Government invites, then blocks witnesses from citizenship and immigration debate
Earlier this month, expert witnesses were outraged after they were invited to Ottawa to speak to the citizenship committee, only to be shut out as the meeting went on behind closed doors. Other witnesses have come forward to say they have experienced this exclusion as well. “It's very disappointing, not only to myself but others -- especially those who come from away to testify as expert witnesses," Desloges said.
Expert witnesses were shocked and "insulted" when the federal government recently flew them to Ottawa to speak to the Citizenship committee regarding a major new citizenship bill, only to muzzle them at the last minute.
“Do they think citizenship legislation is a joke?” historian Melynda Jarratt said at the time, after being kicked out as the meeting carried on in camera, behind closed doors. “I’ve always felt this was a transparent process of democracy...I feel insulted and it’s brought out the worst of how people perceive politicians in Ottawa."
Since then, other witnesses have stepped forward and said told The Vancouver Observer this wasn't an isolated event. A nearly identical case of witness muzzling happened last June, when legal experts and international speakers were asked to speak before the citizenship committee, only to be excluded as the meeting carried on behind closed doors.
With the biggest 'overhaul' of Canadian citizenship law in over a generation now underway with Bill C-24, the Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act, some say the federal government is ignoring democratic process in order to push through major changes.
Witnesses shut out mid-meeting
“There's a cost to taxpayers, who pay for the expenses of witness to be flown in, only to have them shut out of the process," said prominent Toronto immigration lawyer Chantal Desloges, who was invited by the government to attend a Citizenship Committee meeting last June.
She had come to Ottawa, along with law students from the Toronto based Parkdale Community Legal Services Clinic, a leading institution that provides legal assistance for new Canadians. The Parkdale students had come in to appear before the committee to discuss changes to the visitor visa program.
“We’d been invited [at a time] when there were some serious changes in immigration policy," recalled Parkdale law student Clifford McCarten. "We've been around long enough and give a critical and progressive voice on proposed immigration changes.”
That 'voice,' however, would end up going unheard by the Conservative-dominated committee.
Photo from Parkdale Community Legal Services website
“We'd arrived at the committee chambers that morning a little after 8:30 a.m," said McCarten. The only witness to testify at that meeting was cut off mid-sentence around two minutes into her presentation, when MPs suddenly began arguing, he said.
Conservative MP Rick Dykstra began insisting his item be dealt with before letting the witnesses speak.
"I just find it utterly disrespectful to our witnesses who are here that we're sitting here bickering about who gets to talk first," NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan protested, saying it was "unfounded" for members to interrupt witnesses during a speech.
Dykstra began repeatedly threatening to move the meeting behind closed doors, and dismissed concerns that witnesses in Asia were staying up late to participate in the meeting. NDP MP Jinny Sims was appalled, comparing the committee to a "school playground".
Yet moments later, baffled witnesses were kicked out of the room as the MPs continued the meeting behind closed doors.
"Along with at least five other witnesses -- some of whom had flown across Canada and stayed overnight -- we were told to remain waiting in the hallway," he said.
Why fly in experts to meeting if they can't participate?
He remembered some MPs were visibly upset. Why had the experts even been invited, if they were not allowed to speak?