Is there a better way to reunite families? Thousands left in lurch by chaotic immigration application process

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The chaos around a new application process to bring parents and grandparents to Canada has left advocates and would-be applicants wondering if there is a better — and more fair — way to reunite families.

The immigration department’s new first-come-first-serve online application process launched Monday saw 27,000 “expression of interest” spots snapped up in mere minutes, leaving tens of thousands of other potential sponsors frustrated and angry at being shut out.

Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office said more than 100,000 people tried to access the digital form to express interest in sponsoring their parents or grandparents when it went live online at noon on Monday.
Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen’s office said more than 100,000 people tried to access the digital form to express interest in sponsoring their parents or grandparents when it went live online at noon on Monday.  (PATRICK DOYLE / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)

“Whatever system we have, there’s always the question of fairness,” said Surrey, B.C., lawyer Marina Sedai, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration division. “No one can come up with a perfect solution that satisfies the needs of all Canadians.”

For decades, any Canadian citizen or permanent resident interested in sponsoring parents and grandparents could apply in an “all-in” system where they simply waited for their turn, based on the order applications were received. However, due to overwhelming interest and limited resources, the backlog had grown to 165,000 people and applicants had to wait for up to eight years for their relatives to arrive.

In 2011, the then-Conservative government suspended new applications for two years before reopening the process and, in 2014, imposing a cap of 5,000, to be accepted on a first-come-first-serve basis. Paper-based applications had to be sent by mail or registered courier to a single government processing centre in Mississauga and were assessed in order of their time stamp. Applicants complained that this forced them to spend large amounts of money on couriers each year in an attempt to make it into the top 5,000 spots.

In 2016, the Liberals raised the annual quota to 10,000. And in January 2017, Ottawa introduced the lottery process. Sponsors were asked to submit an expression of interest form, and from that pool, people were randomly selected to continue with the application process. That year, some 95,000 would-be sponsors vied for the 10,000 spots; only 6,020 applications were completed because some were deemed ineligible, others never completed the process, and multiple entries by the same applicants were discarded.

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Marina Sedai, chair of the Canadian Bar Association's immigration division, said the debate over fairness is bound to continue unless Ottawa is ready to raise the annual admission quota for parents and grandparents.
Marina Sedai, chair of the Canadian Bar Association’s immigration division, said the debate over fairness is bound to continue unless Ottawa is ready to raise the annual admission quota for parents and grandparents.  (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

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This year, applicants had to compete to fill out a 10-page interest-to-sponsor digital form and only the first 27,000 submissions were accepted. Based on the time of receipt, the first 20,000 eligible ones will be invited to submit a formal application for sponsorship.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said more than 100,000 people attempted to access the digital form when it went live online at noon on Monday but “no technical issues” were reported. In less than seven minutes, the quota of 27,000 was reached. Failed applicants took their frustration and anger to social media, blasting the government’s efforts.

Toronto immigration lawyer Clifford McCarten said people were unhappy with the old lottery system because they didn’t want to be subjected to a random process where they could miss out repeatedly and be separated from their family perpetually. “People want predictability,” he said.

McCarten offered three alternatives as possible solutions:

  • Taking in everybody and pre-screening them for eligibility before sponsors could bid for a place in the lottery;
  • A hybrid system where equal spots would be allotted for a lottery, for first-come-first-serve, and for humanitarian screening based on personal circumstances and factors such as the number of previous failed attempts;
Behnam Esfahanizadeh says he has made three unsuccessful attempts to bring his wife's parents here from Slovakia.
Behnam Esfahanizadeh says he has made three unsuccessful attempts to bring his wife’s parents here from Slovakia.  (SUPPLIED PHOTO)
  • A point system similar to one used to rank skilled immigrant applicants on personal attributes to decide which parents and grandparents were more deserving to come here.

Heather Otto, one of the would-be sponsors left in the lurch on Monday, said the good thing about the lottery was that everyone had an equal chance.

“They said it’s first-come-first-serve, but I was excluded right off the bat on Monday,” said the Toronto computer programmer, who would like to sponsor her parents here from South Africa. “I had everything ready by noon and started refreshing my computer every few seconds. By the time I saw the (apply) button at 12:08 p.m., it said the program had already closed.”

Otto said she wasn’t sure how a point system could work for parents and grandparents, but everyone interested in getting in the pool should be asked to pay the $1,040 fee ($75 for sponsorship, $475 for processing and $490 for the right of permanent residence) upfront so only serious applicants would get a chance.

