Tough new measures to crack down on human smuggling are necessary to stem an ongoing loss of faith by Canadians in the national immigration and refugee system, federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says.
Mr. Kenney made the point several times on Thursday during a news conference held on a Fraser River dock alongside the Ocean Lady, which ferried 76 Tamil migrants to Canada in October, 2009. Less than a year later, the Sun Sea was used to bring 492 migrants to Canada.
The two arrivals helped to spur the government to the proposed new measures tabled in Parliament on Thursday as part of the Preventing Human Smugglers from Abusing Canada's Immigration System Act.
Under the legislation, anyone deemed to have arrived as part of a smuggling operation could be detained for up to a year or until the Immigration Refugee Board makes a final decision on their case. They would face different restrictions on permanent residence, travel and health coverage than regular claimants.
Currently, prosecutors must prove that smuggler knew their passengers did not have lawful documents to enter Canada, but the proposed changes would allow prosecution for any violation of the act.
Under the new legislation, the maximum penalty for smuggling in more than 10 people would be life in prison and/or a $1-million fine. For fewer than 10 people it would be 10 years and a fine of up to $500,000 for a first offence.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper also has appointed Ward Elcock, a former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, as his special adviser on human smuggling and illegal migration.
Mr. Kenney, flanked by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and senior B.C. minister Stockwell Day, told reporters that polls have measured a decline in public support for immigration since the arrival of the Ocean Lady.
"We cannot afford to allow these smuggling operations to undermine public support for our fair and generous immigration system," Mr. Kenney said. "That is why we must take action."
Mr. Kenney noted that part of the solution involves pre-emptive law enforcement measures in which Canadian police travel to south Asia to work with their counterparts there, a tactic that led to arrests of human smugglers in Thailand last week.
"We acknowledge that the best way to stop the smuggling operations is to prevent the ships from leaving in the first place. There are a lot of operations we cannot talk about that are having an impact."
Still, criticism of the measures began rolling in while the ministers were still on the dock, and Mr. Kenney offered a response for the political fight ahead, accusing special interests in the "immigration industry" and critics acting on ideological grounds of defending the status quo.
"[They're]risking a continued … reduction in public support for immigration and refugee protection. And that is irresponsible."
The federal Tories will be dispatching four ministers and a parliamentary across the country today to talk up their approach and rally support for the legislation. Mr. Toews urged the opposition to examine the bill closely, but critics from the Liberals and NDP swiftly condemned it.
Olivia Chow, the immigration critic for the federal New Democrats, said the proposed legislation would hurt only the victims of international human-smuggling syndicates because refugee claimants will be detained for longer periods of time.
She also said no additional staff has been directed at the problem and convictions will remain difficult to obtain because the victims, who would be the witnesses, are quickly deported.
Mark Holland, the Liberal public safety critic, said the Conservative government solution is more about politics than ending human trafficking.
With a report from Steven Chase