Not a safe haven // Opinion

Changes to Canadian immigration law threaten the safety and security of women

By Shalini Konanur

On Thursday March 21st, 2013


Lata came to Canada four years ago with all the hopes and dreams of a newlywed. Her marriage had been arranged back home after a careful search by her family. She married her husband just a few months after meeting him and then moved to Canada as a sponsored spouse. Lata (not her real name) moved in with her husband’s family and the first few weeks in Canada were all excitement.

But, as time passed, Lata’s home life began to change. Her in-laws and husband became physically and verbally abusive. They prevented her from speaking to her own family back home and she was rarely allowed to leave the house. They threatened to have her deported if she tried to leave her husband.

Eventually, terrified, Lata came to us at the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario (SALCO) with a black eye and a steady stream of tears. She was torn between a desire to make her marriage work and keep her family’s reputation intact, and wanting to be safe and free from abuse. Lata came to us with questions we are asked far too often: “Can I lose my immigration status?” “Can he deport me?”

The truth is, we cannot guarantee Lata protection. New immigration regulations that took effect last October mean a sponsored spouse gets conditional permanent residence when she first arrives in Canada. Then she must live with her sponsor in a conjugal/marital relationship for at least two years. If she walks out, she risks losing her permanent residence status and facing deportation. Even if she stays and eventually leaves her spouse, she herself cannot sponsor a new spouse for five years after becoming a permanent resident of Canada.

Conditional permanent residence was introduced to combat marriage fraud, which allegedly is a significant problem. However, we’ve yet to see firm statistics showing this is truly prevalent. While there likely are a small percentage of fraud cases in our immigration system, conditional permanent residence is disproportionate punishment. Canada has always had the ability to investigate marriage fraud and has done so in many cases. SALCO has handled a number of cases of alleged marriage fraud — all were proven to be cases of abuse in the end.

Conditional permanent residence is yet another example of Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s (CIC) unspoken agenda to close Canadian borders. CIC has put parent and grandparent sponsorship applications on hiatus to deal with a backlog and has increased application processing times throughout the world by closing down a number of foreign offices. Changes to the refugee process have largely been viewed by the immigration bar as a mechanism to deny more refugee claims. Large volumes of skilled worker applications were cancelled in 2012.

While women’s rights advocates have been arguing that conditional permanent residence will have a grave impact on the safety and security of women, the government has disregarded these concerns.

Where does this leave newcomers facing abuse? Although the federal government has created an exception for cases in which a spouse leaves because of abuse, they have not taken into consideration the reality of these situations. Shame, fear and diminished personal and familial reputation will stop many immigrant women from seeking assistance and coming forward. Add to this the potential loss of immigration status and most abused immigrant women just stay silent.

In the end, Lata went back to the abuse — scared that if she left, she would shame herself and her family, face further retaliation from her in-laws and most of all, be forced to leave Canada. We could do nothing but watch and hope she would come to no life-threatening harm.

This is not the way to run an immigration system. Canada needs to strike a better balance between preventing a potentially rare form of fraud and protecting victims of abuse. New regulations must be backed by clear research and evidence so that vulnerable people like Lata do not end up being re-victimized because of the law.

Shalini Konanur is a lawyer and the executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario.

Illustration by Rachel Ann Lindsay