Syrian refugee's claim that Ontario road test wait-time is discriminatory gathers steam

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When Yaser Nadaf fled the horrors of war-torn Syria, the last thing he was thinking about was his driver's licence.

It was only months later, when he arrived in Canada after a brief stay in Turkey, that he realized it wasn't with him and that without it, he would have to start from the very beginning of Ontario's licensing process, unable to get his G2 licence for at least eight months.

Luckily, Nadaf remembered exactly where he'd left it and his sister, who was still in their home country, located it for him.

"I had it in my car in Syria. I left it in my car before I left," Nadaf told CBC News. "I trust my sister. I don't trust anyone else."

Ontario only province with such a requirement

All of that, only to find out he now had to wait another 12 months to be fully licensed.

That's because in Ontario, drivers who have their G2 licences have to wait one year before they can test for their G licence. 

And it's that requirement that has one Syrian refugee taking his case to the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal — now with the help of the International Human Rights Program (IHRP) at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, 

The Ministry of Transportation provides an exemption to the waiting period for previous driving experience outside of Canada, but only if an applicant provides an original letter of authentication attesting to their experience. Ontario is the only province that requires that sort documentation to exempt someone from having to wait between getting their interim and permanent licence. 

Other provinces, such as Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia, only ask for such documentation when a foreign driver's licence lacks certain key information, such as issue date, photograph, or date of birth, the IHRP says. 

'Discriminating based on your country'

The trouble for Nadaf and many other Syrian newcomers is that documents like that are usually acquired from the local jurisdiction that issued the licence — something many refugees simply don't have access to with many fleeing from the very governments they're now asked to turn to for documentation, explains refugee advocate Omar Khan.

"I've heard of some people who've been able to get this document. Some people say that they think it's the true document, some people have talked about forgery. Other people have said they've managed to know someone in the government and then they were able to get it, sometimes for free, other times for a lot of money," Khan said. 

In some cases, the violence has destroyed local government buildings, meaning the licensing offices simply no longer exist. When they do exist, says Nadaf, they want the applicant to obtain their documents in person. 

For Petra Molnar, the hurdles Syrian refugees are left facing to meet Ontario's requirements are discriminatory.

"Basically, the province is discriminating based on your country of nationality because certain refugees are able to get these documents, skip the graduated waiting period and test immediately, while others like Syrians are not," said Molnar, a lawyer with the IHRP. 

Ministry's says 'top priority' is safety

The group is now throwing its support behind a claim at the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal by Syrian refugee Shyesh Al-Turki, who worked as a truck driver before resettling in Canada in 2016. It's calling on the ministry to allow drivers from war-torn countries to skip the year-long waiting period before their G-licence tests. 

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Transportation said the mInistry is unable to comment on any aspects of specific cases currently before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

"However, the Government of Ontario has been very welcoming with respect to how we have opened our borders to refugees who have fled very difficult circumstances," the statement said. 

The ministry says road safety is its key focus and that the graduated licensing system helps to ensure that. While it wouldn't comment specifically on why Ontario is the only province to require the written authentication, the ministry pointed out Ontario has one of the lowest motor collision fatality rates in North America. 

"While we can appreciate the desire for a speedier process in this case, the ministry's top priority is to maintain road safety for all road users who share our roads, and the ministry's current licensing policy upholds this priority," it said.

Asking for the opportunity to test, say advocates

But the human rights claim isn't calling for licences to be handed out without testing, Molnar explains. 

"We're not asking the province to just allow anyone a full licence. We're merely asking for the opportunity for people to test and on the basis of the documents they already have in their possession," she said.

The push by the IHRP comes at a significant time for many Syrian refugees: the two-year anniversary since the first planeload arrived. But while eager to work, says Khan, many find themselves cut off from virtually any kind of job involving food deliveries, bus driving, truck-driving, and working for Uber.

Under the current system, a resettled refugee receives Ontario assistance for one year, says Molnar, but many want to begin working before then so that they can begin earning for themselves.

"They might be professional truck drivers or taxi drivers from back home and they're really eager to start participating in the economy here, and they're just not able to do that right now," said Molnar.

For Nadaf, the solution is is simple: let him test and if he fails, he'll try again. 

A hearing date for Al-Turki's claim is expected to take place in early 2018.  For now, he's still waiting, unable to take his G2 road test until next March.