What is Jason Kenney up to?

Federal Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s use of his office for partisan electoral purposes has touched off a storm of controversy, as indeed it should, for there is more than a whiff of Jacques Parizeau’s infamous 1995 “money and the ethnic vote” in this Minister’s essentialist characterization of “ethnic ridings.”

This ministerial indiscretion raises the question of ministerial discretion. What has the minister been directing his ministry to do?

In our province, with relatively few immigrants and very few refugees, this might not appear to be an important question, but immigration policies directly affect the lives of millions of Canadians. In the case of refugees, these policy decisions can quite literally be questions of life and death.

What is the pattern over the past decade?

We have had a very serious backlog in assessing refugee claims since the mid-1990s. It waxed, then waned, and is once more on the rise, but consistently more people in Canada are waiting to have their claims adjudicated than live in St. John’s.

Our administrative tribunals reject an overwhelming majority of claimants.

The scale of this problem needs to be considered when assessing the success rate for refugee claimants. The apparent serious decline under Jean Chrétien’s leadership was principally due to the rising number of claimants. In terms of actual claims granted, the decline from 2000 to 2002 was less than a fifth (18.7 per cent), whereas from 2006 to 2008 under Stephen Harper, when both the number of claimants and the success rate were declining, the number of claims granted was more than halved (56 per cent).

These relative and absolute changes should not hide the obvious fact that Citizenship and Immigration policies have never been generous. Our administrative tribunals reject an overwhelming majority of claimants.

Nonetheless, the sharp rise in successful claims in 2004 and 2005 does contrast markedly with the steep declines in 2007 and 2008. In 2005, 19,935 refugee claimants found safe haven in Canada; in 2009, we granted it to only 7,204 people. Clearly, this policy choice is in part a political one.

How does this relate to ministerial discretion?

Our immigration policy recognizes three principal streams: family reunification, economic migrants, and refugees. In exceptional circumstances, people may also enter Canada under what is known as a ministerial permit. As the name suggests, these permits are only issued in accordance with discretionary decisions made at the highest level of Citizenship and Immigration.

For those of you old enough to remember the Québec Nordiques, it was through the back door of a ministerial permit that the Šťastnỷ brothers came to play in the NHL. In 2000, 460 ministerial permits were issued; in 2001, it was a mere 206. In short, entry by ministerial permit was an exceptional procedure, not always on the up and up, but nor was it a defining feature of our immigration policy. Then, things began to change.

Is it no longer who you are but who you know?

In 2005, Citizenship and Immigration issued 6,790 permits. This meant for every ten refugees granted asylum, four people came in on ministerial permits. Since Stephen Harper’s election, the government has averaged 10,677 ministerial permits a year. What was the exception has become the rule. For every ten people who successfully made it through the long wait and complicated refugee adjudication process in 2009, the minister allowed 14 people in through the back door. It is this systematic recourse to what was once an exceptional, discretionary power that makes Kenney’s recent blurring of the lines between ministry policies and partisan politics so menacing for so many vulnerable people across the country.

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