Conrad Black is once again part of an elite club: a foreign national who has secured a permit to live in Canada even before finishing jail time abroad.
As The Globe and Mail first reported this week, a request from Lord Black, the former media baron, for a one-year temporary resident permit was approved by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration in March even while he was still jailed in Florida for fraud and obstruction of justice.
Canadian immigration lawyers on Wednesday said it's extraordinarily rare for the federal government to grant the right to reside here to convicted felons while they're still in prison.
The former Hollinger newspaper head, who renounced his Canadian citizenship in 2001 to obtain a British peerage, is expected to be granted early release from a U.S. jail this week.
Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann said Ottawa is supposed to take into account whether a temporary resident permit applicant has demonstrated the ability to live outside prison without reoffending.
"How on earth do you prove that a guy has rehabilitated when he hasn't even finished his sentence?" he said.
Mr. Mamann said he's not saying Lord Black doesn't deserve to be allowed back into Canada, only that if he had a client facing the same challenge, "I wouldn't even have taken money from him."
He said he thinks it's unlikely the Conservative government had no role in the decision.
"The idea that the minister didn't wink or nod in favour of this thing is impossible to imagine."
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Prime Minister Stephen Harper reject the notion they lifted a finger for Lord Black – saying the decision was left solely to bureaucrats.
"There has been no involvement of anyone on the political side of government in this," Mr. Harper told the House of Commons. "It would be just as easy for us if Mr. Black were not allowed to come to Canada."
Leaving aside the question of political influence, other lawyers say the case merited careful attention from bureaucratic decision-makers because of Lord Black's circumstances alone.
It's not a run-of-the-mill matter such as, say, a New York Rangers hockey player needing a permit to enter Canada despite a drunk-driving conviction.
"Yes, he received special treatment, but in my opinion, he received special treatment because it is a special case," Montreal immigration lawyer David Cohen said.
In reviewing applications, Citizenship and Immigration is supposed to weigh the danger an applicant poses to Canada against his or her need to be here, he said.
"No one was thinking of the Conrad Black situation when they came up with the TRP [temporary resident permit]"
Lord Black has spent significant portions of his life in Canada, his wife is Canadian, as are his three children. He also writes for a Canadian newspaper.
Plus, as Winnipeg lawyer Kenneth Zaifman points out, Lord Black poses no threat.
"Unless he writes an inflammatory article in the National Post and people are driven into the streets, I don't see any risk," Mr. Zaifman said.
Citizenship and Immigration was unable to say how many temporary resident permits it has awarded to foreigners still living in a cell block.
The department granted 11,526 temporary resident permits in 2011, including 6,541 for applicants with criminal records. Of these, 907 were considered serious criminals convicted of wrongdoings that would be an indictable offence in Canada.
A source with knowledge of the matter, however, was able to recall one other case – about four months ago – where Ottawa granted such a permit to an applicant in a Caribbean prison.