The Canada Border Services Agency is backtracking on its commitment to keep track of all children who are separated from at least one parent who is being detained for immigration purposes.
The initial promise was made after Radio-Canada/CBC reported on a story of a father who was separated from his two children upon his arrival at the Canadian border in December 2020.
That same report revealed at least 182 children had been separated from a parent detained at the Laval Immigration Holding Centre in 2019 alone.
In reaction to this story, the border agency (CBSA) announced it would start to collect statistics nationally on minors being separated from at least one detained parent.
It's clear CBSA is reneging on their commitment to count all instances of family separation that results from immigration detention. — Hanna Gros, Human Rights Watch
Now, Radio-Canada/CBC has learned the CBSA adopted a much narrower definition of the children it has started to count.
The border agency has confirmed it will only keep a record of the children who are separated from both parents, or a legal guardian. These minors are handed over to other family members or youth protection services.
In other words, if the child is separated from a detained parent, but living on the outside with the other parent, Canada's border agency no longer intends to take them into account.
According to this limited definition, six minors were separated from their parents between January 2022 and June 2022.
Children torn from a parent
Hanna Gros, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, also works as an immigration and refugee lawyer with an expertise in migrant detention. She said she doesn't think the numbers reflect the "scale and breadth" of the problem.
Immigration detention robs parents of their capacity to function as protective forces for their kids. — Hanna Gros, Human Rights Watch
"When you don't have a definition to begin with that can capture the situation of kids who are torn apart from either one of their parents, you can't begin to even address the harm of the system for children and their parents," she said.
"It's clear that CBSA is reneging on their commitment to count all instances of family separation that results from immigration detention."
The number of detained migrants dropped during the pandemic due in particular to the border closings.
Normally, the border agency imprisons more than 8,000 migrants a year, including many parents of children.
The vast majority do not pose a threat to Canada's security, according to the CBSA's own data. Most are detained because the CBSA believes they might not show up for immigration processes.
Many studies have documented the harmful effects of detention on migrants. Gros wrote a June 2021 report entitled "I Didn't Feel Like a Human in There - Immigration Detention in Canada and its Impact on Mental Health."
"Even after children are reunited with their parents, the consequences of detention are not simply erased. I interviewed one woman who was separated from her children and she described how years after they were reunited the children are continuing to ask her to promise that she won't disappear again," Gros said.
"It's absolutely agonizing for parents who don't know how long they're going to be apart from their kid. From one day to the next, they can't kiss their kid goodnight, they can't help them with their homework, they just can't care for them.
"Immigration detention robs parents of their capacity to function as protective forces for their kids and this has devastating effects on the mental health of children and parents."
CBSA instructed to preserve family unit
To comply with international law, the Trudeau government adopted a national directive in 2017 that instructs the CBSA to stop the detention of minors and family separation, "except in extremely limited circumstances."
According to this directive, families must be released with or without conditions, to preserve the family unit.
Gros said it is impossible to know whether the border agency is meeting its obligations when it does not collect data on children separated from either parent.
The office of Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, which oversees the CBSA, would not say why it has backtracked on a commitment made under former public safety minister Bill Blair.