Thu, October 30 2008
A probing questionnaire that is reportedly presented to visa applicants in India who want to visit Canada has raised grave civil rights concerns in British Columbia.
The Canadian Mission questionnaire, which asks for information about the political affiliations and religious beliefs of applicants and their relatives, has been criticized by groups advocating for immigrants’ rights and by the opposition Liberal Party.
Since many of these questions are directed at the political situation in the Indian state of Punjab, the questionnaire directly impacts on the Punjabi community in Metro Vancouver.
As B.C. attracts scores of immigrants and visitors from the Punjab region every year, some of the questions are considered offensive to the local Sikh community as they deal with the political events of the past.
The questionnaire fell into the lap of immigration lawyer Richard Kurland, who is also the editor of Lexbase, a monthly bulletin of immigration issues, nearly three weeks ago.
“I got it through the Access to Information Act,” he told the South Asian Post.
“It’s a Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) questionnaire that was earlier presented to those applying for permanent residency. Now it has been extended to visitors and their family members.”
The very first question asks the applicant whether he or she or any of his or her family members have been a member of, or associated with, any political, religious or social organization in India or anywhere in the world.
Another question lists a number of terrorist groups now banned in Canada and asks if “you or any member(s) of your family have been a member or an associate of any of these organization(s)?”
Among the listed groups is Babbar Khalsa International, a Sikh separatist group blamed for the 1985 Air India bombing.
The three-page document also has questions for those who might have served in the Indian armed forces or the police.
One question pointedly asks if the applicant ever served in the Amritsar district of Punjab between 1983 and 1995.
This was the period when Punjab was considered a “disturbed area” because of the violent activities involving Sikh extremists and India authorities, including the Indian army.
Notably, Amritsar district was a hotbed of Sikh militancy and is also the home of the Golden Temple complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs.
As part of the infamous Operation Bluestar, the Indian army invaded the Golden Temple complex to flush out Sikh militants in 1984.
In fact, one question directly asks: “Were you involved in Operation Bluestar?’’
Lawyer Kurland asks: “If our neighbours (the U.S.) are not asking these types of probing questions, even with the 9/11 paranoia, why is Canada doing so?’’
Kurland admits that it is unclear whether this questionnaire is still being used in the field.
But clearly, Canadian immigration officials in India are concerned with the questionnaire.
In a memo addressed to various colleagues in New Delhi and Chandigarh, Trudy Kernighan, minister counsellor (immigration) with the Canadian High Commission, Delhi, expresses her concerns in very candid terms.
An internal memo dated Oct. 9, 2007, and obtained by Richard Kurland under the Access to Information Act, quotes Kernighnan, in part:
“Frankly, I find the questionnaire very intrusive and not something one would expect to see used often in the largest democracy on the planet. The first question asks the individual to provide his/her involvement in any political party.
“And that is only the first question.” Kernighan continues: “. . . who in their right mind in the Punjab could be expected to answer truthfully? Lying to us of course has its own implications, but why beg for more dishonesty than we already get? . . . This isn’t where we want to be.”
Adds the senior immigration official: “. . . applicants are wondering what we are after with our various diggings. Some senior military officers are absolutely incensed by our probing. One very senior Defence officer has asked for a meeting with the High Commissioner.”
And: “I have not discussed this message with the (Heads of Mission) nor with other (Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade) colleagues here, but we would be dreaming to think this isn’t going to cause them grief.”
While expressing his shock at the intrusive questionnaire, Liberal MP Sukh Dhaliwal said that asking such questions of visitors to Canada is simply unacceptable.
A Sikh himself, Dhaliwal represents Newton-North Delta, a riding with a sizable population of Punjabis.
“The visa application of a Superintendent of Police who had served in Punjab was rejected, as was the application of a second police officer in Punjab, on the grounds of this questionnaire,” he told the South Asian Post.
The MP lamented that the rejection rate has already increased at the Canadian Mission in Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, adding a questionnaire such as this will only further aggravate the problem.
Darshan Singh Mann, a Surrey resident who invited the aforementioned Superintendent of Police to Canada for a family function, said the officer is his close friend and lives in Amritsar.
“He was told that his background will have to be checked.”
Harsha Walia of No One is Illegal, a Vancouver-based human rights group, described this routinely-used questionnaire as “highly intrusive’’ and without any clarity as to how and for what purpose the answers will be used or shared.
He said the questionnaire would certainly not pass the litmus test of Canada’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
“This reveals how Immigration Canada and the Canadian Consulate in Chandigarh continue to unjustly stereotype and probe all people from Punjab as potential threats,” said Walia.
CBSA spokesperson Shakila Manzoor said that she is not aware of such a questionnaire and could comment only after finding out more about it.
The national media centre of the Citizenship and Immigration Department of Canada did not respond to calls from the South Asian Post.
India’s Lok Bhalai Party leader, Balwant Singh Ramoowalia, who is generally very vocal about issues related to Indians settled or travelling outside the country, sidestepped the issue.
“This issue is related to the sovereignty of another country and it would be inappropriate for me to comment,” he explained, while acknowledging that he has received numerous complaints from valid applicants who have been refused visas at the Chandigarh Mission.
By Gurpreet Singh