François Legault public sector strike Christine Fréchette LGBTQ+ lawyer suing CAQ immigration minister

A Quebec lawyer is suing the CAQ immigration minister over epic delays reuniting families

We spoke with lawyer Maxime Lapointe, family reunification advocates and LGBTQ+ couples separated by anti-immigration policy in Quebec.

Quebec’s strict annual quotas for permanent immigration (currently set at 10,400) severely limit admissions for family reunification and are causing delays that are currently three times longer than in the rest of the country. With 38,600 Quebec families waiting to be processed, many — like the frustrated couples I interviewed last week — have been extremely vocal about getting their stories out to the media.

But others waiting on their family reunification applications are quieter and deliberately choosing to remain in the shadows. Some of these couples are gay. The reason they’re steering clear on the spotlight is because many of their foreign common-law partners or spouses are currently waiting for their applications to be processed while living in countries that don’t view LGBTQ+ relationships in a positive light. These couples, according to Québec Réunifié campaign coordinator Marie-Gervaise Pilon, are “invisible victims.”

“These people are at risk,” she explains. “They’re greater in number then the government even realizes, because they often stay quiet to protect themselves.” Quebec’s unreasonable delays in the family reunification file are not only causing stress and anxiety, but for some gay applicants, potentially compromising their safety as well.

‘We can’t live in Russia as a couple’

Aly and Sandy (not their real names) first met in 2019 and have been married since 2021. Aly, a French Quebecer, was traveling in Europe, where she met her partner, a Russian citizen. She stayed in Europe, applied for an extended visa and, during the pandemic shutdown pursued her PhD studies online. In November of 2022 the couple decided to move to Quebec to continue their studies. Sandy applied for and was accepted for a master’s program. They currently live in Quebec City. 

“We have an internal sponsorship in progress,” Aly tells me over the phone. “We both work full time and contribute to Quebec society. My wife speaks French and is well integrated.” 

After finishing her studies, Sandy applied for a post-graduate working visa, which allows her to remain in Quebec and work here. They’re both employed in the healthcare sector, and since they already live and work in Quebec their application — like most family reunification applications — won’t negatively affect the housing shortage.

“We know we want to stay here,” Sandy tells me. “I know the political situation for LGBTQ+ people in Russia. There’s no kind of future for us as a couple there –especially now.”

Russia’s laws make it illegal to promote or “praise” LGBTQ relationships, publicly express non-heterosexual orientations or suggest that they are in any way “normal.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has only expanded anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia in the past few years. Earlier this month, Russia’s Supreme Court ruled that the “international LGBT movement” is an “extremist organization.”

Endless delays in their sponsorship application have caused the couple significant stress, with Sandy’s Russian passport also making it much harder for them to travel.

“I may be denied re-entry if we travel anywhere,” she explains. “Until you have permanent residency, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be readmitted to Canada if you travel abroad. Border Agents essentially decide whether you can enter, even if you have your post-graduate work permit. It causes a lot of stress and uncertainty for us.”

The Russian national hasn’t been back home and hasn’t seen her family for five years, partly due to the country’s anti-LGBTQ laws and partly due to the war. “We’ll soon be attempting to meet with her parents outside of Russia,” Aly says.

Their legal status as a married couple adds to their stress because there’s no legal recognition of same-sex unions in Sandy’s home country and homophobia is rampant. “I keep my social media accounts private,” she says. “People who are openly gay are often prosecuted and sometimes even subject to political persecution. We wouldn’t go to Russia as a couple openly. It’s dangerous.”

Since filing their application in April of 2023, delays for in-country applications have been hovering around 26 months, and only keep increasing. The couple has requested anonymity partly because they don’t want this interview to affect their application in any way. 

“We keep living in uncertainty,” Aly says. “We want to start a family, but we can’t start the process until this is settled. The uncertainty won’t allow for it.”

Clinging to hope 

Xavier (not his real name) would only speak to me after insisting on no mention of his name for fear of repercussions on his partner Frank (also not his real name) who’s still in Morocco.

“We met in 2016 in Morocco, and very quickly became serious,” he says. Since then, the engineer has tried twice to bring Frank (who’s also a data engineer) to Canada as a student, but the permits were refused both times. In 2021 they realized that it was possible to reunite under family reunification for marital partners, even without being married. “This option,” he says, “seemed to give us a glimmer of hope.”

