Shortly after graduating from high school in Punjab, India, at 28 years old, Chirag Gill – not his real name – applied for a closed work permit under the temporary foreign worker program. With a positive Labour Market Impact Assessment (LMIA) in hand, he was promised a job in the agricultural field and that his employer would pay for the flight and provide accommodation. On Dec. 13, 2020 – and $50,000 paid to an unlicensed consultant in India later – he arrived in Canada.
Then, upon arrival, the employer asked him for another $5,000 to be able to work.
“After saying ‘no,’ I was feeling lost,” he says in Punjabi, in a video shot with English subtitles by Brampton Immigration Consultancy, the private immigration consultancy agency that took on his case.
“I was a victim to fraud, due to which I went into a lot of stress.”
Sandeep Singh, the marketing director at Brampton Immigration Consultancy, has been working in the immigration field since 2008, and in 2019 registered as a licensed consultant with the Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC). He says Brampton Consultancy worked with Gill pro-bono, and in less than three months, his documents were converted to a year-long open work permit.
Unfortunately, he says, he hears similar stories in his Brampton office at least once a week. Last December, NCM reported similar statistics from a Toronto-based agency that said around 20 per cent of its clients had fallen victims to so-called ghost consultants.
This fall, the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants (CCIC) will replace the current Immigration Consultants of Canada Regulatory Council (ICCRC), in an attempt – the third since the establishment of the first such body in 2008 – to regulate the immigration consultant industry with added powers.
But according to Singh, despite the ICCRC’s existence since 2011, far too many newcomers fall prey to unlicensed immigration consultants either in their home countries or once they arrive in Canada, which is why some experts are questioning the move.
The reality is governments of all stripes have known about the issues plaguing the industry “for a long time,” says John Shields, a political science professor at Ryerson university’s public policy department who helped compile a series of reports in 2019 looking at the settlement experiences of various demographic groups.
While he welcomes the increased oversight, he says governments “could’ve moved more quickly on it.”
The Canadian Bar Association is more blunt, arguing against the ICCRC’s self-regulated nature, noting that despite being on the federal government’s radar since at least 1981, “there is mounting evidence that the regulation of immigration consultants remains inadequate.”
The CBA, therefore, argues for the amendment of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act’s section 91“to permit representation for compensation only by lawyers who are members in good standing of a law society in Canada or notaries who are members in good standing of the Chambre des notaires du Québec,” as stated in a 2017 report from the CBA’s immigration law section.
While the ICCRC was established to regulate and oversee the consultancy industry, “from the outset, the organization was held back in achieving its full public interest mandate, because it didn’t have statutory authority” to go after unlicensed practitioners, ICCRC CEO John Murray told NCM.
Currently, the agency only shares complaints with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA). However, Immigration, Refugee and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) can “return or refuse” any application from anyone caught using unauthorized/unlicensed consultants in Canada or abroad, according to its website.
That means there is no effective mechanism for people who’ve been swindled out of money by unlicensed consultants to safely lodge complaints. According to Murray, who became CEO in 2018, the ICCRC has lobbied the government for more statutory power since its inception, including for a mechanism to protect applicants coming forward.
Murray says though “discussions are ongoing” about it with the government, he could give no updates “at this point.”
But that’s precisely what is needed, says Shields.
“Many communities are very sensitive about coming forward because of their situation,” he told NCM. “So, there needs to be some sort of system in place that protects their testimony.”
The IRCC acknowledged a request for comment but was not able to provide answers by press time.
Better Late Than Never
The ICCRC’s expected transformation into the CICC this coming fall is happening under the authority of the College of Immigration and Citizenship Consultants Act, which came into effect last December as part of the federal 2019 budget’s allocation of $51.9 million over five years and $10.1 million annually to overhaul the industry.
“The new Act gives us the powers to bring injunctions [take action] against unlicensed practitioners and hopefully put them out of business,” Murray says.
The College Act will also create “a statutory offense – a crime if you will,” he says – “for providing service without a licence.”
“Coupled with the injunction power, that’s a significant increase in our ability…to deal with unauthorized practitioners.”
Shields agrees a “heavier hand” is “needed within the system.”
“So, the more swiftly they can move in that direction, the better it’s going to be” for newcomers, he says.
Nevertheless, given that the CICC will be the third iteration of a regulatory body, it begs the question of why this new body has a better chance of success.
Bolstering the CBA’s argument against the self-regulation of the consultancy industry are endless news reports of fraudulent immigration consultants operating under the ICCRC’s supervision. The latest case happened last February, where an ICCRC-registered paralegal had scammed six clients out of $155,000 over the last decade, all while under the ICCRC’s supervision.
Murray admits the ICCRC has failed to monitor all its members closely, and says the CBA, as a regulatory body whose members are in a “distinct competitive position” to immigration consultants, is “entitled” to that opinion.
But, he says, that the ICCRC has been largely ineffectual in dealing with its own, licensed members is due to the fact that “fraud is fraud,” and suggests every “regulated profession” is vulnerable to it.
“There are those who intend to break the law and will do it regardless of the regulatory regime they are subject to,” he says. “Once you’re qualified, it’s very difficult to detect breaches unless and until you have the full profession at the same level of professionalism.”
Nevertheless, he insists, it’s “mainly been the lack of statutory authority (that) held the organization back…in the development of our regulatory model.”
“Now that we’ve crossed that threshold, you’re going to see a very different organization.”
More Education Needed
For his part, Singh recognizes immigration consultants have gained a bad reputation due to the unscrupulous work of ghost consultants and agrees that sometimes it can be difficult for newcomers to know whether even registered consultants are acting in good faith.
But he insists most are out there to “help people,” if for no other reason that, at the end of the day, registered consultants have “something (at) stake” – namely, their ICCRC-granted licence and thus their livelihood – which means they are more likely to abide by the rules.
“On the other side,” he says – for ghost consultants – “there is no risk.”
While Singh credits the current government for focusing on the immigration sector, he says taking action “once in a blue moon” isn’t enough, adding that the government has “failed to educate people on resettlement and also against ghost consultants,” particularly abroad.
Murray says the new College Act will give the CICC “statutory authority to take action in other jurisdictions.” The challenge, he cautions, is in building the relationships needed with foreign authorities to “cooperate and enforce Canadian regulation.”
He says they’ve made “some headway in India,” where they are working with the Canadian High Commission there to “bring awareness of the problem of unlicensed consultants,” and expects to do the same in other nations as the College opens in the fall, though he gave no details as to how this is being accomplished.
Fernando Arce is a Toronto-based independent journalist originally from Ecuador. He is a co-founder and editor of The Grind, a free local news and arts print publication, as well as an NCM-CAJ member and mentor. He writes in English and Spanish, and has reported from various locations across Canada, Ecuador and Venezuela. While his work in journalism is dedicated to democratizing information and making it accessible across the board, he spends most of his free time hiking with his three huskies: Aquiles, Picasso and Iris. He has a BA in Political Science from York University and an MA in Journalism from Western University.