Globe and Mail
Case prompts call for changes to law
November 9, 2007
Crown prosecutors yesterday dropped charges of human smuggling and trafficking against a refugee aid worker arrested for helping Haitians entering Canada, prompting a high-profile roster of former cabinet ministers, faith leaders and lawyers to call for legislation change to ensure more aren't punished for their humanitarian work.
Janet Hinshaw-Thomas, director of the Pennsylvania-based Ecumenical Commitment to Refugees, garnered international attention when she was arrested Sept. 26 in Saint-Bernard-de-Lacolle, Que., after she drove 12
Haitian nationals, including seven children, to the U.S.-Canada border so that they could claim asylum.
She became the first humanitarian worker to be charged under the aiding and abetting section of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which was designed to target criminal organizations. The legislation
carries maximum penalties of a $1-million fine, life in prison or both.
But the law was never aimed at refugee and human-rights workers, and it's clear it now requires an amendment so that it isn't misinterpreted in this way again, her lawyer, Mitchell Goldberg, said last night.
"They didn't give a reason for dropping the charges, but I think they realized this was going to be politically embarrassing for them to be spending all these resources prosecuting a 65-year-old grandmother who
dedicated her life to helping refugees."
Mr. Goldberg said the case in favour of Ms. Hinshaw-Thomas gained momentum after a series of strongly worded letters to the federal government, including one from the Canadian Bar Association, denouncing
her arrest. He said all three federal opposition parties have also indicated their support in having Section 117 of the act amended to ensure it does not apply to individuals and groups that help refugee claimants for humanitarian purposes.
"The impact of this case has been that hundreds or maybe thousands of others who help refugees have been terrified by this and are afraid to do their work. And that situation still stands," he said.
During a 2001 parliamentary debate on the bill that became the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, concerns had been raised that people-smuggling provisions could be used against those with humanitarian motives.
Elinor Caplan, then-minister of citizenship and immigration, reassured the parliamentary committee at the time that those people would not be prosecuted.
In a letter to be released today, a group of former attorneys-general and immigration ministers, including Ms. Caplan, Allan Rock, Lloyd Axworthy, Irwin Cotler and Joe Clark, echoed those sentiments.
"As individuals who were once responsible for the application and enforcement of these provisions, we can attest to the fact that they were never designed or intended to allow for the prosecution of humanitarian aid workers."
A dozen faith leaders also released a letter today in support of an amendment to the law.