Consensual same-sex sexual activity is prohibited and criminalized in Morocco. Gay relationships can incur a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment and a fine and Moroccan police are known to actively harass and target members of the LGBTQ+ community. Even same-sex kissing remains illegal. Gay activists also face stigma and repression, making it difficult for them to openly advocate on public platforms. It’s a situation, Xavier says, that makes him anxious for his partner’s safety.

“I worry about him every day,” he says.” The anxiety and long-term separation have them both battling depression. “I’m now taking anti-depressants, which I never thought would happen to me. I wouldn’t be able to work without them.” Xavier worries more for Frank because access to mental health services is much more complicated in Morocco. 

In April of 2022, when the couple submitted their application for family reunification, the projected deadlines were 13 months. With that in mind, Frank turned down job offers in Morocco and Xavier invested in purchasing a condo in Montreal, anticipating that they would soon be reunited and begin a life together. Instead, two years later, processing delays have increased to 39 months, and every email Xavier sends his provincial and federal representatives either remains unanswered or contains platitudes offering no real resolution. Increasingly frustrated, and like many other couples in his situation, he’s now considering a possible move to another province to speed up the process. 

Initially from Morocco himself, the engineer says he emigrated to Quebec to have a better life. Something, he says, he’s currently not certain he has. “I’m now living in this big condo all alone and spending a lot of money traveling two to three times a year just to see my partner. The government is playing with people’s lives and, ironically, that’s one of the reasons I left Morocco in the first place,” he says. “I wanted to be treated fairly by my government.”

In the meantime, the couple continues to live in uncertainty about their future while separated by thousands of miles. “We just want to live our lives,” he says. “We continue to cling to the hope that our request will succeed, finally allowing my partner to join me. This testimony, although shared under the veil of anonymity, is our reality. A love story hampered by bureaucratic obstacles, but which, we hope, will find its happy epilogue in Montreal.”

Government willingness could speed up process

Maxime Lapointe lawyer immigration LGBTQ+ Quebec suing CAQ
Quebec lawyer Maxime Lapointe is suing the CAQ immigration minister over epic delays reuniting LGBTQ+ families

Quebec immigration lawyer Maxime Lapointe, who handles numerous sponsorship files per year and says the deadlines have never been this long, served both the federal and provincial governments with a legal notice back in December, requesting they find a solution or find themselves in Superior Court for unreasonable delays in processing immigration family reunification applications. He deplores the situation and is calling for more transparency from the Quebec government. On February 29, he made good on his threat and sued Quebec’s Immigration minister in Quebec Superior Court for her failure to resolve the file. He’s only suing the CAQ government because he says the federal government has signalled a willingness to resolve the issue. 

Lapointe argues that according to the Canada-Quebec Accord — the legal agreement concerning immigration issues between the federal and Quebec’s provincial governments — the province should not have a cap on the family reunification category (since it’s federal jurisdiction) and the federal government should simply override Quebec’s quota. 

“If Quebec Immigration Minister Christine Fréchette had been open to processing more cases, it could have all been resolved within 48 hours without any court intervention,” he says. Lapointe’s court action in Quebec Superior Court aims to challenge the CAQ government’s entire immigration file since it was elected in 2018. 

“Based on the accord both parties should have mechanisms in place to ensure a reasonable processing time of applications,” he says. “Since Canada processes its cases in 12 months, it’s unreasonable that Quebec, which only controls the engagement part, slows down the entire process sometimes by up to 42 months.”

Lapointe says the government is playing politics with people’s lives. “The CAQ government was elected in 2018 on a promise to reduce immigration by 20%. To do so, they cut the numbers in every category and then changed the requirement to apply for a certificate of selection, making it harder, since they control both ends. Since then, immigrants have struggled, and it has created immense backlogs in specific categories like family reunification.”

Lapointe says that, according to the accord, Quebec is not entitled to set a quota for this federal category and the federal government has no obligation to respect this Quebec-imposed quota “I’ve been saying since 2017 that they should reopen the Canada-Quebec Accord if both parties choose not to respect it. That’s the only way to seek more power for Quebec.” Québec Solidaire also recently proposed reopening the agreement.

