The suspicions started when the same relatives showed up again and again in wedding photos. Then came the elaborately staged – and entirely fake – wedding receptions.
Now, as Canadian intelligence officials working in China, India and other foreign missions are locked in a cat and mouse game to nab immigration fraudsters, Ottawa is preparing to unveil a new "conditional" immigration status to curb marriage fraud.
The new category will make it easier for Ottawa to deport a sponsored spouse who is later found to have lied in a bid to come to Canada.
The new regulations are expected to be introduced later this year and will be based on practices already in place in the United States and Australia. In those countries, couples must prove they have lived together for a defined period before the applicant becomes a permanent resident.
And to prevent a "revolving door" of fraud marriages for cash, the government will also bring in a five-year ban on sponsoring spouses being allowed to turn around and sponsor a new spouse into Canada.
Immigration Minister Jason Kenney confirmed the plan Wednesday, singling out China and India as countries where elaborate schemes have been uncovered.
Mr. Kenney said Canadian officials in India noticed that the faces of husbands and wives were being Photoshopped onto the same wedding photo, time and again.
"Then we required that people have bigger pictures of their wedding reception so we could see if it was authentic. Then we saw that in the Punjab, some of these wedding palaces were offering fake wedding receptions for people. So then we go out and visit some of these wedding palaces. It's a cat and mouse game," he said.
The Canada Border Services Agency has a team of 62 "liaison officers" in 48 missions who gather intelligence on potential fraud schemes.
The new regulations are based on countrywide consultations by the Department of Citizenship and Immigration, which found broad support among more than 2,300 respondents for the changes, under certain conditions. For instance, close to half supported a conditional status of two years or less, while only 23 per cent supported a period of between five and 10 years. Ottawa has said only that its conditional status will be "two years, or longer."
But the notion of making permanent residency conditional on living with a new spouse for a yet-to-be-defined period of time raises concerns that new immigrants could be vulnerable to domestic abuse in Canada. The rules are expected to include an exemption in cases where abuse has occurred.
NDP MP and immigration critic Don Davies said creating a new immigration status is something that should be debated before Parliament, not passed without scrutiny via regulations. He said it would be better if Ottawa focused on improved screening overseas. Mr. Davies raised concerns about domestic abuse, but also the fact that half of non-fraudulent marriages fail.
"What if the marriage fails? You're going to force two people to live together for two years when that didn't work?" he asked. "I just think that's unsound policy."
Mr. Kenney's comments come as another case of finger-pointing over alleged marriage fraud is landing on his doorstep. His department is currently the subject of a letter-writing campaign led by the family of Gurdip Singh Saroya, whose family claims the Surrey, B.C., resident jumped off a bridge and killed himself because his new wife wanted to move to Toronto shortly after arriving from India.
His wife, Harmanjeet Kaur Dhami, told OMNI news she doesn't know what she did wrong. Shown with red marks on her neck, she alleges she was the victim of domestic abuse in Canada.
"First they should tell me what's my fault," she said. "I don't understand it."
Citizenship and Immigration says there are no firm figures on the extent of marriage fraud, but in 2010, about 16 per cent of the 46,300 immigration applications for spouses and partners were refused for various reasons, including that the relationship was not bona fide.
When Canada increased its focus on fraud originating from southern China via Canada's mission in Hong Kong, the rejection rate there for spouses increased to 50 per cent in 2008.