Commentary by Will Tao in Vancouver
The Liberal Government finally delivered on their long-standing campaign promise to end conditional permanent residency for spouses on April 28.
Previously introduced in October 2012 by the Conservative government, the conditional permanent residence regulation required those who were in a relationship for two years or less and had no children to live with their sponsors for two years after they became permanent residents. Some exceptions were carved out for individuals who were victims of abuse or neglect. The Toronto Star (Nicholas Keung) reported that only 57 individuals sought an exemption and were successful in 75 per cent of their exemption requests.
The negative consequences of conditional permanent residency were often borne by vulnerable women and their young newly-born children. New to Canada and without a support network, they were victimized by their abusive spouses, but often too scared to seek help.
While the exception provisions allowed for a streamlined process to contact Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) in these circumstances, I had several women subject to conditional permanent residence tell me first-hand stories of being prevented access to computers, phones, even the internet. In one case, I had a woman tell me that she locked herself in a bathroom just to communicate with me as we prepared her case.
Another woman told me about feigning sleep in order to avoid the verbal and psychological abuse of a partner coming home violent and intoxicated. All of this because they were afraid to leave their spouses and put their status in Canada at risk.
I am glad these individuals can now sleep better at night and enjoy the security that all Canadians rightfully enjoy.
It is important to note that that these stories did not only come from vulnerable women. They also came from male conditional permanent residents who were abandoned by their spouses, as well as the LGBTQ2+. Many of these relationships broke down foremost as a result of infidelity, leading later to abuse and neglect – a sequence of events that the earlier exceptions policy appears to have overlooked.
Conditional permanent residence created more harm than good, more uncertainty. For this, I am glad it is a thing of the past and we can move forward.
Immigrant Marriage Breakdowns ≠Marriages of Convenience
Moving forward, in my view, begins by re-framing the two issues of marriage fraud and marriage breakdown. We should not use the end of the conditional permanent residence requirement as a pretext to now second guess or re-scrutinize the genuineness and immigration intent of a majority (85%+) of bona-fide immigrant marriages. The end of conditional permanent residence, I hope, will not lend cover to sponsors trying to remove their sponsored spouses from Canada.
The reality with sponsorship of immigrant spouses is that a significant portion of genuine marriages will end up breaking down. While academic research is limited in this area, my hypothesis is based on the following:
First, I believe economic challenges have a greater negative effective on immigrant marriages and common-law partnership. Piecing together what we do know, recent Canada statistics show that 48% of all marriages are now ending in divorce, with financial issues and adultery among the leading causes. Poverty affects racialized individuals at a rate four times greater than non-racialized families and past studies have found immigrants who have been in Canada less than five years are 11 percentage points more likely to be in poverty than other Canadians. Furthermore, immigrant families, receive less in household income and are less likely to own homes than non-immigrant families. New Canadian immigrants, especially women, are often more likely to face labour market challenges and experiences with precarious work conditions.
Second, I suggest that cultural shock also contributes to marriage breakdown by creating consequences such as the return of the sponsored spouse to their home country, abandonment, and adultery. Carmen Munoz, Program Manager for the Cross-Cultural Peer Support Group Program for Immigrant and Refugee Women (CCPSGP) highlights in a piece she writes the challenges new immigrant women face which include experiencing “intense culture shock, isolation, depression, frustration and an overwhelming sense of confusion, which in turn, not only manifests itself mentally, but through physical reactions as well.”
The cultural pressures, the economic pressures, and often extended family pressures (from both the Sponsor and the Applicant) can coalesce and intersect into major challenges for immigrant marriages and common-law partnerships.
Unfortunately, conditional permanent residence lumped the issue of marriage breakdown unnecessarily into the marriage fraud debate, inputting bad intentions where more often than not none existed. Not only did it punish genuine couples often at their most vulnerable moments, but it also led to not enough focus being placed to eliminating the actual root causes of marriage fraud – unauthorized legal practitioners both in Canada and internationally who set up marriages of convenience for their own financial gain.
Ultimately, I suggest that Parliament should focus on creating conditions that strengthen immigrant marriages and prevent systemic abuse of our sponsorship system, rather than enforcing back-end restrictions that may aggravate the challenges faced by new Canadian families.
Will Tao is a Canadian immigration lawyer based in Vancouver, B.C., with a practice primary focused on complex immigration applications and refusals on behalf of educational institutions and international students. Tao is a former member of New Canadian Media's board of directors and a current member of the Not-for-profit corporation. He currently sits on the Canadian Bar Association British Columbia’s Equality and Diversity Committee and on the City of Vancouver’s Cultural Communities Advisory Committee.