“The accord was signed in 1991, at that time we were only talking about selected refugees from abroad,” says Lapointe. “It’s not in line with the present reality of 2024. We need a new agreement.”

According to the immigration lawyer, by decreasing immigration levels and trying to keep a high percentage of economic immigration there’s no room for the categories that Quebec doesn’t control, such as family reunification and refugees. “Because of the government’s view that taking in more than 50,000 immigrants is ‘suicidal,’ they have no margin to move,” he says. “But Quebec has the power with the Canada-Quebec Accord to select 22% of the overall immigration in Canada. The CAQ could clear the entire backlog just with the power they have via the accord. That’s something no other province can do. But they don’t use the power they have. They create the problem and it’s not reasonable. That’s why we need a court action to clear this backlog.”

Lapointe cites the example of one his clients. “If processing times were the normal delays observed in the rest of Canada, today (my client) would be a permanent resident and he wouldn’t be, for the second time, in the process of deportation by Border Services agents. In this specific category there are then 38,000 people to whom the Quebec government said, ‘Yes’ and then told the federal government, ‘Please wait for two to three years for political reasons.’”

Waiting for the greenlight from the Philippines

Quebecer Jean-Sébastien Gervais was traveling in the Philippines in December of 2019 when a friend request on Facebook started it all. “It’s not uncommon nowadays to fall in love with someone else from another country,” he says. “Be it from travelling, work experience, student exchange or simply having similar interests in social groups online.”

Numerous pandemic travel bans, one wedding in December of 2022, one permanent residency application last fall, and $30,000 in travel expenses later, Gervais and his husband Paolo are still waiting. But at least they’re together. Last September, Gervais decided to move to the Philippines because he no longer wanted to be separated from the man he loves. 

While gay weddings are not recognised in the Philippines, a staunchly Christian country, it still ranks high in the region for LGBTQ+ social acceptance. It’s why Gervais made the decision to move, even though it’s cost him lost wages and benefits from changing jobs to work remotely. 

“Before even considering proposing,” says Gervais, “and because the Philippines borders were still closed to foreigners, we tried to have a visitor visa for Paolo to visit me so we could spend some time together.” His application got lost in the humongous backlog at Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC). “Trying to understand and plan when we would get an answer for the visa was quite a mental struggle,” he says. “Logging in every day to see if there was a communication update, to see average processing times change monthly and to eventually become 10 times the average wait time…” Their first visitor visa was refused –after replacing an initial visitor visa application idling for 430+ days.

Planning their wedding would also prove challenging. They needed to find a country where LGBTQ+ weddings are both legal and recognized in Canada and would also allow for a visa-free entry. Costa Rica was finally chosen but also had its challenges, being costly for both the couple and family members attending. “Naturally, I would have preferred to have my own wedding here in Quebec,” says Gervais, if only a visitor visa would have been easier to get.” 

It took nine months to have their wedding registered at the Directeur de l’état civil. The Costa Rican English translations and paperwork provided were eventually returned to them and not accepted because of Bill 96. “I had to redo the official translations from an OTTIAQ accredited translator (who ironically lives in Ontario) before resubmitting them, and before I could even apply for permanent residence.” 

In February of 2023 Gervais found a job that would allow him to work 100% remotely and from another country. “I knew waiting was too much with all the struggles we’ve faced as a couple already, so I decided to temporarily move to the Philippines. This flexibility came with a cost. My job has fewer employment benefits and no permanency.  

While a remote job allows them to live together, Gervais’s stay also comes with additional hassles. “Since the Philippines doesn’t recognize LGBTQ+ weddings, I can only stay on a visitor visa that renews every month for a fee,” he explains. Renewal necessitates a three-hour bus ride to Davao, one to two hours in an immigration office, and then another three hours to travel back home to Paolo’s family.

“Overall, we’re lucky that his family is very welcoming,” Gervais says, “and that my employer gives me this privilege of working remotely.”  

While they wait, Paolo, who’s a pharmacist, is busy learning French and getting his documents for comparative and equivalence studies done in Pharmacy, besides having to pass Canada’s national pharmacy board exam in Quebec. 

“After navigating through all those challenges,” Gervais says, “I don’t know what to think if IRCC has the audacity to question if our relationship is genuine.” ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.