Third reading of Bill C-6, An Act to amend the Citizenship Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act, as amended—Motion in AmendmentPublished on 6 April 2017 Hansard and Statements by Senator Mobina Jaffer
Hon. Mobina S. B. Jaffer:
Honourable senators, I rise today to speak on Senator Griffin’s amendment to Bill C-6, an act to amend the Citizenship Act.
Senator Griffin, I genuinely respect what you had to say yesterday, and I’m hoping, after this all is done, that you and I can work together to improve language training services around our country.
I often go to Quebec, and I see the kind of training that the Quebec government gives to immigrant women, especially refugee women. Not only do they provide training, they provide a wage and babysitting. If your child is sick, they provide someone to look after your child. That’s when one can learn.
There are a lot of examples across the country where women can learn English, but it’s a slow process. I hope to work with you in the future.
I know that all who immigrate to our great country want to speak English, French or both official languages. They wish to speak with their fellow Canadians.
My grandmother came here at the age of 99 when we were refugees. She was so frustrated. She said to me, “At home, my first relative was my neighbour. I could walk up to my neighbour and knock on their door and ask to borrow sugar.” She really wanted to learn English. I buried my grandmother the following year at the age of 100. Unfortunately, she never learned English.
Without language, immigrants cannot communicate with their neighbours, much less borrow that cup of sugar.
When I came to this country 42 years ago, I was in absolute disbelief when I learned that the federal government did not offer lessons to women in either of our official languages. At that time, women were seen as people who were not joining the workforce and would not need to speak English or French.
In response, a few years later, a number of us women joined together across the country and formed a national organization, the Immigrant and Visible Minority Women. We also formed provincial organizations for the express purpose of forcing the federal government to provide language classes to immigrant women.
What was wonderful about this experience — and I often think about it — is that, on the one hand, we were taking on the government; and on the other hand, Minister Crombie from Toronto would teach us how to get organized, how to write letters to the Prime Minister and how to go about getting language lessons for immigrant women.
We were not successful. As a result, we took Prime Minister Mulroney and his government to court. As a result of this court action, English instruction was provided for immigrant women.
Honourable senators, I do know how important it is for Canadians to learn English or French. My mantra at that time was, “How can I borrow sugar from my neighbour if I cannot speak English?”
However, over the years, I have learned that learning a new language becomes difficult when we reach an older age. Honourable senators, I personally know this. You know this as well. Senator Petitclerc very eloquently told us yesterday about how difficult it is to learn languages. Those of us who are trying to be bilingual in the Senate know how hard it is to learn another language.
At a young age, around me, I learned six languages. It wasn’t a big deal. That’s what we did. But at this age, I can’t even learn French fluently. It is not that I don’t want to or I’m not able to; it’s just not as easy. As a result, my views have shifted. I have learned that beyond even learning French or English, being able to call Canada your home is the most important thing. When you belong to Canada, when it is your home, you want to build your home and see Canada flourish, like any citizen would.
While I always believed that borrowing sugar from my neighbour is important, I now believe that borrowing sugar from your fellow Canadian is even more important. Together we can work to continue building this great country. We all need to belong. We all need to feel that we are Canadians, regardless of the difficulties we may face.
When I questioned Senator Griffin about her amendment, she said that provisions discussing compassionate grounds would cover exceptional cases where immigrants face challenges learning one of our languages.
Honourable senators, as you know, compassionate grounds are not covered by Bill C-6.
Second, humanitarian and compassionate grounds are covered by Senator McCoy’s amendment, but that term only applies in instances of revocation for misrepresentation or fraud. Third, the only place where I found compassionate grounds was in subsection 5(3) of the Citizenship Act, whereby the minister can use their discretion to have any citizenship requirement, including language requirements, waived on compassionate grounds.
While it may seem that it covers these exceptional cases, I carefully read the law and policy behind it. It actually shows that this section of the Citizenship Act is very limited in its application. There is considerable evidence to show this.
