In March of this year, Canada’s newly elected Liberal Party leader, Justin Trudeau, proudly proclaimed that he would commit to accepting nearly 300,000 immigrants and refugees into Canada during 2017. A notable 7.4 percent increase from the ousted Conservative party’s 2015 planned admissions, the Liberal’s immigration minister, John McCallum, asserted that this move was grounded in Canada’s tradition of being a ‘welcoming’ and ‘generous’ country – a dubious claim considering Canada’s own violent colonial history.
In discussing the question of who will now be accepted into Canada the Liberal’s have placed a special focus on family reunification, planning to welcome 75,000-82,000 spouses, partners, parents and children. “It outlines a significant shift in immigration policy towards reuniting more families, building our economy and upholding Canada’s humanitarian traditions to resettle refugees and offer protection to those in need,” McCallum explained to a news conference in early 2016.
Despite the seemingly virtuous intentions of the Liberal Party’s new reforms, there remains some significant issues at the core of Canada’s immigration policies. One of the most problematic aspects is a condition that was introduced by Citizenship and Immigration Canada at the end of 2012. A move that the then-minister, Jason Kenney, implemented to combat “marriage fraud,” this condition requires that immigrants who are sponsored to come to Canada by a spouse who is already in the country are obligated to live with them for a minimum of two years, or risk losing their permanent residence. Notably, no reliable evidence has been released about whether the implementation of this policy has reduced marriage fraud, or, even more disconcertingly, if the incidence of marriage fraud is high enough to legitimize this law.
Predictably, these restrictive terms have had a sinister effect on newly immigrated and highly vulnerable women, making them more likely to remain in violent, neglectful or abusive situations. Because women represent 58 percent of sponsored spouses in Canada they are most often affected by the enforced two year waiting period.
It is important to note here that, in Canada, women remain highly susceptible to intimate partner violence. For example, the majority of victims of intimate partner violence (accounting for roughly 83 percent) continue to be female. Furthermore, 9 in 10 victims of spousal-perpetrated criminal harassment are women, on any given night in Canada 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home, each year over 40,000 arrests result from intimate partner violence, and every 6 days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.
Although immigrant, refugee, and non-status women experience the same forms of intimate partner violence as those experienced by Canadian-born women, they also face a distinct set of barriers that are unique to the newcomer experience. Particularly, the forced two year waiting period adds another layer of imbalance to an already disempowering dynamic, making it so that women are, by law, indebted to their sponsors. The power imbalance, in tandem with the threat of deportation, has become a very helpful tool for men who abuse or neglect their partners.
I recently spoke with various advocates about the issue. Angela Marie MacDougall, executive director at Vancouver’s Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), pointed out that this condition makes it so that women are beholden to their male partners. “Conditional permanent residence inhibits people from living free from abuse, as their immigration status is connected to their partner,” she says. “Canada has created an inequity of women, which is woven into the overall belief systems held in patriarchy, of women as property.”
During my conversation with Andrea Vollans, a legal educator at Vancouver’s YWCA, she added to MacDougall’s assertion by suggesting that conditional permanent residence is seriously unethical. “If a woman [in an abusive situation] called me before conditional permanent residence, I would be able to say that she doesn’t have to stay with her partner. Now, I have to ask her how severe the violence is, how comfortable she feels talking to police or doctors….without evidence I can’t guarantee that they can leave a partner without compromising their permanent residency.” Furthermore, Vollans points to the lack of safe spaces and appropriate resources available to these women. “If a sponsored woman is leaving an abusive situation, she likely doesn’t have any friends, family, or other supports here, and reaching out to social services can be very daunting, so, in many cases women don’t have anywhere to go,” she says. “Essentially, this system makes it so that women who have done nothing wrong are being punished.”
It is crucial to consider conditional permanent residence from an intersectional lens in order to fully understand the severity of it’s impact. For example, beyond the obvious implications this policy has on women in general, oftentimes, conditional permanent residence has especially adverse or dangerous effects for low-income women who immigrate from non-english speaking countries. Based on this, many advocates have argued that, in effect, this policy creates a level of exploitation that is not equal for all women. I spoke to Kasari Govender, ED of West Coast LEAF, a women’s legal education organization in Vancouver, who suggested that the two year waiting period is a particularly racialized law. “Conditional permanent residence applies mostly to women of colour and women who are not born here; essentially, it devalues women of colour,” she says. “[It is part of longer] legacy of who matters under Canadian legislation.”
