The government is facing pressure from MPs of all political stripes to crack down on bogus immigration consultants who prey on people who are desperate to work or live in Canada.
The Commons immigration committee has just wrapped up weeks of hearings on unregistered representatives called "ghost consultants." MPs are now considering recommendations ranging from overhauling or even scrapping the independent oversight body, to imposing heavier penalties for perpetrators.
Members heard harrowing stories from duped clients who testified behind closed doors. Some were ripped off for thousands of dollars, or brought over with the promise of work only to be dumped at the side of the road or left in a warehouse. In all, they heard from 50 witnesses and read 24 written submissions.
Liberal MP and committee chair Borys Wrzesnewskyj said testimony about crooked and ghost consultants made it clear the status quo can't continue.
"There is an appetite to fix this. It's just not acceptable that the present set of circumstances continue," he told CBC. "It won't be an easy job. The fact that it's been studied a number of times and we're still having to listen to circumstances and their very poignant stories speaks to that."
Wrzesnewskyj hopes the committee can table its report, which is expected to include recommendations for sweeping reforms, before the House rises for the summer.
Conservative immigration critic Michelle Rempel believes there is broad consensus that the current system is broken and needs an urgent fix. The "hair-curling" stories heard underscore the need for major reforms.
Blacklist for bad actors
While there are many above-board immigration consultants, their reputation has been stained by reports of unethical representatives preying on vulnerable people.
Along with suggesting a possible blacklist for bad practitioners, Rempel said the government must work to modernize and simplify the complex system so people can navigate it themselves instead of turning to third parties.
"More broadly, the fact that there even needs to be an industry suggests there are a lot of improvements that could be had within the actual department in terms of ease, efficacy of approaching the Canadian immigration system," she said.
Rempel said testimony about significant governance problems with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), which was established in 2011 to oversee registered consultants, raised questions about its ability to fulfil its mandate.
The council can't quickly and effectively deal with fraud and abuses, and has no power to deal with unregistered consultants who aren't in the system. CBC News has also reported that the council is in turmoil, plagued by resignations, removals and questions about financial management.
Ryan Dean, a director who has since been removed from the council, offered damning testimony about "dicey financials" and "bad actors" within the ICCRC.
"To me, the real danger of what will happen … is a black swan event, the worst-case scenario, and that's a national Canadian security issue if perhaps criminal elements were able to gain access to Canada," he told the committee on March 8.
Despite the problems with the council, he said, removing the bad actors and keeping the good ones would be easier than shutting down the regulator and starting from scratch, because "there is no guarantee that any third solution will be better than where we are today."
Robert Kewley, who worked with the RCMP for 26 years before working as an investigator with the ICCRC, told MPs the council does not have the legal powers to battle what he called "villains," and said investigators don't have the resources to lead to prosecutions.
The ICCRC only regulates registered members, and refers complaints about unauthorized representatives to the Canada Border Services Agency.
Figures provided to CBC News show there were 285 complaints to CBSA last year, nearly double the 150 in 2015. There were 40 investigations opened, and only nine cases referred to the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
CBSA spokesperson Patrizia Giolti said the agency takes violations of Canada's immigration laws seriously, but there are hurdles to bringing perpetrators to justice.
"A number of factors including the availability of witnesses and evidence, severity of the offence, and the public interest are taken into consideration when deciding which cases warrant an investigation," she told CBC.
NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan said the CBSA doesn't have enough resources and that more investigators and tougher penalties are required.
In addition to a blacklist to flag unregistered representatives, she said, it's time to establish a government-regulated oversight system to protect people from bogus consultants.
"The litany of issues is astounding. It's breathtaking," she said. "This is yet another iteration of what's happened previously. We've gone down this road before, and if we don't learn from that and realize we're doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting a different result, that is the definition of insanity."
Along with a regulatory overhaul, Kwan said there must be extensive public awareness campaigns in Canada and abroad.
Ontario MP and immigration committee member Marwan Tabbara said some people believe the solution is to take the work out of the hands of consultants and leave it to lawyers, but he said most people can't afford legal fees.
He said safeguards for immigrants are long overdue.
"We've seen errors in the system in previous years, and going forward we really want to correct it so we don't see any more vulnerable people being taken advantage of," he said.