Crit­ics say re­forms fail to ad­dress lan­guage, knowl­edge bar­ri­ers faced by im­mi­grant women

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - NICHOLAS KEUNG

Born in In­dia to Ti­betan par­ents in ex­ile, Ts­esang Wangmo never went to school un­til she was spon­sored to Canada in late 2013 by her hus­band, who ar­rived in Toronto ear­lier un­der Ot­tawa’s refugee spon­sor­ship pro­gram.

The 39-year-old im­me­di­ately en­rolled her­self in English classes, be­gan work­ing as a cleaner at a down­town of­fice build­ing by night, and took a sec­ond clean­ing job on the week­end to sup­port her fam­ily. Her hus­band is also a labourer.

Al­though Wangmo has been tak­ing English classes five days a week for more than three years, her progress has been slow — she is still at level two or three out of seven, ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment as­sess­ment sys­tem — be­cause of the de­mands of her work and lack of pre­vi­ous ed­u­ca­tion.

Even though she has al­ready met the res­i­dency re­quire­ment to ap­ply for ci­ti­zen­ship — 1,095 days un­der a new leg­is­la­tion passed by Ot­tawa — Wangmo doesn’t have the min­i­mum level four in her English pro­fi­ciency to qual­ify or the time to at­tend com­mu­nity ci­ti­zen­ship coach­ing pro­grams that are only of­fered on the week­end.

“It’s my first time go­ing to school. It is hard. If I don’t work, we have no money to pay rent and food,” Wangmo said through an in­ter­preter. “You can’t play flute and eat tsampa (tra­di­tional Ti­betan roasted bar­ley) at the same time.” Wangmo is not alone. Ac­cord­ing to data ob­tained un­der a free­dom of in­for­ma­tion re­quest, far more women than men have their ci­ti­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tions re­jected be­cause they are un­able to meet the knowl­edge or lan­guage re­quire­ments.

Al­though the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment passed a bill this month to re­lax some of the more strin­gent ci­ti­zen­ship re­quire­ments im­posed by its Con­ser­va­tive pre­de­ces­sor, crit­ics say the changes fail to ad­dress the bar­ri­ers faced by im­mi­grant women hop­ing to ac­quire Cana­dian ci­ti­zen­ship.

Be­tween 2007 and March 2017, more than 56,000 peo­ple had their ci­ti­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tions re­fused, the ma­jor­ity of them for fail­ing the lan­guage and knowl­edge re­quire­ments, said Jen­nifer Stone of the Neigh­bour­hood Le­gal Ser­vices, who re­quested the data af­ter spot­ting a ris­ing num­ber of women com­ing to her of­fice for help with their ap­pli­ca­tions.

“Women and refugees are dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fected by the lan­guage and knowl­edge re­quire­ments. Now we have data that could bear that out,” Stone said. “For them, it’s not a mat­ter of won’t. It’s a mat­ter of can’t.”

Stone said that in re­cent years the num­ber ci­ti­zen­ship cases re­ceived by her clinic has sky­rock­eted and the ma­jor­ity of clients hav­ing dif­fi­culty ob­tain­ing ci­ti­zen­ship are refugee women or spon­sored spouses.

A gen­der break­down of the re­fusals showed that 24,286 or 60 per cent of the 41,071 who failed the ci­ti­zen­ship knowl­edge test were women. Of the 14,779 who failed the lan­guage re­quire­ment, 66 per cent, or 9,754 of them, were fe­male, ac­cord­ing to the data.

Refugees ap­pear to be dis­pro­por­tion­ally af­fected by the tight­ened ci­ti­zen­ship re­quire­ments in­tro­duced by the for­mer Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment: rais­ing the pass­ing mark for the ci­ti­zen­ship exam, de­mand­ing proof of lan­guage pro­fi­ciency and in­creas­ing the non­re­fund­able ci­ti­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tion fee to $530 from $100.

The num­ber refugees who ob­tained their ci­ti­zen­ship dropped by 25 per cent to 20,059 be­tween 2010 and 2015, from 26,725 be­tween 2005 and 2009.

By com­par­i­son, the ci­ti­zen­ship con­ver­sion rate for those who came un­der fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion de­clined by 19.6 per cent while the num­ber of new ci­ti­zens who im­mi­grated un­der the eco­nomic class went up by 0.9 per cent.

Ten­zin Tekan, a com­mu­nity le­gal worker with Park­dale’s le­gal clinic, said she was not sur­prised by the sta­tis­tics.

“For some­one with no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion, it’s hard,” Tekan said. “We wel­come the news about the changes (by the Lib­er­als), but it’s not go­ing to help ev­ery­one.”

Al­though there is a pro­vi­sion in the Ci­ti­zen­ship Act that waives the knowl­edge re­quire­ment based on med­i­cal opin­ions that ap­pli­cants will “never” pass the exam, it’s a long, te­dious process.

Deli Hus­san, a sin­gle mother of three chil­dren, twice had her ci­ti­zen­ship ap­pli­ca­tion re­jected. She at­tempted the knowl­edge exam six times, but the best she ever scored was 60 per cent, miss­ing the 75-per-cent mark.

A dropout at Grade 5, the 33year-old Iraqi woman was di­ag­nosed with ad­just­ment dis­or­der, with anx­i­ety and a de­pressed mood — par­tially a re­sult of past do­mes­tic abuse.

“I stud­ied very hard, but I was sweat­ing and shak­ing at the exam. I felt like I was go­ing to die. I got more ner­vous ev­ery time be­cause I was afraid I would fail again. It was crazy,” said Hus­san, who was re­set­tled to Canada in 2008 un­der Ot­tawa’s gov­ern­ment refugee spon­sor­ship pro­gram and ap­plied for ci­ti­zen­ship in 2011.

“I don’t feel safe to go any­where with­out the ci­ti­zen­ship. As a per­ma­nent res­i­dent, I am not pro­tected. I would like to be able to vote in elec­tions.”

De­spite med­i­cal ev­i­dence from sev­eral psy­chi­a­trists, im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials re­fused to grant Hus­san the waiver. She ap­pealed to the Fed­eral Court and the Im­mi­gra­tion De­part­ment agreed to re­con­sider the de­ci­sion. Hus­san fi­nally re­ceived her ci­ti­zen­ship in late 2016.

Since tak­ing power in late 2015, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment has granted more knowl­edge and lan­guage waivers than the pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment, but Stone said it is not enough and the process is open to ap­pli­cants only af­ter at least three failed at­tempts to pass the ci­ti­zen­ship test.

Un­der the Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment, be­tween 200 and 400 waivers were granted yearly. In 2016, the Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is­sued 2,378 waivers.


Though she has taken English classes for years, Ts­esang Wangmo hasn’t been able to meet the ci­ti­zen­ship lan­guage re­quire­ment, largely be­cause of the de­mands of her work and lack of pre­vi­ous ed­u­ca­tion. “It’s my first time go­ing to school. It is hard,” she says.

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