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The federal government is warning newcomers that stiffer impaired driving and cannabis-related penalties could lead to their removal from Canada.

The measures are part of the sweeping package of changes taking place as Canada becomes the first G7 country to legalize recreational cannabis use.

On Dec. 18, new impaired driving penalties will take effect, raising the maximum penalties for most of these offences from five years to 10. It means they will fall under the definition of serious crimes for immigration determination purposes.

“The impact of these new penalties on permanent and temporary residents could be significant,” the Immigration Department advises in a statement.

The Immigration Department quietly posted a statement on its website this earlier this week advising permanent and temporary of the upcoming penalty changes, noting they could be particularly affected.

The posting is the first part of a multi-pronged education campaign to be rolled out in the coming weeks to ensure newcomers to Canada are informed of the impact that Canada’s new impaired driving laws could have on their ability to remain in Canada.

“Our main message to permanent residents and temporary residents is – make sure you know and follow our laws, including our tough new rules for cannabis-related crimes and impaired driving. If you don’t, you could face serious legal and immigration consequences,” said Mathieu Genest, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen.

“These penalties will have significant impacts on Canadians and non-Canadians alike.”

People who work with immigrants and refugees warn the change will create barriers for newcomers.

“The significance of this change from an immigration point of view is very high,” said immigration lawyer Lorne Waldman.

Immigration officials could rule a person is inadmissible to Canada for “serious criminality,” even if an impaired driving offence took place in another country.

Border Security Minister Bill Blair says the aim is to deter drivers from driving while high.

“The penalty for impaired driving is a reflection of how serious this government and all Canadians view impaired driving. It’s a crime that takes as many as four lives a day in this country, injures tens of thousands of people,” Blair told reporters Thursday.

“A maximum penalty of 14 years for those offences reflects the seriousness of the offence.”

Under federal immigration law, a permanent resident or foreign national can be deemed inadmissible if they have been convicted of a Canadian offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison, or of an offence for which they have actually been sentenced to more than six months behind bars.

In addition, the same rule applies to those who have committed an offence in another country that, if committed in Canada, would carry a penalty of up to 10 years.

As a result, the department says, the new cannabis and impaired-driving provisions could mean:

  • Permanent residents might lose their status and have to leave the country;
  • Temporary residents – including visitors, international students and foreign workers – may not be able to enter or stay in Canada;
  • Refugee claimants may be ineligible to have their claim referred for a refugee hearing.

Moreover, appeal rights for permanent residents and foreign nationals, including sponsored members of the family class, could also be affected, the department said.

Under the changes, permanent residents convicted of impaired driving in Canada will have to worry about the prospect of deportation proceedings, Waldman said.

Impaired driving is an extremely serious matter given the danger it poses, Waldman said.

“But do I think people should be barred from Canada, possibly for life, over one impaired driving (offence)? No.”

He cautioned it remains to be seen how strictly Canadian authorities will apply the removal provision.

Although criminality could always pose challenges to entering Canada, a serious offence “makes your pathway into Canada much more complicated,” Waldman said.

“Because you have to go through a whole series of extra steps and the requirements to get an exemption – a permit to allow you to come in – are more stringent.”

Even now, Canada doesn’t meet its international obligations with respect to refugees, said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, noting Canada’s broad exclusions on the basis of serious criminality.

She said that adding another group who will be denied access to a refugee hearing on that basis means Canada is “increasing the risk that we’re going to send someone back to face persecution in violation of our international obligations.”

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