Report urges Ottawa to take on polic­ing of im­mi­gra­tion con­sul­tants

Not enough be­ing done to en­sure that vul­ner­a­ble are not be­ing vic­tim­ized, com­mit­tee says

Toronto Star - - GREATER TORONTO AREA - NI­CHOLAS KE­UNG IM­MI­GRA­TION RE­PORTER

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.”

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