Regulatory council says it’s cracking down on unprofessional conduct
Agnes Kagabane and Martina Murray came from different parts of the world to start new lives in Edmonton.
Kagabane arrived from Uganda in 2014 and claimed refugee status. Murray arrived the same year from Ireland along with her husband, who has Canadian citizenship, and applied for permanent residency.
Both women sought help to navigate their new country’s immigration system from a consultant whose mishandling of their files cost them money and time, and left them worried their futures in Canada could be compromised.
“My fear was if something happened to one of my parents at home while I was out of status here, I could not go,” Murray said.
“If I flew out of the country, I couldn’t get back in. And then my permanent residence application would be void and I’d have to start from scratch again.”
Immigration consultant Tamara Judge has admitted to unethical behaviour in the cases of Kagabane, Murray and six others who paid for her services. Her transgressions ranged from waiting more than a year to file clients’ immigration applications to not filing them at all.
Judge has admitted to lying, telling one client that an MP was actively working on her file. She told another that a “specific person” in the office of the minister of immigration was aware of her case.
The Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council has revoked Judge’s membership — the most severe sanction available through the organization. Judge is one of seven immigration consultants who have been sanctioned that way in the past nine months.
There are 5,500 registered immigration consultants in the country.
The regulatory council says it’s a sign of a crackdown on unprofessional conduct. Between 2011 and mid-2018, the council revoked one membership for a disciplinary matter.
But critics say the seven recent cases showcase years of poorly enforced professional standards that warrant an outright overhaul of the system.
Fees paid, papers never filed
Kagabane arrived in Canada in 2014 from Uganda and immediately filed a refugee claim.
When the claim was rejected, she went to Judge, who was hired to help her file for permanent residency based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. It was 2015.
Over the course of almost two years, Kagabane paid Judge more than $3,000 for services never rendered. At one point, Immigration Canada told Kagabane nothing had been filed under her name. Months later, Kagabane called again, this time with a file number provided to her by Judge.
A government official told her the file number didn’t belong to her.
“Whenever I would call [Judge], she’d say, ‘no you’re calling the wrong number’,” Kagabane said. “[Then] she said I’ve called the minister of immigration and they’ve assigned your file to someone who is going to look at it as soon as possible.
“But that was wrong, too.”
Judge admitted to Kagabane’s description of events in an agreed statement of facts submitted as part of her disciplinary hearing with the council.
After speaking to an MP, Kagabane was told to re-apply for permanent residency immediately or she could face a removal order.
Kagabane, a single mother who works as a caregiver and companion to an elderly woman in Edmonton, spent hours pouring through immigration websites and forms to figure out how to apply for permanent residency and a work permit.
“Within three months, you get your work permit,” she said. “For her, it took her two years and no work permit. Until now, no PR decision, no open work permit, no money. For me to work, I had to renew my work permit myself.”
Calls for stronger enforcement
Immigration consultants aren’t lawyers, but can help newcomers wade through the country’s complicated bureaucracy of paperwork and applications. The number of consultants in Canada has boomed over the past decade to more than 5,000.
But even industry advocates admit stronger regulations are needed, after years of poorly enforced professional standards, “ghost consultants” who operate with no credentials, and unregulated fees.
“Immigration consulting has operated under its own norms for decades and it’s still operating internationally with very little ethical and legal oversight,” says Michael Huynh, director of professional conduct for the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC).
Immigration consulting has operated under its own norms for decades and it’s still operating internationally with very little ethical and legal oversight.– Michael Huynh, Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council
In 2017, a tide of complaints prompted a parliamentary committee to scrutinize the entire industry. The committee recommended consultants be put under the direct watch of government. The Trudeau government has declined to end self-regulation but recently passed legislation meant to beef up enforcement against unethical practitioners.
The seven recent membership revocations, including that of Judge, are a sign the council is taking a new tact at enforcement, says Huynh. His team has been tripled to 15 members, and has been reaching out to MPs and settlements agencies, where newcomers are most likely to raise complaints or concerns.
