Lee Cohen, who has spent the last three decades working as an immigration lawyer in Halifax, says the federal government has gone out of its way in the past number of years to make Canada as “inhospitable as it’s been since the Second World War for immigrants and refugees.”
“It is both disturbing and mysterious that Canada is spending such a huge chunk of money on this museum that’s already there and not spending money on those who need to get to Canada for safety and security,” Cohen said in an interview.
The new exhibit, at the historic Pier 21, is a sight to behold. The visually rich design is peppered with interactive displays and high-tech touch screens outlining a centuries-long dance with immigration and the stories of the settlers who helped build Canada.
Thursday’s unveiling will feature music and entertainment, followed by free tours.
Justice Minister and Central Nova MP Peter MacKay will attend, as will Canadian author Lawrence Hill.
The need to recognize the important contributions of immigrants is evident, Cohen said, but in the midst of one of the biggest humanitarian crises the world has ever seen, the government is failing to live up to its international obligation to protect vulnerable populations.
He said the Harper government has quietly made a number of significant changes to both immigration and refugee law that make an already onerous and confusing process more inaccessible, even to the most educated applicants.
For example, in 2011, Canada imposed a two-year moratorium on allowing established immigrants to sponsor their parents due to a backlog in applications. When the ban was lifted, the government also increased the level of income that immigrants had to make in Canada to sponsor their parents, and changed regulations so that they had to earn that income for at least three years in a row. Last summer, Canada also lowered the age that children could be considered dependants and immigrate with their families from 22 to 19.
People don’t want to leave their family members behind in often unstable situations, Cohen said, so they simply don’t come.
For refugees, the situation is just as dire, he said.
Refugee claimants now have only 30 to 60 days, depending on the situation, to file their papers; if not, they have to leave the country. Cohen said this is a roadblock in an already confusing process and doubly so for those who don’t speak English.
In 2012, the government made major cuts to the Interim Federal Health Program that left many refugees in Canada without access to basic health-care needs. Some of those cuts have been reinstated after a Federal Court ruled them unconstitutional, a ruling Ottawa has been fighting at a cost of $1.5 million in hopes of overturning.
The cuts affect refugee claimants — those who are not sponsored by government, victims of human trafficking, or sponsored privately — the most, says Gillian Zubizarreta, the settlement co-ordinator at the Halifax Refugee Clinic, an organization that provides legal help to refugee claimants as part of its mandate.
“(The impacts of the cuts) have ranged from people not having adequate coverage they need and therefore receiving huge bills, to some people becoming too anxious to go to the doctor at all,” she said, recalling the case of one refugee who was unable to seek medical care for his pregnant wife.
Zubizarreta charges the cuts are part of a larger framework of discrimination shaped by government rhetoric to convince Canadians that these refugees are “bogus” intruders looking to take advantage of the system.
Among the exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Immigration are several that serve as a reminder of darker times, when Canada opened its arms to white settlers but turned others away based on their skin colour or religion.
But according to Cohen and Zubizarreta, this is hardly a historical matter.
“There seems to be a lot of discrimination and racism imbued in the system now,” Zubizarreta said.
She said she believes the government wants to exert control over the process to such an extent that only “designer immigrants” are able to make Canada their home.
“(The government) is crafting immigration categories that make only a certain kind of person attractive to the Canadian system,” Cohen said. “That is a middle- to upper-class individual who is financially well-heeled, speaks English or French at a very high level and has a very high level of education.
“But the nation was not built by people who speak English or French and have a higher education. It was built by people with one thing in common: the desire to work and succeed.”
The Chronicle Herald contacted the office of Immigration Minister Chris Alexander for comment on refuge cuts and other immigration-related issues. No one was made available for an interview but a spokesman replied to emails, saying the following:
“There were no cuts to refugee health care. We are talking about bogus and failed refugee claimants, which by definition are not refugees … We strongly reject these immigration lawyers’ comments as we had the highest sustained levels of immigration in Canadian history in the last few years.”
More on Lee Cohen
|M. LEE COHEN – Barrister and Solicitor|
|Lee Cohen is a Canadian lawyer
who specializes in immigration and human rights matters.His office is located in
HALIFAX, Nova Scotia on Canada’s east coast.
Lee Cohen has been practicing law in Canada since 1981. His practice is dedicated exclusively to matters related to immigration, refugees and human rights. He has assisted hundreds of foreign nationals seeking entry into Canada and has extensive experience preparing all categories of immigration applications and procedures for people including:
He has represented clients throughout all stages of Canadian immigration processes, from application to interview and from hearings to Federal Court appeals.Lee Cohen’s law practice is influenced by his strong belief in the moral, cultural and economic benefit of substantial and consistent immigration to Canada and the unconditional right to live in freedom and safety.
Lee Cohen is a frequent commentator in local, national and international media on matters relating to immigration and human rights.He lecturers at universities and to public interest groups on immigration issues, racism and human rights.
He is the former chair of the Canadian Bar Association – Nova Scotia Branch Immigration Law Section and has appeared before Canadian parliamentary committees to comment upon proposed amendments to immigration legislation.
Most recently, Lee Cohen founded the Halifax Refugee Clinic, a non-profit organization providing pro bono representation for eligible refugees seeking political asylum in Canada.
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M. Lee Cohen Barrister and Solicitor
Post Office Box 304 Halifax CRO
Halifax , Nova Scotia, B3J 2N7, Canada.TELEPHONE (902) 423-2412
FACSIMILE (902) 425-0109