In addition to this, conditional permanent residence reinforces heteronormative ideals by assuming that unions need to be legitimized (by a marriage certificate or some other quantifiable marker), alienating many LGBTQIAP+ individuals.
It is for these reasons that anti-violence against women and immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations spoke out against the conditional permanent residence program when it was first enacted. The Canadian government conceded and amended the act so that women, who can prove that they, or one of their dependents, are experiencing abuse or neglect, are able to leave their partners without facing deportation. Despite this however, many women are still feeling the harmful effects of this policy.
One of the major problems with this exception is that women can’t always prove that they are experiencing abuse. Many women are unable to point to tangible evidence demonstrating violence, such as bruises or markings, especially if they are experiencing verbal abuse or neglect; furthermore, even for those women who do have physical evidence, it is sometimes hard to ensure that that evidence is a direct result of an abusive partner. This becomes exceedingly difficult for those who are unsure about the services available to them, are unable to speak the language, or who are attempting to navigate an unfamiliar system.
Additionally, the decision about whether or not to grant the exception is left entirely up to the discretion of an individual immigration officer. Seeing as the level of risk involved in advocating for the exception is incredibly high, some women feel that it would be safer to stay in their relationship for the entire two year period, rather than face deportation. As pointed out by Vollans, the process of collecting objective evidence against a partner to present to an immigration officer can be incredibly traumatizing in of itself. “We have to encourage women to go to a hospital or go to the police, but this can be a huge barrier; you don’t know who the officer or doctor is, or how they are going to handle the situation.” A final major problem with the exception is that many do not even know it exists. Unsurprisingly, sponsored spouses in an abusive situation are often misinformed about their rights, and are left unaware of their options.
Placing regulations on an individual’s personal life also raises an important questions about the agency afforded to newly immigrated women in Canada. As West Coast Leaf ED, Govender points out, this condition hinders a woman’s fundamental right to make choices about her own circumstances. “It is a discriminatory policy that implies that some people can’t make the same kinds of decisions about their lives as others,” she notes. “It forces people to stay married even if they want to leave the relationship for reasons other than abuse.” BWSS’s MacDougall mirrors this sentiment by stating that “…this law is based on the idea that there are some marriages that aren’t real.” The mistrust the Canadian government has towards certain unions is representative of a broader ideology that informs the belief system of who should and should not be here. “Canada has a long way to go in shifting these patriarchal and white supremacist underpinnings,” says MacDougall.
Expanding on this, MacDougall also explains that the laws that are in place to protect women need to be applied more diligently. For example, she points to offences like sexual assault and intimate partner violence, which have been notoriously mishandled by the police in Canada (and in many countries where patriarchal values are pervasive). The lack of consistency in upholding these kinds of laws makes women more apprehensive to report experiences of abuse or violence to authorities. This is especially true for women who are not proficient English speakers.
If the police department, and other agencies, adhered to these laws more strictly however, some of the harmful effects associated with conditional permanent residence could be mitigated, making women more confident to seek support when in crisis.
Taking all of this into consideration, Canada’s Liberal Party have recently promised to eradicate this law completely in an attempt to make the country more accessible for newly immigrated women. Despite this however, as of today no major steps have been taken to reform conditional permanent residence, which indicates that most women are still dealing with the dangerous consequences of this policy.
So what does this all mean? To me, conditional permanent residence exemplifies the way in which we as a country need to consider the policies and laws we have in place more critically. By reexamining the values and belief systems that many of these laws are grounded in, we can better understand who is and who is not protected within Canada. Often, the dominant control in our society is in the hands of individuals and groups that are not representative of minorities. Because of this, policies evolve in a manner that largely preserves the status quo, and places vulnerable communities in unsafe or precarious situations.
Furthermore, the two year waiting period is representative of Canada’s need to police who is deserving to live here, tying conditional permanent residence to a longer legacy of overt discrimination within Canada’s legislation.
Although Canada likes to think of itself as being an equitable and just nation, the restrictions placed on newly immigrated women demonstrates how certain groups inherently have fewer opportunities or advantages than others. When considered objectively, this condition ultimately compromises a woman’s safety and minimizes her constitutional right to make choices about her own life.
[Images via x]