Sean Saulnier married his Brazilian wife in their backyard last May. They didn’t kiss on the lips for photos. There was no diamond ring and no family in attendance.
According to a leaked training guide meant to help immigration officials detect marriage fraud, the Victoria, B.C., couple’s marriage would have raised a bunch of red flags as a “non-genuine” relationship.
The three-page training guide, titled “Evidence of Relationship,” lists clues officers should look for in assessing a spousal sponsorship application. Ostensible warning signs that it’s a sham marriage include: couples who are not depicted kissing on the lips in their wedding photos; university-educated Chinese nationals who marry non-Chinese; a small wedding reception in a restaurant; a Canadian sponsor who is relatively uneducated, with a low-paying job or on welfare.
Other red flags include couples who don’t take a honeymoon trip, perhaps because they were students or lack the financial resources to do so; no diamond ring; and photos of activities together taken in Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake and Toronto.
The training material, obtained under an access to information request and posted online by immigration lawyer Steven Meurrens, has created an uproar on social media among some Canadians and their foreign-born spouses.
“We all thought it was a joke. There’s no way this was real. Then we found out the guide was real and it was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is discriminatory. It’s against the Charter,'” said Saulnier, 37, who met his wife, Juliana, 35, while she was studying English in Toronto in 2011.
“I was born in Canada. This is racist and offensive. I’m just floored that this is accepted as criteria Immigration uses in judging the validity of my relationship,” added the software executive, whose wife is among thousands of foreign spouses waiting for long periods — the current average is 26 months — to be granted permanent residency.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada denied that the training material was racist and insisted all spousal applications from around the world are assessed equally, against exactly the same criteria, regardless of country of origin.
“The specific document you are referencing was an ad hoc document issued to officers nearly five years ago in response to an observed temporary spike in cases of marriages of convenience,” department spokesperson Nancy Caron told the Star.
“The instruction has not been active for more than three years, as the conditions that led to the instruction being issued subsequently changed.”
It is the first time the internal immigration training manual on marriage fraud, dated April 2007, has come to public light. Officials previously refused to share the information, citing the importance of keeping the investigative tool free from potential abuse by people wanting to commit immigration fraud.
The eyebrow-raising manual’s content concerns Meurrens, who obtained the guide along with 2,400 pages of other materials, in response to his request for all training manuals used at the Vegreville immigration processing centre in Alberta between 2011 and 2013.
“I am surprised that a Chinese marrying a non-Chinese, or a Canadian who is poor trying to sponsor a spouse, is an indicator of marriage fraud. That they actually put that in writing is surprising,” Meurrens said.
“I’d like to think that most immigration officers would realize how ridiculous that part of training was and would just ignore it.”
Toronto lawyer Avvy Go said the training module confirms her suspicions that there are inherent class and culture biases within the immigration department.
“If this is the kind of training that immigration officers are getting, one really has to wonder about the quality and competence of the officers who are making decisions that will make or break a family,” said Go. “It also calls into question the credibility of the entire decision-making process.”
Angela Rodriguez, from Venezuela, will marry her Canadian fiance, Harold Lopez, 29, on May 29; the couple has planned a small wedding at a Montreal restaurant.
“Of course, since I’m not allowed to work and Harold is a freelance video editor, we can only afford a small ceremony in the terrace of a restaurant,” said Rodriguez, 29, who met Lopez in Venezuela in 2007 and joined him in Canada four years later.
“We toured 16 jewellers to get the most affordable quality rings we could find. We are inviting only 17 people for our wedding and having a picnic the day after, so we can celebrate with a larger group of friends in a more affordable way. And that’s a red flag? We should be able to plan our own wedding, not based on what is acceptable to Immigration Canada.”