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.

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“Staff could not give us any information about what was happening, how long we would be waiting, or whether we should leave,” said McCarten.

“We stood around waiting for around four to five hours. During that time committee members and staff rushed in and out, all visibly angry, and all unable to tell us what to do,” he said. “We were trying to catch MPs who were coming out – everyone seemed angry and upset -- some were apologetic to us”.

Liberal MP Kevin Lamoureux had pleaded to let witnesses speak, given the public funds spent to have them attend the meeting. He'd even invited witnesses from Asian countries to speak, and it seemed clear they would not have a say. 

“[We] want to make sure they’re afforded the opportunity to have the dialogue...Time has been set aside here,” he argued at the time. “We have individuals on conference call from the Philippines and from Chandigarh (in north India), and I believe it's very important for us to hear all of the presenters," he said.

But the meeting went on for hours out of the public eye, without any opportunity for the witnesses to listen to what was being said or have their say. 

“It's very disappointing, not only to myself but others -- especially those who come from away to testify as expert witnesses," Desloges said.

"These are busy people with lots of important things to do, and they get called upon specifically for their expertise. They take a lot of time to prepare for their short 7 minutes in front of committee."

The new Citizenship bill introduces sweeping new changes that have been sharply criticized in the media as a "Trojan horse". Ostensibly, it helps to restore citizenship to some Lost Canadians -- legitimate Canadians who were denied citizenship due to discriminatory provisions of past laws. But it also gives the Minister unprecedented power to strip a Canadian of citizenship without a court hearing. What's more, it significantly weakens the ability of Canadian citizens to challenge the government's rulings on citizenship in court.

Stifling of public discussion a 'systemic' problem

Asked why the witnesses were not allowed to participate, Deputy Principal Clerk José Cadorette provided no explanation but said it was nothing out of the ordinary. 

"For a variety of reasons, committees often go into, and out of, in camera," he said. Asked if this kind of exclusion happens regularly, Cadrorette responded the government's computer system is "not set up to track the number of times that occurs". 

Opposition MPs said the exclusion was regrettable, but not surprising. 

“The imposition of an in camera meeting by the Conservative majority is certainly regrettable, but not at all surprising,"  said NDP MP Sadia Groguhé, who was present at the time. "It is perfectly representative of the attitude that prevails both in the House and in committee.”

The long wait time and uncertainty caused some witnesses to leave out of frustration. 

"I had to cut my losses. We didn't know when we would be called in. In the end, we didn't speak on the issue,” Desloges said.

Desloges expressed her concern over the committee's disregard for the time that witnesses took to come to Ottawa and prepare arguments that ultimately no MP heard on that day. 

She feels the shutting out of debate has become 'systemic', and suggests that the government take steps to prevent this from happening to others.

“I feel it’s a systemic problem," she said. "There needs to be more certainty and some rules on how these committees need to function and what happens with respect to witnesses."

"There needs to be assurances that witnesses will be heard, because of their valuable expertise and also because of the taxpayers’ expense.” 

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