Michael Huynh, director of professional conduct for ICCRC, says the association is taking a new approach to investigations and will be granted more investigative powers through recently passed legislation. (ICCRC)
The recent legislative changes will allow tougher enforcement, especially to go after “ghost consultants” who operate without credentials, he said. The council will now have the option to become a professional college, with powers to seize documents, interview third parties and compel people to testify at disciplinary hearings.
“It’s been a significant change in strategy. We’re trying to collaborate [with other agencies] and we’ve also poured additional resources into our investigations and discipline process. And it’s starting to bear fruit,” Huynh said.
But immigration lawyers, who have been among the strongest critics of the immigration consultants council, say the actions are coming far too late.
“You know how many situations of abuse, neglect and fraud I see on a weekly basis? It’s unbelievable,” said Guidy Mamann, a Toronto-based immigration lawyer.
“So for somebody to tell me that they only found time to discipline one person in six or seven years is like, what’s the point in even having the organization?”
While Mamann says he works with several strong consultants, he thinks the industry has proven it cannot self-regulate, despite years of efforts. The first body to regulate consultants formed in 2003, and ICCRC formed eight years later.
He doesn’t think the Trudeau government’s moves to shake up the disciplinary process by giving the council more teeth will make a difference.
“I don’t really have that much faith. Anything you may have seen in the last few months is possibly an act of desperation to preserve the ICCRC and the people who run it,” he said.
“Historically, we haven’t seen a lot of discipline in cases which appear to be screaming for discipline, if not criminal prosecution.”
‘Fobbed off’ when asking for answers
Martina Murray arrived in Edmonton from Ireland in 2014 with her husband, a Canadian citizen, and two young children. She contacted Judge for help to apply for a work permit and permanent residency for herself, and citizenship for her children.
“When we came to Canada, our kids were small and my husband worked out of town,” Murray said. “So I thought, OK, let’s get an immigration consultant and she’ll do all the legwork for us.”
Murray provided Judge with the paperwork for her applications in March 2014, according to an agreed statement of facts submitted as part of Judge’s disciplinary hearing.
But there’s no evidence the paperwork was filed with the government until a year later. By that time, the application fees had increased and Murray’s applications were initially denied due to insufficient funds.
Murray had become suspicious when her work permit hadn’t arrived within the promised four months. Then her holiday visa expired. She repeatedly called Judge’s office and was “fobbed off,” she said.
She had no health-care and couldn’t work. She eventually contacted two area MPs who investigated her case; both said her applications hadn’t been filed with the immigration department. The paperwork and fees were eventually rectified through Judge’s office, Murray said, but it took almost two-and-a-half years to get official status and a work permit.
Murray, a nurse, was then told by the nursing authority that it had been too long since she had worked in the profession. While she could have completed a course in Calgary to prove her credentials, it was expensive and logistically difficult, with her husband working out of town.
Instead, she flew back to Ireland with her two children to accumulate the required hours.
“I had to. It cost me $10,000 to pack up the two kids. I went home two years ago. Now things are good, but at the time it was bad. We pawned our wedding rings and everything to try and come up with the money.”
Money is one thing, an apology is another
Murray considered suing Judge but decided hiring a lawyer for the court process would be too expensive.
“It just leaves me so frustrated. We’re five years here. Finally, this week we got approved and we’ve just bought our house,” Murray said. “I expected to be this far two years after getting here, not five years later.”
Harjeet Judge, who owns the company Judge once worked for, told the CBC he was not aware of what was happening with his employee until her disciplinary hearing with the ICCRC. He said the company has worked to take care of the files mishandled by Judge.
“She didn’t do the proper job, and for that reason she is no longer with us,” he said. “We have other people now and they’re clearing all of those files she screwed up and we’re doing a very good job.”
I didn’t want the money. I’m not rich, but I just wanted [her] to say we made a mistake and we are sorry.– Agnes Kagabane
Kagabane is still awaiting a decision from Immigration Canada on her permanent residency application. She has gone to small claims court numerous times by herself to recoup the money she paid to Judge, with no success.
Despite hours of lost time and thousands of dollars, Kagabane said what she wanted most was an apology.
“I didn’t want the money. I’m not rich, but I just wanted [her] to say we made a mistake and we are sorry. If she had apologized, if she had picked up my calls, if she had acknowledged this in the first place, we wouldn’t be here.”