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Nearly 20 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain, some Canadian politicians are wondering why their government is still punishing so-called 'Cold Warriors' from the former Soviet Union.
Tensions flared in the weeks leading up to Sept. 15 when Mikhail Margelov, a Russian senator, was denied a visa while trying to travel to Canada for the Inter-Parliamentary Forum of the Americas. Russia was granted observer status, and Margelov, chairman of the Russian Senate's Committee for Foreign Affairs, planned to attend.
“I think it’s crazy. It’s not my kind of Canada.” – Senator Marcel Prud'homme
And he did attend, but with a temporary resident permit instead of the standard diplomatic visa. The permit he received is granted to foreign nationals who are deemed to be "inadmissible" by a visa officer, and are only granted if "justified by compelling circumstances." Visitors may be deemed inadmissible if they are suspected of engaging in espionage, terrorism, violence, subversion or are considered a threat to security, according to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.
Government officials were unable to comment specifically on the case because of the Privacy Act, which prevents them from discussing a visa case with anyone besides the applicant. But Senator Marcel Prud'homme, co-chair of the Canada-Russia Friendship Group, says Margelov was unfairly denied a visa because of past ties to the Soviet Union's secret service, the KGB.
“I think it’s crazy,” says Prud’homme. “It’s not my kind of Canada.”
Ties to the KGB
Margelov served as a civilian teacher with the KGB, helping students learn Arabic, and has denied he was ever a spy. He has since risen to prominence as a Russian senator and is former vice president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
Margelov has travelled to Canada before, most recently in 2006. During previous visits, he received a diplomatic visa and insists nothing alarming has changed since his last visit.
“Since I got visas in 2005 and 2006, only two points in my biography have changed," Margelov told the Moscow Times. "In March 2008 my son was born, and in December that year I was appointed as Russia’s special representative to Sudan.”
"I was surprised he was refused a visa," says Consiglio Di Nino, Canadian senator and chair of the Senate's Committee of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. "Margelov is an engaging person who expressed strong interest in bilateral relations."
Erring on the side of caution
But according to immigration lawyer Mike Bell, the decision to deny a diplomatic visa could have simply come from a careful immigration official.
“Since I got visas in 2005 and 2006, only two points in my biography have changed. . . In March 2008 my son was born, and in December that year I was appointed as Russia’s special representative to Sudan.” – Mikhail Margelov
"It could also be that the immigration official who was issuing the document may have erred on the side of caution,” says Bell. "That's not unusual."
Margelov has told reporters that he doesn't believe his is an isolated case, saying that several other prominent Russians have received the more restrictive temporary resident permits, including former Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin.
Bell says he doesn't believe there is an effort to target Russians.
“I don’t see anything special here. I don’t see any conspiracy," he says. "What I see here is a prudent immigration officer.”
Re-evaluate bylaws, says Canadian senator
Prud'homme says he believes there are fundamental problems with the way Canada deals with foreign entry.
“As far as I’m concerned, Canada has to re-evaluate our bylaws,” he says.
Prud'homme says he does not believe Canada should allow immigration officials to unilaterally decide something that is of national importance.
Bell says he doesn't believe that was the case.
"They would go to national headquarters and ask,” he says.
The problem with finding out what happened in this case is the secretive arrangement between Citizenship and Immigration Canada and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says Bell.
“The communication between CSIS and Citizenship and Immigration is very private,” he says. “The information that our security forces have on other individuals is a continual process."
A temporary resident permit is a one-time authorization for someone who would normally not be allowed into Canada because of criminal inadmissibility. This inadmissibility means the person has had a criminal conviction in the past or has suspected ties to criminal activity.
A diplomatic visa is generally granted to visiting dignitaries.
A travel visa is for citizens travelling to or through Canada. Not all citizens need this type of visa. Exempt countries are:
A business visa is for citizens who travel to Canada to engage in a meeting, conference, etc. They must prove that their main source of income is outside of Canada.
A person can be denied a visa to Canada if they are involved in criminal activity or have a criminal record. A person could also be denied for security, financial or health reasons.
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Canada Immigration Visa Services, Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada
On July 14 2009, Canada changed the rules for Czech and Mexican citizens. Previously, citizens from those countries did not require a visa to visit Canada. Officials cited a large influx of refugee claims from those countries. There were nearly 3,000 claims from the Czech Republic in 2007 and the number of claims from Mexico has tripled since 2005.
Source: Citizenship and Immigration Canada
Some people who were turned away at Canada’s borders are:
Source: The Toronto Star, ipetitions, CBC, BBC, GlobalReport.org