Was Bill C-37 Worth the Political Cost?

On February 16, Jason Kenney and the Conservative government introduced Bill C-31, the Protecting Canada’s Immigration Act.  The Act makes many reforms to Canada’s refugee system, and amends previous amendments to Canada’s immigration legislation contained in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act which have not yet come into affect.  Bill C-31 was greeted by many refugee lawyers and advocates with much criticism, and was received with particular indignation from the New Democratic Party.

It is not difficult to see why the NDP was outraged by the introduction of Bill C-31.  Less than two years ago, the Conservatives and the NDP worked together to introduce the Balanced Refugee Reform Act.  Its passage was seen as a good example of compromise, and how the parties in a minority Parliament can cooperate to introduce what was generally viewed as good legislation.  I would also imagine that the NDP spent some political capital with its base by cooperating with the Conservatives and to makeCanada’s refugee system stricter.

Minister Kenney has now thrown all of that to the wind.

By abandoning the grand compromise that was the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, Mr. Kenney has taken several political risks.  First, he has abandoned any good-will that he had with the NDP.  Should the Conservatives ever find themselves in a minority government again, I doubt that they will find the NDP being very willing to work with them in the same away as they did in 2012.

Second, he has provided the NDP with the ability to criticize the upcoming reforms to Canada’s refugee system.  Because the NDP were co-drafters of the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, they could not really criticize the upcoming changes because they themselves owned the amendments.  By abandoning the Balanced Refugee Reform Act and in effect replacing it with Bill C-31, Minister Kenney has provided the NDP with legitimacy to criticize the toughening of Canada’s refugee system.

Presumably, Minister Kenney believes that the benefits of the changes in Bill C-31 outweigh the above costs.

So.  What are these changes?

(It should be noted that many of the changes below will involves changes to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Regulations, and are not actually contained in Bill C-31.  However, as the Conservative government announced these changes concurrent with the introduction of Bill C-31, I am including them under the umbrella of the Bill C-31 changes.)

First, the time-frames for when a refugee hearing will be heard have been reduced.  Under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, a refugee hearing would occur within 60 days for a claimant from a designated safe country of origin (“DCO”), and 90 days for a non-DCO country.  Bill C-31 will reduce in most cases reduce this period to 45 days and 60 days respectively.

Second, under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, a non-successful refugee claimant from a DCO, or a claimant whose refugee claim was found to be manifestly unfounded, would have his appeal heard within 30 days.  A claimant from a non-DCO country would have had his appeal heard within 120 days.  Bill C-31 reduces the time-frame to 90 days for non-DCO countries.  It removes the ability to appeal completely for unsuccessful refugee claimants from DCOs, for people whose claims were found to be manifestly unfounded, and for irregular arrivals.

Bill C-31 also contains numerous changes that do not relate to time limitations.   The informational interview that was proposed in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act will now be replaced with a Basis of Claim document.  The ability to designate a country as being a designated safe country of origin has been transferred from a panel of experts to the Minister. The Immigration and Refugee Board will no longer be able to reopen previously decided claims or appeals once a final decision has been made at the Refugee Appeal Division or Federal Court.

Perhaps more significantly, there will no longer be automatic stays of removal for judicial reviews of refugee decisions for people from DCOs.  (It will be interesting to see how the Federal Court deals with the onslaught of stay of removal motions.)  Refugee claimants from DCO countries will also be prohibited from getting Work Permits during the processing of their refugee claim.

Essentially, most of Bill C-31 is geared towards decreasing the estimated total processing times of refugee claims (I am excluding from this the inclusion of all of the human smuggling provisions contained in Bill C-4).  Under the Balanced Refugee Reform Act, it was expected to take 171 days to process a refugee claim from a designated country of origin, and 291 days to process a non-DCO refugee claimant’s claim. The Conservative government expects Bill C-31 to reduce this to 45 days and 216 respectively.

The above reductions may seem significant.  However, considering the fact that under the current system the average number of days is 1,038, the further reductions gained by Bill C-31 over the reductions in the Balanced Refugee Reform Act seem less impressive.  For claimants from designated countries of origin, the reduction in processing times from the current average is 96% instead of 85%.  For non DCO countries, it is 79% instead of 72%.

So.  Assuming that the above changes in Bill C-31 withstand the inevitable Charter challenges that are no doubt coming, the Conservatives will years from now have to ask themselves whether the 9% and 7% further reductions that Bill C-31 achieved were worth the political cost.

We will likely have to wait until after the next election and see what the House of Commons looks like to know the answer.