Screenshot via YouTube.
A new type of conditional permanent residency is making it easier for abusive spouses to get away with what they do. At the end of 2012, Citizenship and Immigration Canada introduced a new requirement for immigrants who are sponsored to come to Canada by a spouse who’s already here—they must live with their sponsor for two years or lose their permanent residency).
“Since this legislation has come to pass, and it seems to be a progressive trend, the abuse of immigrant women appears to be more flagrant… I’m having women whose abusers are photographing them or taking videos and distributing these sexual images of them. They’re getting more open about their abuse, because they know they can get away with it,” said Claire Tremblay, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Ottawa.
Tremblay alone sees about two women a week who choose to stay in an abusive relationship because they’re scared they’ll be deported if they leave. And that’s just one lawyer in one office in one city. The threat of deportation has become a very helpful tool for men who beat, rape, or neglect their partners. This law is now part of an “arsenal of abuse” men use to control their wives, Tremblay said. “A certain percentage of sick individuals know that they can get away with it. And they are getting away with it.”
The two-year condition appears to have made a terrible situation worse. The wait period added yet another layer of imbalance to the already imbalanced dynamic of sponsored immigration. Women often feel they owe something to their sponsors in return for the chance to come to Canada. And thanks to this law, they now legally do.
“It needs to be remembered just how vulnerable these women are,” Tremblay said. “They often don’t speak the language, they may or may not have family here or an independent source of income, they don’t know what their legal rights are. That means their abuser is culturally, linguistically, their only link to Canada often.”
Last month, Kamal Dhillon
asked a House of Commons committee to repeal the condition. She’s the author of Black and Blue Sari, a memoir of her 12 torturous years married to a brutally abusive husband. He started planning her funeral and told their children he’d get them a new mother. Dhillon came to Canada in the mid-1970s before she was even married, but that doesn’t mean her husband didn’t use her status in Canada as a threat.
Kamal Dhillon has an "artificial jaw" following years of abuse. Screencap via Black and Blue Sari.
“Even though he didn’t sponsor me, he would ask me how I got into the country so he could figure out how to send me back,” she said. “When you are so traumatized by him, you start to think Can he? It’s a fear that they instill in you.”
“I really believe that it should be lifted,” Dhillon said of the two-year requirement. “Even before they get here there’s almost a fence of fear, you’re going into a contract really. And if you don’t live by the rules and regulations—you’re out.”
Women’s groups warned Jason Kenney, then the minister of immigration, that this would happen when the law was first proposed. So he added an exception clause—partners being abused don’t need to fulfill the two-year period. All they have to do is call the government hotline, which is only available in English and French. Then they have 30 days to provide an immigration officer with third-party evidence proving that they lived with their spouse, that he became abusive, and that they left him after the abuse began. If they can’t, they get deported. Citizenship and Immigration Canada did not respond to a request for comment.
"Women have to put a lot of time and effort into collecting evidence and structuring it in a way an immigration officer will understand," said Deepa Mattoo, the acting executive director of the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario. “The burden of proof should be on abusers to prove that they didn’t do anything, but that doesn’t happen."
The pressure of dealing with police, immigration officers, judges, and lawyers is often too much for women who just came to Canada and may not speak the language.
“The consequences of remaining in the relationship, while damaging, of course, are less damaging than the consequences of not remaining in the abusive relationship, which can be homelessness and deportation,” Tremblay said. Even if a woman finds the courage to speak up, she may not be able to provide the proof in time. Tremblay, Mattoo, and Dhillon all said abusers in this situation have a habit of hiding their wife’s passport and visa, or destroying both when she threatens to talk.
Citizenship and Immigration Canada paired this new law with new funding cuts to the settlement agencies that help women navigate the system. Every year since 2010, settlement agencies have seen funding cuts, said Mattoo. And the same year the two-year regulation was put in place, 15 immigration agencies were defunded completely.
This makes it even harder for victims of abuse to get the support they need. Even when women do call the police, they’re not guaranteed any help. Tremblay said she has clients who’ve called the police, but couldn’t speak English well enough to explain exactly what happened. So their husbands just talked the cops out of laying any charges.
“When a victim comes and tells somebody that he beat or he slapped [them], we think, Oh, OK. It happened today, you’ll live. People don’t realize the consequences of that action,” said Dhillon. “My husband used to slap me on my face repeatedly, and because of his slaps I’m going through surgery after surgery. I have an artificial jaw. I will never be pain free or stop having surgeries. These are the consequences of one man’s actions.”
“And I am not just an isolated case,” she added. “There are many, many women like me who have lost their voice.”