Report urges Ottawa to take on policing of immigration consultants
Not enough being done to ensure that vulnerable are not being victimized, committee says
Concerned about the prevalence of unlicensed immigration consultants and what MPs say is the industry’s inability to self-regulate, a parliamentary committee is recommending Ottawa scrap the existing regulatory body and take over the policing of the profession.
Paid immigration and refugee consulting should be restricted to lawyers in good standing with provincial law societies and consultants registered with the federal government, said the immigration committee in a 60-page report released Friday.
“The current framework does not provide adequate oversight,” the parliamentary citizenship and immigration committee said in the report.
“There are a number of issues with the current framework and more remains to be done to ensure that individuals coming or immigrating to Canada do not fall victim to the abuses of unscrupulous consultants, and that the integrity of our im- migration system is not diminished.”
It is not the first time Ottawa is reviewing the profession. In 2004, the federal government put up $1.2 million to create the Canadian Society of Immigration Consultants, a self-regulatory body that everyone hoped would instill a sense of professionalism and faith in a business with a notorious reputation.
Despite the good intentions, Ottawa decertified the regulator in 2011 following complaints about mismanagement and poor governance, and replaced it with another self-regulatory body, the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), which is based in Burlington.
The regulator is a private corporation designated by Ottawa to police its members, with a mission to protect consumers of immigration services through regulation and promotion of the use of authorized immigration representatives.
Since its creation, the ICCRC has seen the number of licensed consultants increase from 1,700 to 4,000, with $7.2 million in revenue, mainly from membership dues, and an annual budget over $6 million. The regulator, with 29 employees in three offices across Canada, is overseen by a 15-member board of directors, including three public interest representatives who are not consultants. Half of the directors are elected each year to serve two-year terms.
Almost six years after its inception, the organization is again dogged by the industry’s old demons.
So-called ghost consultants, or unlicensed agents, are still operating and criticisms about transparency surrounding the group’s finances are being raised.
Over the last few months, the bipartisan parliamentary committee heard from 50 witnesses including consultants, lawyers, community groups, immigration and border officials, advocates and migrants before compiling the report with 21 recommendations.
During the committee hearings, the regulator argued the government should grant it more power so it could pursue unlicensed and unscrupulous consultants on its own. Currently, the ICCRC has no authority over ghost consultants.
Critics of the regulator recommended Ottawa restrict the practice of immigration law to lawyers, who have been selfregulated by provincial law societies for more than 100 years, or that the government itself take over regulation of what they say is a deeply troubled industry.
In recent months, five members of the ICCRC’s board of directors have resigned with another “removed” from duty based on “repeated incidents of bullying and intimidation of staff and board members,” according to the regulator.
In an interview the board member, Ryan Dean, said he was removed for “being a whistleblower.”
His dismissal in April followed his testimony before the parliamentary committee the month before, in which he complained the regulator’s books did not balance and he was denied access to its financial records.
“To date, there are four sets of financial statements, all for 2016, all certified and audited,” Dean told the committee. “The last time I talked about this in public (at the annual general meeting), the ICCRC shut off the microphones during the question-and-answer period explaining the financial statements, and another member was physically assaulted by management for speaking his views, and the mike was torn out of his hands.”
In an email response to the Star, Lawrence Barker, the regulator’s registrar, said the council is financially sound and has established $3.5 million in reserves without incurring any expenses to taxpayers.
“At the last annual general meeting, the public auditors were present and confirmed that the financial statements as presented at the meeting were proper and correct,” Barker wrote.
The regulator’s 2016 annual report shows it spent $66,000 or 1 per cent of its budget on marketing and advertising to consumers. Barker said ICCRC participates in numerous consumer protection initiatives and is expanding its outreach with an increased budget this year.
Meanwhile, MPs sitting on the parliamentary immigration committee said their offices are overwhelmed by complaints against consultants and requests to fix constituents’ immigration problems.
“Here we are. It’s a déjà vu, all over again,” said Vancouver East MP Jenny Kwan, opposition NDP’s immigration critic and vice-chair of the House committee, who was in favour of having the profession regulated directly by the federal government.
“This is not to say all consultants are bad but I’m more convinced than ever before that self-regulating is not working,” added Kwan in an interview.
Dean, the board member who was removed after speaking to the parliamentary committee, is also critical of the regulator’s outsourcing of its discipline and investigations operation to a company called NR Complaint and Discipline Solutions Inc., which is registered to the wife of ICCRC’s director of complaints and discipline, Robert Kewley.
“The government told ICCRC that they were the regulator, and the ICCRC turned around and has given the power and a big cheque every month for many years to the private corporation,” Dean told the parliamentary committee. “None of us directors were even allowed to ask questions about it, because it’s the black box.”
A contract between Kewley’s company and ICCRC obtained by Dean and viewed by the Star showed it was paid $12,500 a month for the service.
Kewley, when reached at his home office, wouldn’t confirm the amount but said he was paid a monthly flat fee by the regulator from 2011 to 2015. He has an ongoing contract with ICCRC that expires later this year. He refused to disclose the new terms.
Barker, of the ICCRC, said many professional regulatory bodies, especially the smaller ones, contract investigative work to a third party in the early stage after their formation. The regulator planned to move the operation in-house later in 2017, he added.
From the get-go in 2011, he said, Kewley was retained as a contractor to lead the investigation and complaint intake. “He is not, nor has ever been, an employee,” said Barker.
Kewley, a former Mountie, told the Star his company had three other retired RCMP officers as investigators and the business was registered to his wife for taxation reasons.
Debbie Douglas, who sat on the ICCRC board for a year as a public interest member, said in her resignation letter in January that her time on the board was “challenging.”
“While I strongly support the mission of the regulatory council, its practice of governance, its relationship with members and the backroom dealings that appear to be status quo are in opposition to my values of equity and transparency,” Douglas, executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, wrote in the letter obtained by the Star.
“The decision of the members to vote out all incumbent directors standing for re-election was less an exercise in democracy than an expression of cynicism and one-upmanship.”
Douglas declined to comment further when reached by the Star.
The Canadian Bar Association, which represents lawyers across Canada, urged Ottawa to dismantle ICCRC and restrict the practice of immigration law to lawyers and Quebec notaries.
“The evidence presented to the parliamentary committee is clear that ICCRC has significant problems resulting from the consultants’ inability to self-regulate,” Vance Langford, chair of the bar association’s immigration section, told the Star in an interview.
“One of the problems is many consultants do not have the benefit of the education and training, as well as the effective regulations that lawyers do. We had CSIC, and now ICCRC. They don’t deserve a third chance.”
Barker argued the bar association’s recommendation was made out of the group’s self-interest.
“The Canadian Bar Association is an advocacy and member service organization that promotes the interests of lawyers. The changes they have recommended would entitle their membership to compensation for the provision of all Canadian immigration consulting services,” Barker said.
“Removing 4,000 licensed and regulated immigration consultants from the marketplace would have a considerable impact on those seeking immigration services, as it would be difficult for lawyers who specialize in the practice of immigration law to accommodate the newfound demand.”
The committee’s recommendations are not binding. The study was received Friday by Parliament for consideration.
Vance Langford, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration division, says the immigration consulting industry doesn’t “deserve a third chance.”