The Tory crime bill will hand the Immigration Minister a mandate to reject visas for foreign workers considered vulnerable, which immigration lawyers say could add moral and political ambiguity to decisions on who is allowed into the country.
The Conservatives first introduced the legislation in 2007 in a bid to keep strippers out of temporary work programs, and say it could apply to any foreign worker who might be subjected to humiliating or degrading treatment in Canada.
The bill would allow the minister to instruct officials to turn down groups of visa applicants based on their occupations or other, as yet undisclosed, criteria. New ministerial instructions would be published in the Canada Gazette, but would not require parliamentary approval.
As MPs prepare for their final two days of debate on the omnibus crime bill next week, lawyers are warning that the change in visa rules could have sweeping implications for foreign workers by allowing the minister to determine what kind of work is acceptable.
"What this does is it gives [Citizenship and Immigration Minister]Jason Kenney or any subsequent minister of immigration a blank cheque to write what is and what is not exploitative," said Guidy Mamann, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer.
A spokeswoman from Citizenship and Immigration Canada confirmed that exotic dancing is among the occupations the minister's instructions could target, but said it was too soon to offer examples of how the legislation might be used.
"Future written instructions will help define specifically who would be considered 'vulnerable' and this would depend on the situation or the context," Nancy Caron wrote in an e-mail, adding that decisions would be based on clear public policy objectives.
Mario Bellissimo of the Canadian Bar Association said the law could be useful if it helps immigration officers raise concerns about exploitation with foreign workers. But he cautioned that ministerial instructions should be based on laws and not moral standards.
"I guess part of any legislation is: Who is defining that morality, and is it reflective of Canadian standards," he said.
Lawyers also wondered if immigration officers would receive training to carry out the minister's instructions and whether enforcement would vary from province to province.
"We think it's a really broad delegation of what's a quite intrusive power and a very serious power, to take away people's ability to work," Abby Deshman of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association said. "Any time you're granting extremely broad discretion to government actors, you worry about things like arbitrary enforcement."
NDP amendments introduced this week would require a House of Commons committee to approve new ministerial instructions, and allow foreign workers who are rejected to appeal.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Kenney's office called the amendments unnecessary and irresponsible, adding the Conservatives would not support them.
"Canadians gave our government a strong mandate to keep the commitments we made during the election," Candice Malcolm wrote in an e-mail. "This includes the commitment to reintroduce and pass our legislation to crack down on human smuggling."