Keep the minister, strip the bureaucrats
Terence Corcoran
Financial Post

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Oh what fun it is to have a stripper or two gyrating through a news story, especially a story that otherwise nobody would read -- and nobody would write, either. Here's the story of Immigration Minister Judy Sgro's current political problem, stripped of the stripper.

OTTAWA -- Immigration Minister Judy Sgro granted a Romanian woman in her riding special ministerial permission to stay in Canada so she wouldn't have to go back to Romania for a year or more of separation from her Canadian husband. The woman, who briefly worked in Ms. Sgro's campaign office during the last election, was granted the permit to stay in Canada on "humanitarian grounds," said the minister.

"That was the right thing to do," said Ms. Sgro, who added she issues special permits in immigration cases "for several people every week." She said the young woman had been living in Canada for two years and was legally married to a Canadian citizen. Her temporary legal status had lapsed, and she would have had to go back to Romania, where she might have had to wait for a year before being allowed back into Canada.

Ms. Sgro said immigration rules "shouldn't penalize people who fall in love." Furthermore, she said ...

Enough, already. Somebody kill this story before we put readers to sleep. But wait. What if we tell readers the woman is a stripper, an exotic dancer. And what if we tell them she might have entered Canada under a federal program that gave hundreds of strippers work permits to ease a national stripper shortage. And maybe there's a bigger sex-trade angle here -- prostitution, women held captive by international mob cartels, deprived of their rights and held in dudgeons in basements in darkest Etobicoke. Holy toledo, we've got a real hot story here. I can see the headline: The federal government is "pimping for the underworld." Let's find an opposition MP. Call up Pat Martin, the NDP's apparel-industry lobbyist, for some hot quotes about how nude dancers are "being misled, exploited and trafficked to support illegal sex-trade activities in Canada. We've got perfectly good subsidized shirts and pants, made right here in Winnipeg, that could dress these nude dancers."

Which is pretty much how we all ended up where we are today, smack in the middle of a low-rent Hollywood movie, where screaming moralists are calling for the resignation of Judy Sgro, as if the minister were somehow responsible for the screenplay they were fabricating as they went along.

And this is a screenplay, a great political fantasy created by opposition MPs, maybe even some Liberal MPs, and bureaucrats who appear determined to overthrow a minister who was about to introduce policy change in a department badly in need of reform. What the facts of this case suggest is not that the minister should go. On the contrary, we should keep the minister, but strip the department (and possibly others) of bureaucrats.

The latest plot device is the claim from another department, Joe Volpe's Human Resources Development Canada, that its valiant attempts to end a long-standing fast-track stripper-permit program were thwarted because officials were "terrified organized crime would retaliate against front-line HRDC staff." Maybe that's a true story, in a screenplay kind of way, but it is not entirely believable. Did former HRDC ministers and top bureaucrats really decide to keep a program in place because they feared the mob? Or is somebody trying to cover up the now politically embarrassing fact that a stripper-import program had been in place for six years, since it was established by former HRDC minister Pierre Pettigrew? Pick the explanation that seems most likely to be true.

Whatever the case on the stripper program, it has nothing to do with Ms. Sgro. The hell-and-damnation sex-trade scenario also seems inconsistent with the story of the woman Ms. Sgro gave permission to stay here in Canada with her husband. While opposition MPs and bureaucrats spun stories of sex-exploitation and trafficking, one of the alleged victims appears to be freely making her way in Canadian society, has married, and is even volunteering to help an MP get elected. The fact that she might be aiming for a favour from the MP is hardly a national scandal. Half the business community would be in jail if helping a politician get elected were a crime.

The immigration community is suspicious that there's more going on here than cheap stripper politics and media fun. They see the bureaucratic leaks and comments as an attempt to derail a minister who had plans to shake up the immigration bureaucracy. One of her plans is to reverse a 2002 bureaucratic decision that suddenly prevented spouses of Canadian citizens from staying in Canada while their landed-immigrant status was being approved. For 20 years before 2002, married people could get their spouses approved almost automatically on humanitarian grounds. Now, special ministerial permits are needed, which is what Ms. Sgro gave the woman who sparked the current crisis. (See Michael Greene's piece below for more detail.)

Ms. Sgro had other policy plans that ran afoul of current bureaucratic thinking. She publicly said she intended to look at an amnesty program for up to 200,000 illegal immigrants now in Canada. "Every time you talk about amnesty, everyone gets all uptight about it," she said in an interview last month. How right she was.

On this and other immigration policies, Ms. Sgro appeared to be on the right track. She should stay and be allowed to get on with the job.

 National Post 2004