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asylum seekers

An asylum seeker is questioned by an RCMP officer as he crosses the border into Canada from the United States on August 21 near Champlain, N.Y.Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press

The federal government is under fire for an RCMP screening questionnaire that asks asylum seekers how they feel about Muslim headscarves, the Islamic State, and whether they would mind having a female boss.

The "interview guide" had been used by federal officers in Quebec, where more than 10,000 refugee claimants have surged into the province from a U.S. land crossing this year.

The guide came to light after one asylum seeker, who appeared to have been given a copy of the questions inadvertently, showed them to his lawyer in Toronto.

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The office of Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said it quickly intervened to get the national police force to drop the investigative tool.

"The minute we became aware of the interview guide, we were immediately concerned and contacted the RCMP. Some of the questions were inappropriate and inconsistent with government policy," spokesman Scott Bardsley said.

"The RCMP is committed to protecting the safety of Canadians and keeping our borders secure. At the same time, people seeking asylum in Canada must be treated with respect, compassion, and afforded due process under the law," Mr. Bardsley said.

The RCMP said the data obtained through the questionnaire was still in the force's database, which is shareable with other agencies, such as the Canada Border Services Agency. "The refugee claim process is separate from the RCMP's preliminary risk assessment," added RCMP Corporal Annie Delisle.

Refugee lawyers criticized the three-page questionnaire as tangible evidence of profiling because it singled out Muslim claimants. For example, it asks how the would-be refugees felt about women who did not cover their heads with the hijab, or what they thought about the Islamic State or the Taliban. There are no questions related to other religions.

"I have no objection to security screening," said Clifford McCarten, the Toronto immigration lawyer who is handling the case. "The objection is to this kind of irrelevant and discriminatory questioning, which reveals institutional bias and ignorance at the RCMP."

It showed an "obsessive focus on totally superfluous religious practices of Muslims," he said.

Mr. McCarten's client, from a Muslim country, received the questionnaire this past month.

"If a Jewish person was approached at the border and asked for their opinions on men who don't wear yarmulkes, it would be absurd for that to be entered into a government database," Mr. McCarten said. "Equally so if a Catholic priest was asked his opinions about nuns who don't wear habits."

Asylum seekers crossing into Quebec this year have overwhelmingly been of Haitian descent. The rest are mostly from India, Mexico, Colombia and Turkey, according to the Quebec immigration ministry.

The RCMP questionnaire has also drawn comparisons with Quebec's doomed charter of values and the proposal by Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch to screen immigrants for so-called Canadian values.

"Canada is a very liberal country that believes in freedom of religious practice and equality between men and women," the questionnaire says. "What is your opinion on this subject?"

Mr. McCarten also raised concerns that the federal government was apparently unaware of RCMP screening practices during what had been one of the most closely monitored immigration operations in recent history.

The NDP attacked the government for its "religious screening" of asylum seekers.

"The number of times someone prays should have no bearing on their refugee status. That is not who we are," said NDP MP Jenny Kwan, who is her party's immigration critic. "It is deeply troubling that this test appears to single out Muslim asylum seekers, who themselves have been targeted by discriminatory policies out of the U.S."

The RCMP said it conducts "preliminary risk assessments" to determine the background of asylum seekers, including looking for criminal records.

"When individuals are intercepted crossing the border illegally, their intentions are not known. Officers utilize the tools at their disposal to confirm the identity of the individuals and to assess their activities and intentions while respecting the human rights of the individual," Cpl. Delisle said.

The questionnaire is now being revised "to better evaluate individuals coming into the country whose origin is unknown, while being respectful of their situations."

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