Skip to main content

A bill tabled last month to curb human smuggling was the government's response to two ships full of Tamil migrants landing on Canada's shores in the past year.John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

The list of endorsements the Tories are showcasing to support their proposed crackdown on human smuggling is running into some trouble.

Tory MPs have been quick to rhyme off the names of local groups who have thrown their weight behind their controversial bill, and supportive letters from groups far and wide have popped up suddenly in the in-boxes of reporters covering the story.

But many of those supporters receive federal funding, their websites show. Some of the groups are so small that they have no office or website or official mission statement. And some of the supporters are now qualifying their endorsement.

The list of supporters does officially include some well-known organizations, including the Jewish community's B'nai Brith. But B'nai Brith's top legal counsel, David Matas, has signed on to a competing list of groups that oppose the human smuggling legislation.

And now B'nai Brith is changing its key message, asking the government to "strike a balance" between cracking down on smugglers, and protecting the vulnerable smuggled.

"Who is going to pay the price? It shouldn't be the suffering refugees," said the group's national director of legal affairs, Anita Bromberg. The group's brief to MPs debating the legislation will reflect B'nai Brith's concerns, as well as their hope that Ottawa can better control human smuggling, she said.

One group that sent out a supportive news release, called North American Canada Youth Business Association, has no website or office. The press release included a phone number and name of the president, Wei Charles Gao.

When first asked about his organization, Mr. Gao said he was too sleepy to answer. On a second phone call, he said he was too busy to answer detailed questions, but allowed that his organization had about 60 members, and said he would pass along documentation about his group soon.

No further information was forthcoming.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says he is certain the support for his bill among new Canadians is rock solid, however, and he gives not one whit about the size or the background of the groups who lend him support.

"Can I vouch for everyone who claims to support the bill? No. Do I have a responsibility to? No," he said in an interview. "We're actually very pleased with public reaction."

He said he fully expects immigration lawyers, the Canadian Bar Association and anyone with a vested interest in the status quo to oppose the bill.

If they didn't, Mr. Kenney said, it would be a sign he's doing something wrong.

"We would expect those who have a stake in the status quo system to defend it. That's just rational. We're not responding to the defenders of the broken status quo," he said. "We're responding to Canadians who see this smuggling as a fundamental violation of the integrity and fairness of our immigration system."

The bill, tabled last month, was Ottawa's response to two ships full of Tamil migrants landing on Canada's shores over the past year.

It would impose mandatory jail terms on human smugglers, and penalize anyone with even a passing knowledge of a smuggling operation.

The proposed legislation would also detain smuggled migrants for a year and put them on probation for five years - scaling back their health benefits, prohibiting travel outside the country, and preventing them from applying to bring over their families.

Human rights organizations were quick to denounce the bill as harmful to legitimate refugees, flying in the face of numerous international obligations and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But within a day of the government announcement, small ethnic organizations started sending press releases to journalists covering the story, and Conservatives speaking out in support of the bill began listing their names.

"Our way of working is to work with the government to get something from the government," said Balan Ratnarajah, whose phone number appears at the bottom of one widely distributed press release in favour of the bill.

He said he set up his group, the Peel Tamil Community Centre, about a year ago and it is too new and underfunded to have an office, staff or website.

He's hoping his support of the human smuggling bill will encourage the federal government to back his group financially. But he also says he has some serious reservations about the bill, despite his press release.

"We don't support the whole bill," Mr. Ratnarajah said. Stiffer penalties for human smugglers are fine, he said, but he is concerned about how the bill would have Ottawa treat refugees.

He said he has been assured that the troubling elements on refugees will never see the light of day.

"Eventually I think that's not going to be there. That's what we were told," he said.

Still, his reservations did not stop Conservative MP Devinder Shory from trumpeting the group's support during debates in the House of Commons.

The umbrella Tamil organization, the Canadian Tamil Congress, has come out dead-set against the legislation. And several Tamil community activists said they had never heard of the Peel organization.

The Tories' list of endorsements also includes the Vancouver's Multicultural Helping House Society as well as the Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society - organizations that help integrate newcomers into Canadian life, and receive federal funding.

"It seems like the minister is going to groups that get government funding and saying 'you need to support this,' " said Raoul Boulakia, a high-profile refugee lawyer in Toronto who is organizing to defeat the proposed legislation.

"I think it's an abuse of authority."

But the Conservative list of endorsements also contains established, independent backers such as the 1,000-strong Taiwanese Canadian Association of Toronto.

Spokesman Harry Tsai said the endorsement was agreed upon by the association's board of directors after hearing about abuses of Canada's immigration system in the media.