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Sponsored spouses may face new requirements to live in Canada permanently

April 10th, 2014

10 April 2014

In a recent series of meetings, the Canadian federal government has been considering the possibility that it may become necessary to add language and education requirements for anyone wishing to live in Canada permanently as a sponsored spouse or partner of a Canadian citizen or permanent resident. This proposal was put forward, it is believed, by Immigration Minister Chris Alexander, who has become concerned by the problem of vulnerable women entering the country and being at risk of harm from their husband or extended family. The worry, as expressed by some groups, is that some women would be excluded from the sponsorship programme. Executive Director of the Metro Toronto Chinese & Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, Avvy Go, labelling the suggested requirements as ‘a direct attack on Canada’s family reunification program.’

The new requirements, should they be implemented, will give far better protection to women in particular when they enter the country and will improve their future integration into Canadian society. Unfortunately, many women entering Canada from developing countries have not been given the opportunity to learn either English or French and this could prevent them from joining their spouses in Canada. Furthermore, if these language requirements are never met, it could mean that a family is permanently separated. The news of this added requirement being on the table has not been welcomed by certain groups, who point out that the federal government are also considering legislation that will require Canadian sponsors to prove that they have a minimum income in order to bring their husband, wife or children into the country from overseas. New legislation coming in in August will change the rules on dependent children, reducing the age at which they qualify to eighteen.

As yet there has been no firm denial as to whether language and education requirements are to be introduced, but the Immigration Office has been quoted as saying that ‘the government is forging an excellent record of denouncing all forms of racial hatred, intolerance and unacceptable cultural practices’. The Immigration Minister is currently consulting across the country with local communities in an attempt to assess public opinion on immigration practices, which will be used in the production of a proposed strategic plan to ‘strengthen the integrity of the immigration spousal sponsorship program.’ While the consultations have been on-going, the language and education issue has been raised as an important part of the problems some immigrant families face, although the Immigration Office has been careful to point out that the consultations are simply that – no legislation will be made based on those discussions only.

Canada was shocked last year when an Afghanistan-born woman, Nasira Fazil, was killed by her husband. Many people have expressed the hope that better education and language skills will help such vulnerable women to seek help if they are at risk of domestic violence. However, Debbie Douglas, Executive Director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, does not feel that this is necessarily the case, saying ‘…keeping spouses with little English and without a high level of education from Canada is not going to protect immigrant women from violence.’ The Immigration Minister has been criticised because the woman in this case had lived in Canada since childhood, so had adequate language skills to seek help. She in fact had sponsored her husband to live in the country, so the case does not really prove the point very well.

Other new measures are being considered with the aim to stop polygamists entering Canada; these include raising the minimum age for a sponsored spouse from 16 to 18 years old, and introducing self-employment assistance and schemes to help immigrant women set up some kind of business. Avvy Go, who has criticised some of the Immigration Office’s ideas has admitted that some of the proposed changes may be of benefit, but she still maintains that her largest concern was the ‘imposition of the new financial, English language and education requirements.’

Her concerns are that such changes may result in spouses from poor countries with poor educational systems may effectively never be able to live in Canada with their partner. The concern of Mario Bellissimo, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration law section, is that any new legislation along the lines which appear to be being considered at the moment will remove the focus of Canada’s immigration system away from a focus on family reunification.