In April 2014, and again in April 2015, I had the privilege of being invited as a witness to speak before Parliament’s Citizenship and Immigration Committee in Ottawa. Here is the transcript of my testimony in April 2014 with respect to strengthening the protection of women in our immigration system (specifically, changes that can be made to the sponsored spouses program). Full context and transcript can be found here.
I would first like to thank the committee for inviting me here today to speak about what can be done to better protect sponsored spouses in the immigration system.
My name is Kathryn Marshall. I’m a practising lawyer here in Vancouver. I have an honours degree with a specialization in women’s studies and feminist research. I have been a columnist with a daily newspaper here in Vancouver where I have written about women’s issues. The impact of our immigration system and women’s rights are a particular passion of mine.
Immigrating to Canada as a sponsored spouse can be a very isolating experience. In the majority of cases, sponsored spouses are women, and my comments today will focus on them.
Women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses face barriers other immigrants may not face. The sponsor, already a landed immigrant, will have a knowledge of an official language and some form of employment. These provide him with a social network and a greater ability to communicate and integrate into Canadian society. Dependent children sponsored to Canada are put through the best system invented to make friends, to learn official languages, and to integrate, and that is known as the public education system. This leaves a sponsored spouse often without a social support network outside of family and without an easy way to make friends or learn an official language.
Women sponsored as spouses are very dependent on their sponsors, which can put them in a position of vulnerability. It is much harder for women to leave a situation of abuse and neglect when they lack a support network outside of the family. This is especially true in cases where women also had children to care for. It is also much harder for women to leave the relationship when they are victims of practices that are not acceptable in Canada, including polygamy, forced marriages, female genital mutilation, and honour-based violence and oppression. This is obviously not acceptable.
Action is needed now to help ensure that these women are protected and can enjoy their new lives in Canada as equal, free, and productive members of Canadian society. What we need to do is help women integrate, learn an official language, and understand their rights in Canada.
It has been discussed that language requirements should be imposed before spouses are allowed to immigrate to Canada. Critics have said that language requirements would prevent many family unification sponsorships. Perhaps the best solution would be to require spouses sponsored to Canada to take English or French lessons once they have arrived in Canada. Requiring courses once in Canada could be part of the conditions of residency for sponsored spouses, and these courses could be paid for by the sponsor.
Being able to communicate in one of Canada’s official languages will better enable women living in Canada as sponsored spouses to become involved in the community, meet people outside the home, obtain employment, volunteer, and get education and skills training. Having these language skills will also help women interact with important services, such as women’s crisis centres and health care providers. Mandatory language classes such as these would also have the benefit of providing socialization and the opportunity for women to meet people in those critical first few months while in Canada.
These courses could also include detailed information on women’s rights in our country. Understanding their rights and what options are available to them will assist women who want to leave their spouse due to an abusive situation.
It is also important that women understand they do not have to put up with practices that are unacceptable and illegal in Canada. It is also important that they understand their rights with respect to marital and common-law property, and with respect to family law and child custody and access.
The reality is that many immigrant women fear leaving their spouse because they are worried they will not be able to see their children or will not have access to their home. They may also be fearful of their legal status in Canada in the event they leave their abusive spouse.
Part of the application process should include explicitly making sure that sponsored spouses and their sponsors are aware of women’s rights in this country. One possible measure is signing a document, in whichever language they know best, enumerating their rights in Canada. This document would include that women are equal, have the right to end a relationship, have parental rights, and that spousal abuse is illegal, as is polygamy, forced marriage, and so-called honour-based violence.
Upon entry to Canada, sponsored spouses should also be made aware of the vast array of resources for women, including women’s health facilities, crisis centres, and educational resources, and also how to access them. It would be beneficial if more information were provided beyond just a pamphlet that’s given to them on arrival, so perhaps community organizations would be willing to voluntarily host seminars or workshops for women.
I know the study is focused on the situation of spouses, but I want to direct the committee’s attention to the fact that spouses are not the only immigrant women who need our help. Wives are not the only women at risk. We have tragically seen in Canada situations where daughters have become the victims of honour-based violence. As a country, we need to do a better job of protecting girls from this violence.
Aqsa Parvez, a Mississauga teenager who was the tragic victim of an honour killing at the hands of her own family, had sought help at a shelter, which unfortunately failed to identify the signs and sent her back to the hands of her abusers. The Shafia girls, who were brutally murdered in Kingston, had reportedly sought help from law enforcement and social workers. However, they tragically fell through the cracks.
We need to offer better training to teachers, social workers, workers in women’s shelters, police officers, and Children’s Aid Society agents to help them recognize the signs of girls in danger, and where possible, take action. The study’s scope should be broadened to take into account the situation of daughters. We must do everything we can do to make sure that every women and every girl is free and equal in Canada.
In summary, the best way to protect women coming to Canada as sponsored spouses, and to help these women break out of isolationism and better integrate into their communities, is through education. Learning an official language and understanding their full legal rights and what resources are available to them and how to access them will help fulfill these goals. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak about this important issue and to offer some practical advice.