A YOUTHFUL MINISTER THE CHALLENGE OF REVISING THE COUNTRY’S IMMIGRATION LAW
BEEFING UP THE BORDER
A YOUTHFUL MINISTER THE CHALLENGE OF REVISING THE COUNTRY’S IMMIGRATION LAW
The issue is a minefield of potential controversy, but the young minister has so far managed to stay a step ahead of his critics. Last year, when Employment and Immigration Minister Ber
nard Valcourt began the most wide-ranging revision of Canada’s immigration law since 1976, he did so without engaging in widespread public consultation. As a result, his critics were caught unprepared on June 16 when the 40-year-old minister from a small forest products town in New Brunswick unveiled Bill C-86, a complex, 113-page piece of legislation that would restrict the flow of refugees into Canada. “The initial spin on the bill was positive,” said Toronto immigration lawyer Lome Waldman, “and the Canadian public got the idea this is a good thing.” Since then, however, Waldman and other activists have had time to sharpen their claws—and lash out at what they say is the proposed legislation’s undue restrictiveness. Declared lawyer Carter Hoppe earlier this month at parliamentary immigration committee hearings: “Virtually the entire world is inadmissible under this act.”
Although Valcourt has said that he may make minor modifications to the bill, C-86 will likely become law late this year. Indeed, his success so far in pushing through the legislation is a measure of how high the minister’s stock has risen since the night of July 4,1989, when, while impaired, he crashed his motorcycle into a fence in Edmundston, N.B. Earlier this month, he even withstood a challenge to C-86 from one of his party’s most respected elders. Meeting privately with Valcourt in his capacity as a board member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, Robert Stanfield asked for hearings on the bill to be suspended until at least late autumn. But the 78-year-old former Conservative leader left the 40-minute meeting disappointed, saying, “The minister doesn’t see any necessity to consider more time for public consideration.”
By tabling the legislation during the summer and refusing to postpone the hearing process, Valcourt has indeed managed to limit public debate on the proposed reforms. Among other things, the bill would streamline and toughen the refugee determination process, one of the most controversial aspects of Canadian immi-
gration policy in the past decade. Specifically, the proposed legislation would require fingerprinting of refugee claimants, a procedure that is now at the discretion of immigration officials. It would also give officials at border points greater power to turn away refugee claimants. (Under the current system, claimants are allowed to stay in Canada while their cases are considered.) Individuals who have been associated with organizations that have engaged in illegal activity could be barred from entry—or deported if they are already in Canada. Finally, the bill would effectively discourage some immigrants from settling in major urban centres, directing them instead to parts of the country where their skills are needed.
Critics complain that C-86 is draconian, discriminatory—even dangerous. “This bill diminishes us all,” says George Cram, a spokesman for the Canadian Council of Churches, who appeared before the parliamentary committee last month. Specifically, opponents claim that the bill’s provisions against lawbreakers could result in the expulsion of immigrants and refugee claimants who have been arrested while participating in civil rights protests, union activities or environmental demonstrations.
Others claim that the legislation is a blatant attempt to undermine public support for the Reform Party of Canada, which advocates a more restrictive immigration policy. Said Toronto immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman: “I think the Reform party is behind all this.” But Valcourt dismisses the objections. “It makes me mad when I see people saying this is Reform stuff,” he told Maclean’s. “There is
nothing in here that will take away from Canada’s tradition of humanity and compassion.” He added, “We don’t want to be managed by immigration, we want to manage it.”
Valcourt says that he became convinced of the need for major reforms while meeting with a dozen immigration lawyers in April, 1991, the month that he took over the portfolio. “I asked them,” Valcourt says, “ ‘If you were in my shoes what would you do?’ I had a roundtable discussion—with none of them agreeing. I knew then that we had a problem on our hands.” He soon concluded that Canada’s existing immigration laws were devised, in his words, “for simpler times,” and that new legislation was needed to address “the enormous pressures exerted upon the immigration program by mass movements of peoples throughout the world.”
Valcourt has received some support for his legislation. For one thing, RCMP spokesmen say that the bill could help to curtail the smuggling of immigrants into Canada. And although Valcourt acknowledges that potential refugee claimants would face far greater scrutiny under C-86, he insists that such measures are necessary to discourage criminals, terrorists and potential welfare cheats from entering the country. “Canadians don’t want to be taken for granted,” he said. “It’s all right to be soft-
hearted, but you should not be softheaded.”
Although few opponents question Valcourt’s political acumen, critics say that he lacks compassion. In July, when Valcourt announced that Canada planned to open its doors to more refugee claimants from the former Yugoslav republics, he came under intense pressure to offer similar assistance to refugees from wartom Somalia. Says Liberal immigration critic Warren Allmand: “He’s the kind of fellow you’d like to play cards with, have a drink with. He’s a charming kind of guy. But he is the worst minister of immigration we’ve had in living memory. He has no heart.” Allmand said that Valcourt is a law-and-order minister who rarely intervenes in individual cases of extreme hardship. “The man has approached clients of his department as if they were chessmen on a chessboard,” adds Allmand, “as if they weren’t human beings.”
Valcourt concedes that he dislikes countermanding decisions made by his departmental officials. But he bristles at Allmand’s charge of heartlessness. In fact, he added, he has become more understanding and generous since his 1989 motorcycle accident. Valcourt, who suffered broken bones in his face and lost the sight in his right eye, subsequently pleaded guilty to
driving while impaired, paid a fine of $600 and resigned as minister of consumer and corporate affairs. During his recovery, the Mulroney family took him into their Harrington Lake summer home for a week. And seven months after his resignation, he returned to cabinet as minister of fisheries. He now drinks no more than an occasional glass of wine. In addition, he says, his “perspective on life” has changed, leaving him “more balanced and more generous to myself and others.”
Clearly, Valcourt has overcome his embarrassing accident to become a major force within the Conservative party. Colleagues say that he has brought “unbelievable energy” to the immigration portfolio. Nearly everyone who knows him concurs that he is destined for greater things. Says Harry Near, a veteran Tory organizer and Ottawa-based lobbyist: “To call him a rising star would be an understatement. He’s got a great nose—a great political sense.” So far, at least, Valcourt’s smooth handling of Bill C-86 seems likely to attract more supporters than opponents, enhancing his reputation in the Conservative galaxy.
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