Natalya Sakhno, another disappointed sponsor, said she preferred the lottery system to the mad-rush chaos on Monday, which ended up being a race of who had the fastest keystrokes and internet speed.

“Every system has its positives and negatives,” said the Toronto human resources professional, who wants to bring her father here from Ukraine. “It’s a gamble.”

Another failed applicant, Behnam Esfahanizadeh, said a real first-come-first-serve system is when the process is open to all and everyone waits in order.

“They just have to get the applications in line and let everyone wait for their turn,” said the Toronto IT consultant, who has made three unsuccessful attempts to bring his wife’s parents here from Slovakia.

Sedai said the debate over the “fairness” issue is bound to continue unless Ottawa is ready to raise the annual admission quota for parents and grandparents and deploy more resources to process applications.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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Newfoundlander and Holocaust survivors’ son reunite in Toronto

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The hug was decades in the making.

On Sunday, Newfoundlander Ernest Condon embraced the son of his longtime friends, Lewis and Grunia Ferman — Jewish resistance fighters who survived the Holocaust and sought refuge in St. John’s.

« Oh my gosh, Eileen, he looks like Lewis, » Condon, 75, said excitedly to his wife as Alan Ferman walked toward him at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre in Toronto.

« This is going to be too emotional for me … Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow. »

Watch the reunion:

Newfoundlander Ernest Condon recently reunited with the son of his longtime friends – Jewish resistance fighters who survived the Holocaust and sought refuge in St. John’s. 2:04

Ferman was equally delighted.

« So good to see you, b’y, » he said before hugging Condon.

« Your family and my family were so close. »

Ferman’s family history in Newfoundland is finally coming to light after a sign for his family’s clothing store, Lewis Ferman and Co., was recently uncovered in downtown St. John’s. 

Alan said many people are now contacting him with stories about his parents. Lewis and Grunia both escaped Jewish ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland and survived the war. Afterwards, they moved to Austria, Venice and Rome before learning they had family in St. John’s. They crossed the Atlantic in 1947.

Despite the horror that sent his parents to Newfoundland, Alan said they were lucky to discover the place — even if they’d never heard of it before getting on the plane.

« When they landed in Newfoundland, they told me they felt so at home instantly, because people embraced them and were warm to them and kind to them, » he said.  

Alan and Condon had met briefly back in 1995, when Ferman’s parents were given honourary degrees at Memorial University, but hadn’t been in touch since. That had gnawed at Condon, who still had stories to share with the younger Ferman.

The Lewis Ferman & Co. sign as it looked when intact. it had been hidden under the signage for a Subway restaurant in downtown St. John’s and was recently uncovered. (Provided by Brad Collins)

Condon, who now lives in Ottawa, saw CBC Newfoundland’s stories about the store sign and made it a mission to contact Ferman when he next visited Toronto.

Last week, he marched to the CBC broadcast centre and asked to speak to any Newfoundlander in the Toronto newsroom.

By Sunday, after a few phone calls, Condon was arm in arm with his friend. 

They shared some happy memories, like Condon’s family taking the Fermans trout fishing near their home in the tiny town of Calvert, Nfld.

Lewis and Grunia Ferman met during the Second World War and became resistance fighters who formed a community in the Belarusian woods. (Provided by Michael Ferman)

Others are harrowing.

Condon told Ferman how his father had kept his own’ father’s jacket. It had a bullet hole in the chest from where he was shot to death. 

Ferman knew that his parents had watched their families be killed by the Nazis, but not more than that.

« I didn’t know that, » Ferman said. « It was terrible. »

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Long-separated mother and daughter reunite at Edmonton airport

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When Alexa Rudi rode down an escalator to the arrivals level at Edmonton International Airport on Friday night, she found a cheering crowd of more than 20 of her family members. They were waving signs and wearing name tags. Some of them had known her as a child, but many had never met her before.

Among the crowd was her mother, Theresa Atkinson, whom she had not seen face-to-face for more than 30 years. The pair locked eyes, then held each other and cried. Each woman had spent years searching for the other.

« You spend your whole life walking around with a hole in your heart that nothing can fill, » Alexa said through tears on Friday night. « Finally I have answers to questions I didn’t know existed. »

The separation

Alexa Rudi was born Viola Pepper Atkinson in Edmonton on Aug. 4, 1977. Her first name came from a family member and her middle name came from the nickname of an undercover police officer played by Angie Dickinson on the 1970s TV show Police Woman. Family members remember her as a bubbly, inquisitive child who was talkative like her mother and had long dark brown hair.

