Immigration troubles headline at 2011 Vancouver Folk Music Festival

Tinariwen, one of the groups stopped at the border on the way to the Vancouver Folk Music Festival

As the 34th Annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival came to a close on Sunday, tales of troubles at the Canadian border became a common theme.

By the end of this year’s Festival, some members of the musical groups Tinariwen (from Mali), Morgan O’Kane (from New York/Virginia), and Ricardo Lemvo (from Congo/Cuba) were denied entry visas to perform at the Festival. The reasons for denial ranged from past minor criminal convictions, some more than 15 years old, to, in the case of Tinariwen, security related concerns. These denials were part of a trend noticed by music event producers across the country over the past few years. The Canadian border, viewed as too porous by some in government, is now turning into a great big wall.

What surprised Folk Festival organizers most is that these groups had all been granted visas to perform in Canada in the past few years. Festival organizers are now urging Festival goers to write to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

Why the change now?

I think it is due to three reasons: the aftermath of 9/11, the present government’s “law and order” agenda, and the colour of money.

Data Sharing

After the tragedy of 9/11 USA lawmakers kept accusing Canada of having weak borders. As a partial response, Canada and the USA began to share criminal databases for immigration purposes and a push towards a Smart Border. More and more data has been shared over the past 10 years between governments.

Entrants to Canada have been shocked to discover that old charges and convictions that they thought had been “dealt with” are now coming back to haunt them and leading to denials of entry and deportations. The data sharing between Canada and the USA (and other countries) can be sporadic and hard to predict. In the case of the Festival, some of the performers turned away had performed in Canada as recently as last year. In the case of one group, one week after being denied entry to the Festival in Vancouver, they were granted permission to play at the Calgary Folk Music Festival this coming weekend.

Law and Order

All too often the pursuit of law and order results in the attainment of neither. 

The current Conservative government has repeatedly expressed its wishes to be hard on crime. With the creation of the Canada Border Services Agency in 2003 by the previous government, a large part of the enforcement role of Citizenship and Immigration Canada is now carried out by the CBSA. With a budget of approximately 1.8 billion dollars, the CBSA has been one of the faster growing government agencies. Immigration lawyers and advocates had expressed concerns at the time that the creation of such an agency with result in a more strict, enforcement oriented mentality. Anecdotal evidence suggests that Canada’s borders are tightening up and music presenters in Canada are expressing concerns that it is hard to plan events when entry to Canada cannot be predicted.

The tightening of the Canada/USA border has also not been missed by critics in the U.S

Money Talks

Canadian immigration laws recognize that in certain cases even inadmissible persons should be considered eligible to enter Canada for a limited time and purpose. The visa granted in such instances is a Temporary Resident Permit (TRP), not to be confused with a Temporary Resident Visa (TRV). Visitor, worker and student visas are TRV’s.

A TRP is a special visa, which can be provided to an applicant who is otherwise inadmissible to Canada. What the performers to the Festival were seeking was a short term Temporary Resident Permit so that they could play the Festival and leave. To help decision makers with these types of cases, Canada Immigration has a policy manual, which lays out the factors, which need to be considered.

The factors to be considered include the seriousness of the offence, if there is evidence of rehabilitation, the time elapsed since the crime took place, and the risk caused by the person. The need to enter Canada must be compelling. One of the more compelling factors is the economic or employment security of Canadians.

So, if a CEO of a large company wishes to enter Canada and is criminally inadmissible but many jobs and dollars are at stake then, well, maybe the scales tip in the CEO’s favour. If U2 or some other major arena rock group wants to enter Canada and millions of dollars in tickets and revenues are at stake, well, maybe it is best to let them in. But, if a little old music presenter wants to have a performer enter, maybe not a headliner, then maybe, it is best to keep Canada safe and secure and not let the person enter Canada. While my examples simplify the situation, it is all there in the policy manual.

It is true that decision makers at Canada’s borders have to make fast and complex decisions with a shortage of information all the time. It is a tough job but its difficulty should not serve to obscure that all too often it is the luck of the draw which determines if a performer enters Canada or not. For music presenters, who are often funded by one arm of the Canadian government to bring performers to Canada, it is hard to understand how another arm of the Canadian government denies entry. For audience members, it is as if their sense of what is compelling (“I really want to hear Tinariwen”) is trumped by that of a border officer (“Tinariwen is a security risk”). It is this same inadmissible group, Tinariwen, that played the Cultural Olympiad in Vancouver in 2010 and has toured in the USA extensively. 

As for the future, there was loose talk at the Vancouver Folk Festival last week about Canadian music presenters opening a dialogue with the Immigration Minister’s office to establish more clear guidelines and possible pre-clearance protocols for performers. If, and until, these talks take place, performers and others who wish to enter Canada need to be absolutely sure that previous illegal conduct will not result in a bar to entry.

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