transformed from a very normal child to a child who looked severely psychiatrically ill," Kronick said.

'A system that stripped everyone of their agency'

At the girl's detention review hearing, to decide whether she should be released or held, Kronick said the decision-maker opted not to release her.

But as the girl wept, Kronick noted the decision-maker's demeanour.

"I remember watching the decision-maker and noticing that he or she couldn't even bring themselves to look up at the child at any point." 

Kronick and her team published a subsequent paper, in 2018, documenting those complex emotions and how one navigates maintaining objectivity in the country's immigration and refugee system. 

"We were working in a system that stripped everyone of their agency to be able to help and to intervene," she said.

The paper focused particularly on the relationship between the guards and the children.

"The guards would pick these babies up and say, 'mon amour.' They would be very affectionate," Kronick said.

Inside the immigration holding centre in Laval, Que., 2016 (CBSA)

'Sadness and grief'

For the researchers, the experience working inside the detention centre lingered, too. 

"There was a whole side process that was happening that was very significant, and that was sadness and grief in what we were witnessing," Kronick said. "I think we had to take it very seriously — it was pointing to the sadness and grief that was being lived by these families." 

In 2017, two years after Kronick's initial research on children in detention was released, their research, along with another paper from the University of Toronto, captured the attention of policy makers and the media. 

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale issued a ministerial directive to the CBSA saying that the best interests of a child must be taken into consideration before detaining them. Since then, the number of minors in detention centres has been declining. 

"We've definitely seen improvements that the government can be commended on, but they're still a long way to go." Kronick said. "In my view, any child in detention is one too many."

About the Producer

Craig Desson is a journalist and producer with CBC Montreal. He's reported on immigration, digital privacy and gaming. He's also worked at The Toronto Star, TVO and Journalists for Human Rights.

His radio work has won awards at The Third Coast International Audio Festival and The New York Festivals. He was also a 2017 Arthur F. Burns journalism fellow where he reported for CBC News from Eastern Germany.

This documentary was produced with and edited by Julia Pagel, and made through the Doc Mentorship Program.