She spent only a few years with Theresa before being placed for adoption.

An old family photograph of Theresa Atkinson with her young daughter, Viola Pepper Atkinson. (Phil Laplante/CBC)

« Theresa ran into some minor problems and then child welfare came and investigated, » recalled Cyndy Atkinson, Theresa’s sister. She said Theresa, who is mentally disabled, signed papers allowing the adoption but did not fully understand what was happening at the time.

« They didn’t have nobody to advocate for her, so she was basically on her own, signing what she thought was going to be a promise that she’ll get her daughter back, » Atkinson said.

The loss of her daughter devastated Theresa, but for years she collected stuffed animals and dolls in case she returned. She begged family members to help search for her and the family obliged, contacting adoption agencies and scanning adoption records for her name.

Meanwhile, Alexa was also searching for her birth mother, calling every Atkinson she could find in the phone book. After her adoption, she had spent a year in Fort McMurray, Alta., before moving to Ontario, where she grew up in Peterborough. She moved around over the years, spending time in Tucson, Ariz., before returning to the Toronto area. She’s now a student at George Brown College and has two children: Eddie, 9, and Vada, 6.

Connecting through social media

A few days before her 41st birthday in August, Alexa wrote about searching for her birth mother on Facebook and asked friends to share the post. The post was shared on a global Indigenous group with more than 160,000 members and before a day had passed, it caught the attention of someone who knew her family.

Before long, Alexa and Theresa were video-calling and chatting on Facebook daily. They started planning Alexa’s trip to Edmonton and asked friends and family to donate money online for flights.

Alexa Rudi stands among her long-lost family members at Edmonton International Airport on Oct. 19. (Phil Laplante/CBC)

Understanding her identity

Alexa, who is Métis-Cree, said finding Theresa has helped her better understand her culture and identity.

« I felt lost and so broken my whole life and I had to talk to her and my family, » she said. « Things started making sense. »

Her story is far from unique. The separation of Indigenous children and their parents was common for decades in Canada. Even today, Indigenous children are over-represented in foster care.

Indigenous women are also more likely to be victims of homicide than non-Indigenous women — a brutal statistic Alexa’s family has lived through.

Theresa’s sister, Peacha Courtepatte, was the mother of Nina Courtepatte, who was raped and murdered in Edmonton in 2005. Nina was just 13 years old at the time.

Nina’s mother, who became an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women, died in 2015.

For Cyndy Atkinson, Alexa’s return is a step forward for the family, « taking away a little bit of heartache and bringing in happiness. »

Cyndy Atkinson said her sister Theresa spent years searching for her daughter. (Phil Laplante/CBC)

Future in Edmonton

Before Friday, Alexa hadn’t set foot in Edmonton since she was a little girl.

At the top of her to-do list — after a family gathering on Friday night — was a trip to West Edmonton Mall.

Clutching old framed photographs, Theresa and Alexa talked about their future together.

« Come back home with me, » Theresa said. « I want to do it all over. »

« That’s the plan, » Alexa replied. Once the school year is over, she intends to move back to Edmonton so she can help take care of Theresa and Theresa can help look after her grandchildren.

« You’re a kokum now! » she said. (Kokum means grandmother.)

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TTC hoping to reunite dog with owner after being struck by a car

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Toronto’s public transportation agency is hoping to reunite an owner with a dog that hid under a bus after being hit by a car early Sunday morning.

Toronto Transit Commission spokesperson Brad Ross said the dog was hit by a car around 12:30 a.m. in the city’s east end.

The dog took refuge under a TTC bus after being struck by a vehicle in the city’s east end.
The dog took refuge under a TTC bus after being struck by a vehicle in the city’s east end.  (Brad Ross/Twitter)

“The driver of the car stopped to try to help the dog, but the dog was injured and afraid and ran away and sought refuge under a bus that was at a stop,” said Ross.

He said the bus driver was stopped at a red light and noticed the dog, so he called his supervisor and Toronto Animal Services.

“Police also showed up and they were all eventually able to coax the dog out from under the bus,” he said.

Ross said the dog, which appears to be a Husky mix, suffered minor injuries to its leg.

He said the TTC and animal services are struggling to find the dog’s owner as it isn’t micro chipped and doesn’t have a tag.

Ross said he posted the photos of the dog on Twitter in the hopes of finding the owner.

“We are hopeful the owner will recognize the dog and reclaim the pet,” he said.

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