Globe and Mail
1 May 2007
Man who says he was used by his former fiancée refuses to repay her welfare costs
A Canadian contractor is suing Ottawa and the Ontario government for trying to force him to repay thousands of dollars in social assistance collected by his ex-fiancée, a Yugoslav woman he sponsored to come to Canada.
Nedzad Dzihic, a 37-year-old Bosnian immigrant, did not marry Edina Zurko. Instead, according to court documents, she used him as a ticket to Canada and then dumped him almost as soon as she arrived, on Feb. 25, 2003.
An embarrassed Mr. Dzihic promptly informed Citizenship and Immigration Canada, according to the documents filed Friday in Ontario Superior Court of Justice. He says he never saw her again and assumed the government had deported Ms. Zurko.
Instead, Mr. Dzihic was shocked last year to get a bill from the Ontario government to repay thousands of dollars his former girlfriend has been collecting since she went on welfare in June of 2006.
Mr. Dzihic was even more stunned to discover that he must cover her social-assistance costs until 2013 -- the 10-year period of the sponsorship agreement.
"The government is hounding Mr. Dzihic for money, when he was the one who was used and they did nothing to protect him," said Lorne Waldman, his lawyer.
The lawsuit, one of eight similar ones filed Friday, is the first legal challenge to the provincial government's right to recoup welfare costs from delinquent sponsors.
Under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, sponsors may bring in spouses, parents, grandparents and dependent children if they agree to support them. Prior to 2002, the obligation was for 10 years. After 2002, support for spouses was reduced to three years and applicants were no longer allowed to sponsor fiancés . (When Mr. Dzihic applied, the obligation extended for 10 years.)
Since Ontario's Ministry of Community and Social Services launched a recovery initiative in April of 2005, it has collected $3.7-million from defaulting sponsors. British Columbia and Quebec have also launched similar plans.
However, many sponsors say it is unfair to come after them when their spouses deceived them, or used them to get into Canada.
Amanda Dodge, a legal aid lawyer in Orillia, Ont., who is representing five of the eight claimants, believes the government has every right to collect from people who breach their financial undertakings. However, Ontario has cast the net too wide and has failed to consider cases where there has been illness, job loss or marital breakdown.
One sponsor was hit with a bill for $148,000 -- the combined amount his estranged parents had collected in social assistance -- unbeknownst to him.
In the case of Mr. Dzihic, Mr. Waldman said the sponsorship agreement is not enforceable because Ms. Zurko didn't live up to her legal obligation to marry him within 90 days. Mr. Dzihic eventually met another woman from Bosnia, whom he married last year. CIC issued her a spousal visa and then revoked it after immigration officials discovered the outstanding bill for Ms. Zurko's welfare.
Many more sponsors across the country are watching the legal challenges closely. Among them is Rebecca Collum, a 35-year-old pastry cook from Toronto. She met and married Rashid Mukare, a Kenyan, in 2005 on Fregate, an island in the Seychelles. At the time, both were working for a five-star luxury resort.
"He had a great sense of humour and was very positive," she recalls. Both left the island for their homelands and she applied to sponsor him, spending $10,000 on air tickets, immigration expenses and care packages -- even footing her mother-in-law's hospital bill.
However, when the man of her dreams finally arrived in January of 2007, he turned out to be an incommunicative layabout, according to Ms. Collum. She felt betrayed when he admitted he had made no attempt to get a job in Kenya to help cover their costs.
Finally, after a few weeks, she told him the marriage wasn't working out, and her sister bought him a plane ticket back to Kenya. However, instead of boarding the flight, Mr. Mukare went to a shelter and signed up for social assistance. Now Ms. Collum, who plans to file for divorce, is on the hook for three years for his $6,000-a-year welfare bills.
Madeleine Meilleure, Ontario's Minister of Community and Social Services, says sponsors must live up to their commitment. The government makes exceptions only if the sponsor dies or falls ill, is living below the poverty line, or if the sponsored immigrant is being abused. Even if a couple divorces, the sponsor must still support the person. Sponsored immigrants have as much right as any Canadian to apply for social assistance, she says.
The sponsorship program allows Canadian citizens and permanent residents to sponsor close relatives or family members. They must promise to support them for three to 10 years. If one has previously sponsored family members who then go on social assistance, the applicant may be disqualified from bringing in another family member.
In 2005, Canada accepted about 63,000 family-class immigrants; half settled in Ontario.
That same year, there were about 6,500 sponsored immigrants on social assistance in Ontario (less than 1 per cent of the total welfare recipients) at a cost of $65-million.
Source: Ministry of Community and Social Services; Citizenship and Immigration Canada