First, a 2016 policy procedures and guidance memo from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada actually outlines how compassionate grounds can be used. These grounds focus primarily on extreme cases like those of physical or mental disabilities rather than the circumstances that might be present in a person’s life.
For example, a deaf or a mute person would fall under this category. When you apply to have requirements waived on compassionate grounds, it states in this form, which is on the Internet, that the applicant has to provide a medical opinion or an audiology report in the case of people who are entirely deaf.
Honourable senators, the policy here is clear. Compassionate grounds only apply for people who suffer from mental or physical disabilities that make it implausible for a person to learn one of our languages. Even beyond the policy documents, I searched the case law last night to see if there was some definition of “compassionate grounds.”
The most recent case that actually touches on this issue is Kanthasamy v. Canada (Citizenship and Immigration), which appeared before the Supreme Court in 2015. While the case does not directly examine section 5(3) of the Citizenship Act, instead looking at the Immigrant and Refugee Protection Act, it does look at how another law interprets the words “compassionate grounds.”
Since the term being examined remains the same, the law still applies. In their ruling, the Supreme Court stated that compassionate grounds involve situations where it would impose unusual hardship on an individual or place them in an extreme situation.
Some of the examples the court provided were factors in their country of origin. This includes but is not limited to medical inadequacies, discrimination that does not amount to persecution, harassment or other hardships, health considerations, family violence considerations, and consequences of the separation of relatives.
Honourable senators, once again, even the court sets out very limited scenarios where compassionate grounds can be used. It is only applicable for the most extreme of scenarios where fulfilling a requirement to become a citizen is not plausible for the person in question.
Having looked into the policy and the law, and having searched last night to see if I could find anything else on compassionate grounds, everything I read said compassionate grounds were an unusual situation.
As we studied Bill C-6 before the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, we heard from witnesses who brought their considerable experience to us.
So I went first to the citizenship site, and I have given you what the citizenship site said. I then went to look at case law, and I have told you what case law said. Then I went to the next source that we were presented with in the committee. Avvy Yao-Yao Go, Clinical Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, appeared before the Senate committee. Ms. Go is a very respected lawyer, and she has often presented to our committees. She works with immigrants every day and truly understands the issues they face. In particular, she has represented some of the poorest and the most vulnerable immigrants.
Ms. Go articulated how difficult it can be for some of her clients to pass the language requirements and how damaging it can be to not be a citizen.
I believe that her explanation of the plight of one immigrant woman will provide a strong example of how inflexible our current system can be when considering compassionate grounds.
Ms. Go’s client came with her husband and had four children here in Canada. Her husband was able to become a citizen because he passed the language requirement. However, due to postpartum depression and minor health issues, it was not as easy for her, and she failed the English test. When that happened, she tried applying on compassionate grounds by submitting a doctor’s report to say she had issues with learning English. A citizenship judge accepted her circumstances, but the citizenship department and the Department of Justice appealed that case, believing that the medical report was not enough.
This woman was forced to go see Ms. Go and fight for her Canadian citizenship. This is how Ms. Go describes the case, and I’m quoting her:
We went to the Federal Court and tried to convince citizenship again, based on the information that we have about her medical issue. The whole thing takes about three years. In the meantime, she is doing her job just like any other woman. She’s raising her kids despite her disability. She was trying to work part-time in a restaurant to help support a family and was trying to integrate at the same time. That’s why she wanted to become a citizen. It doesn’t matter how hard she tried, she was not able to pass the citizenship test.
She then goes on to talk about how damaging this was for the woman, and she goes on to say:
As I mentioned, she has depression and the sense that she is treated differently from the rest of her family. She feels she is not accepted as part of society, as an equal, which also adds to that depression and anxiety as well.
When Bill C-6 proposes loosening the language restrictions based on age, it considers cases far beyond those considered by compassionate grounds as set out in the Citizenship A-act and as mentioned by Senator Griffin. Bill C-6 considers cases like this of the woman who has worked around the clock for her family while struggling with health issues that made it difficult but not impossible to learn one of our languages. Rather than relying on exceptions like compassionate grounds, we must allow our laws to actively account for cases like the woman that Ms. Go spoke about.
