Immigration holding facilities in Vancouver and Laval, Que., will be replaced as part of a $138-million overhaul intended to improve detention conditions for newcomers to Canada.
The federal government will also move ahead with plans to expand the range of alternatives to locking up immigrants, with the aim of making detention a last resort, said Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale Monday during a visit to the aging Laval facility.
In addition, a community supervision program will be developed for released detainees.
The Canada Border Services Agency holds people who are considered a flight risk or a danger to the public and those whose identities cannot be confirmed.
But the Canadian Red Cross Society has found numerous shortcomings at facilities for immigrant detainees, including overcrowding and lack of mental health care.
Newcomers are often held in provincial jails or police facilities alongside suspected gang members and violent offenders.
The Red Cross said the border agency detained 10,088 immigrants — almost one-fifth of them refugee claimants — in 2013-14 in a variety of facilities, including federal holding centres and provincial and municipal jails. Among these were at least 197 minors, held an average of about 10 days each.
Of the three federal detention centres, the government has flagged the Laval facility, which dates from the 1950s, and the short-term holding centre at the Vancouver airport as most in need of attention. One in Toronto is considered to be in better shape.
The government says the planned changes mean only the highest-risk detainees will remain in provincial facilities.
Some of the new money will go to mental health and medical services for detainees in federal holding centres.
Beginning this summer, the government will hold consultations on finding more alternatives to detention — such as electronic monitoring — and reducing the number of minors behind bars.
The Liberals don't want detention to be "the only game in town," Goodale said.
British Columbia Civil Liberties Association executive director Josh Paterson called the federal plans "very encouraging." However, he said, it would be a backward step if the rebuilt facilities prompt officials to detain more people.
The End Immigration Detention Network welcomed the government's acknowledgment of problems, but it said new laws and policies are needed — not revamped holding centres — to remedy unfairness in the system. The network wants a limit of 90 days on detentions.
An average of 450 to 500 immigrants are detained at any given time, the government says.
Several people have died in border services agency custody, including two in Ontario last March.
In December 2013, Lucia Vega Jimenez, 42, tried to kill herself while held by the border agency in British Columbia. She was taken to hospital and died days later.
Last month close to 60 immigrants in two Ontario prisons began refusing food to protest their detention.
Goodale said Monday the hunger strike reflected "the pressures within the system" — ones the government is trying to address.
The Liberals will look at an array of alternatives including community supervision and surveillance, electronic monitoring and telephone reporting that makes use of voice-recognition technology. The government will ensure public safety is not compromised, Goodale added.
Paterson said the civil liberties association would put forward ideas. "Our preference is to use every other means than detention."