Column

THE DEBATE OVER ID CARDS

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s reformist zeal challenges his bureaucracy

MARY JANIGAN April 21 2003
Column

THE DEBATE OVER ID CARDS

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s reformist zeal challenges his bureaucracy

MARY JANIGAN April 21 2003

THE DEBATE OVER ID CARDS

Column

MARY JANIGAN

Immigration Minister Denis Coderre’s reformist zeal challenges his bureaucracy

IT IS TYPICAL of Denis Coderre that he leapt into action when he learned of the plight of his Syrian-born parliamentary secretary. The predicament arose last year when the U.S. declared it was going to fingerprint and photograph visitors based on country of origin. So Toronto-area MP Sarkis Assadourian, born in Aleppo to Armenian parents, proud bearer of a Canadian passport, faced almost certain hassle at the border.

Immigration minister Coderre was, as he puts it, “annoyed, big time.” First, he marched before the cameras to ask why the U.S. was discriminating against some Canadian citizens. Within weeks, Washington clarified the application of that policy to Canadians: it would only record high-risk entrants or those with a second passport from a highrisk nation. But recognizing the broader security issues at stake, Coderre then launched an ongoing, heated debate before a parliamentary committee over the feasibility of national identity cards, arguing they may address U.S. concerns and that the days are gone when Canadians could waft across the border brandishing a driver’s licence as ID. “They were making me a second-class citizen,” says Assadourian, who has since crossed the border twice without incident. “Coderre is a straight shooter. And he is trying to make the border safer—for both countries.”

As U.S. fears about security escalate, as bureaucracies choke the border, Coderre has emerged as one of the key ministers on the front lines. Brash and affable, intensely political, blithely unafraid of controversy, he has a formidable task: to facilitate immigration—and to satisfy the U.S. that those arrivals are not security risks. It is an unenviable, and perhaps impossible, chore. In recent weeks, the former Montreal radio announcer has flitted among border points, hobnobbed with harassed officials on both sides, delivered soothing speeches to U.S. business groups and discussed security with politicians such as New York Governor George Pataki. Now, he is organizing meetings on border issues between state and

provincial officials. “We need to improve our communications, to show them we are doing our homework,” Coderre, 39, told Maclean’s. “But I also point out to the Americans that they have millions of illegal immigrants. It takes two to tango.”

The only problem is that his expansive reach far exceeds his department’s often fumbling grasp. Coderre percolates with ideas, ranging from streamlined hearings to tackle the backlog of almost 53,000 refugee claimants to the notion that provinces should select immigrants to fill their economic needs. He is even trying to curb the abuses of some immigration consultants: “My aim is to make sure the vulture is an endangered species.” But his paper-clogged bureaucracy, scrambling to do too much with too little, often deflates those plans. “It is about time we had an immigration minister with big thoughts about where the process should go,” says Toronto immigration lawyer Peter Rekai. “But he has no concept of how slowly and inefficiently his department moves. There is a Don Quixote quality.”

Consider just two examples:

■ The minister floats the notion of ID cards with biometric data in order to ease border crossings. “Something is missing in our balanced approach between fairness and vigilance,” he argues. But the cards could be the last straw for a ministry pushed to its limits. The program to favour provincial selections is already moving at a snail’s pace. Officers are hard-pressed to screen visitors and temporary workers for security. And there are backlogs of up to six years in some overseas immigration offices such as Beijing. So it is hard for applicants to qualify for

Despite promises to try to clear up the backlog of immigration applicants by March 31, there are still 100,000 cases remaining

admission—because an assured job is worth 15 out of the required 75 points, and few bosses will hold a job that long.

■ Immigration officials told a parliamentary committee that, by March 31, the department would try to clear up a backlog of applicants who applied prior to Jan. 1,2002. It couldn’t. In February, the Federal Court ordered the processing of 102 such cases before that deadline—when easier selection criteria would apply to them. Worse, 100,000 cases remain—and that spells trouble. Meanwhile, the Federal Court of Appeal is now considering if Ottawa had an “implied duty” to use reasonable best efforts to assess that backlog before March 31. That ruling could affect all remaining cases.

Coderre is unfazed, dashing from immigrant tributes to border points, resolutely sticking to the diet that has seen him lose 39 pounds since Dec. 20. Last month, he agreed to join a Toronto council on immigrant employment: within a week, he called back to set up a planning meeting. “We were quite pleased,” says organizer David Pecaut, “and taken aback by the quickness.” Adds Public Policy Forum President David Zussman: “He is the type of guy who will take any department and make something of it.”

In fact, Coderre is one of that rare breed of natural politicians: ambitious, pragmatic and gregarious. He has big ideas about where the world is heading—although his little facts are sometimes wrong. (He claimed his recent meeting with provincial ministers was the first since one of his predecessors, Clifford Sifton, met his colleagues in the 1890s; University of Alberta historian David Hall, who is Sifton’s biographer, ransacked records in a futile effort to find evidence of that meeting.) Born in rural Quebec, the son of a carpenter, the long-time Liberal activist attributes his down-to-earth approach to his father. “He always taught me to be respectful,” he says, “and to always be close to the people.”

In short, in difficult times, he is an asset. What he must do is curb the extent of his demands. Rekai says Ottawa could perhaps manage an entry-exit system which would confirm visitors actually leave, to assuage security concerns. But ID cards are clearly beyond its capabilities. We can only hope Coderre moves more slowly as he remakes the ministry to fit his own can-do character. Ifi

Mary Janigan’s column appears every other issue. mjanigan@macleans.ca