Honourable senators, I would now like to speak about my experience with learning French and compare it to the experiences of my children and grandchildren.
My children and my grandson are bilingual. My granddaughter and daughter-in-law soon will be.
The other day, my granddaughter, who is three years old, approached her grandfather with a concern. How will she be able to converse with him if he doesn’t speak French?
For my children and grandchildren, learning French is easier because they are young. For my husband and me, it was a very difficult challenge, as it is for all the unilingual people in this chamber. I learned that, ideally, we would all be bilingual in this place, and we have all tried to learn a second language. This is why I do not support Senator Griffin’s amendment, since it is my wish that all women —
May I have five minutes?
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Is it agreed, honourable senators?
Hon. Senators: Agreed.
Senator Jaffer: It is my wish that all women in this country who want to become Canadian citizens are not forgotten simply because of poor language skills in English or French. I believe all of us are able to ask our neighbour for a cup of sugar, and that is important. Every newcomer wants to feel like he or she belongs, and our role as senators is to help make that happen.
Honourable senators, a few weeks ago I was doing a French lesson. My little granddaughter was sitting there. She was listening to me and was learning. That’s when she turned around to my husband and said, “You’re the only one who’s not going to know French.” He looked at me and said, “What have you started? At the age of 74, I’m not going to learn French.”
What I’m trying to say to you is it’s not that people do not want to learn English or French. There comes at a time when you don’t have the ability.
To those of you who have doubts whether you should grant citizenship to a woman or a man who’s 55, let me tell you, as somebody who is privileged to have been given that citizenship paper, that when you become a citizen, it is a paper of freedom.
When I’m a citizen, I can walk down Sparks Street. I have the same rights. If my boss doesn’t treat me right, I can complain and not be sent home. If I have issues in my home, I can walk away and not suffer a violent situation. Most importantly, I can proudly say I am a Canadian.
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Senator Jaffer, will you accept a question?
Senator Jaffer: Yes.
Hon. Jane Cordy: Yesterday when I was explaining about the wonderful refugee family that I visited many times and the challenges that the parents were having in learning the language, when I explained to the sponsor of the amendment, she said, “Perhaps because they are trying hard and taking lessons, they could become Canadian citizens on compassionate grounds.”
I was jotting notes down while you were speaking. You said that those who could receive citizenship and who don’t speak the language, that it’s very limited. Section 5(3) I think you said. I’m sure that both you and Senator Omidvar have spent the past 24 hours reading and doing more research on this amendment and also on the bill, so I greatly appreciate the time that you have both spent on this.
You did say that it was very limited, and that all of the research that you had done showed that you could only get compassionate grounds to receive citizenship, if you didn’t know the language, because of physical or mental disabilities, and that you would have to have a medical opinion from a doctor and undergo a hearing test. Could you expand on that, please?
Senator Jaffer: I was surprised. I actually admit I felt quite stupid when I asked Senator Griffin the question and she said there were compassionate grounds. I thought, “Oh, my gosh. This is a question you shouldn’t ask if you don’t know the answer.” I was going to go along with what she said, because if there’s compassionate grounds, then what’s the issue? We can change the age.
When I went back to the office and did research, I found that compassionate grounds only apply if there’s a medical or physical disability. As Ms. Go says, she’s gone to court and has not succeeded, so compassionate grounds just for medical and physical disability is not really compassionate grounds. There are many other reasons.
Senators, to learn French was hard enough for me, but at least the alphabet is the same kind of alphabet. The first thing I achieved, the first thing I learned, was all the same words that are English and French. That doesn’t exist if you come here from the Middle East, China or India. The alphabet is different; everything is different. It takes longer.
When the honourable senator talked about what the compassionate grounds would be — could I just finish two sentences?
The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Two sentences.
Senator Jaffer: What the person who comes here at the age of 55 brings is they complete the family. If the family is happy, we are happy.