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?
“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.”