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As a toddler, Lakshanaa Kirupakaran always wondered why her dad couldn’t be in Canada with the rest of the family.

The now-12-year-old will tell you she’s always had just one birthday wish: that her family will be reunited.

“When I see my classmates and friends with their parents, I feel jealous,” whispers the seventh grader, who lives in Ajax with her mother and younger sister, all Canadian citizens.

“I miss all the fun times and memories I could have with my dad.”

What’s standing in the way of their reunification is Canada’s bureaucratic indecision about whether Lakshanaa’s father belongs in this country.

There are, surely, arguments to be made for and against — his story is a complicated one.

But what the case of Lakshanaa’s father, Kirupa Kanesamoorthy, perhaps most clearly illustrates is how Canada’s public safety ministers seem to be failing to make decisions in certain, difficult cases for years — despite having the power to do so.

Kirupa Kanesamoorthy came to Canada in 1998 for asylum. He lied in his application, and falsely claimed that in Sri Lanka, he had been forced to work for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or LTTE, which is designated by Ottawa as a terrorist group. In fact, he had no connection to the group whatsoever, his family now says.

He was refused asylum and deported to Jaffna in April 2004, just five months after he married Kirupakaran’s mother in a traditional wedding in front of 200 friends and relatives at a banquet hall in Scarborough.

In order from left to right are public safety ministers, past and present: Vic Toews, Steven Blaney, Ralph Goodale, Marco Mendicino (newly appointed) and Bill Blair.

Uthis Kirupakaran, 41, has applied twice to sponsor her husband to Canada, but has been refused: once, in 2005, because the immigration officer didn’t believe their marriage was genuine and again, in 2008, because her husband was inadmissible due to his “membership” with a terrorist group.

While Canada hadn’t believed Kanesamoorthy was forced to work for the Tigers, it had chosen to now believe he was a member — something he denies.

This is where Canada’s immigration bureaucracy holds out a final, long-shot option.

When someone such as Kanesamoorthy is ruled inadmissible to Canada, they can seek out a very special exemption.

It’s known as ministerial relief, a power endowed to the public safety minister under the immigration law to grant exceptions to otherwise banned migrants.

The problem, critics say, is that the requests for the so-called ministerial relief are processed at such a glacial pace that the remedial measure is essentially non-existent.

Through a lawyer, Kanesamoorthy, now 46, applied for a ministerial relief in late 2009 under then public safety minister Peter Van Loan.

Since then, the file would have been passed along to four more public safety ministers — two Conservatives and two Liberals. Now, it falls on the lap of the newly appointed Marco Mendicino, who was most recently Canada’s immigration minister.

Kanesamoorthy is far from the only one who finds himself waiting.

There were 209 ministerial relief applications received by the federal government between Jan. 1, 2010, and May 14, 2021 — a span of more than 11 years — but during that time only eight decisions were rendered, with two granted, according to data released by the Canada Border Services Agency under an access-to-information request.

The agency said there are currently 294 outstanding ministerial relief applications — including 77 that were received between 2000 and 2009; the rest were made after 2010.

Independent public interest researcher Ken Rubin made the data request earlier this year after he first heard about the ministerial relief process and says he was surprised how little public information was available about it.

He said he is not necessarily sympathetic to all the people caught up in the delay but feels officials should process these cases diligently, given there’s a mechanism in place to serve the purpose.

“This whole system is designed not to work. That’s my conclusion. It’s an unaccountable system,” said Rubin, an Ottawa-based advocate for the right to information and critic of secrecy practices in Canada.

“Why remove some of these people or deal with them if you can just keep them in limbo forever and ever? So, that to me is very troublesome.”

For Kirupa Kanesamoorthy, separated from her husband and raising their daughters alone, it’s much more visceral.

“We’ll be married for 18 years (on Nov. 15). We’ve been waiting for an exemption for my husband for more than 10 years. Every birthday, my daughters keep asking, ‘When are you coming to Canada, Dad?’” said Kirupakaran, a school bus driver. “It makes me so sad.”


Immigration lawyer Barbara Jackman, who has made numerous relief requests for her clients in the system, said the problem with the inadmissibility provision is border officials do not need proof and that all it takes is the “reasonable grounds” to decide the person was a member of a group that poses a threat to Canada.

Sometimes, bizarrely, it’s a situation that traps a person in this country, with no pathway to gaining status.

That’s because asylum seekers can be barred from proceeding with a refugee claim if deemed inadmissible on “reasonable grounds” — yet be stuck in Canada if they are also determined to be at risk if sent back to their homeland.

“If we can’t deport them, they can just stay here without permanent status. And if they don’t like it, they’ll leave. That’s what (the government) wants,” said Jackman.

“So if you make life difficult for them, they’ll find some other place, notwithstanding that many of them have family members, husbands, children or wives and children that have become citizens in Canada.”

Jackman said she’s not surprised by how few ministerial reliefs have been granted, calling the inadmissibility bar one of the cruellest pieces of legislation in terms of “leaving people in limbo.”

“They can’t leave to visit their families. They can’t bring their families here. They can’t settle. Some of them have been here for a long time. Two of my clients are now seniors. They’re retiring,” she said.

“They are saying that there people are threats to national security. This is after someone who’s been in the country for almost 20 years with no problem. And in some cases, the organizations like the Tamil Tigers aren’t even around anymore.”


CBSA spokesperson Rebecca Purdy said those who are deemed inadmissible to Canada for threats to national security and public safety or involvement in human and international rights violations, as well as organized criminality, can apply for a ministerial relief.

A grant of relief, she said, eliminates the inadmissibility as a barrier to the applicant’s efforts to pursue temporary or permanent residence in Canada.

The ministerial relief unit, which has an annual budget of $761,000, is made up of a manager, four senior advisers, two junior program officers and a clerk. There are multiple steps, from data collection from sources to analyses, before the president of the agency refers the final recommendation to the public safety minister.

“Processing an application for ministerial relief requires an in-depth review of a voluminous amount of information and submissions; entails a complex assessment of many national interest factors, potentially including input from external partners,” said Purdy.

“Only the minister can make a decision on these applications. There is no specified timeline for relief.”


Janet Dench of the Canadian Council for Refugees said the slow processing of the ministerial relief request has been a long-standing problem that’s rooted in the broad definition in the law about the membership in these alleged groups posing threats to Canada.

Recognizing the inadmissibility net could be cast too wide to capture those who have done or will do no harm, the relief process is supposed to be that “escape hatch,” she said, for those who are barred from proceeding with an asylum claim or applications for temporary or permanent residence in Canada.

“This inadmissibility provision basically says if you are a member of an organization that has engaged in terrorism or subversion, is engaging in terrorism or subversion or might engage in it in the future, then you are inadmissible to Canada on security grounds,” Dench explained.

“And that applies even if you weren’t a member at the same time as these events were happening that you didn’t even know they were happening. It is incredibly broad.”

At the end of the day, Dench said, whether to reprieve an inadmissible person or not is a political decision to be made by a politician, who is generally risk-averse to making a wrong decision.

“So there’s been a relief, but there’s no promise when you’re going to get the necessary relief, (or) when we’re going to make a decision on it,” she explained.

“So people are forced to live in this extreme excruciating situation of limbo where they have very limited rights. They don’t know what their future holds. It’s absolutely devastating.”


And that’s where Kirupakaran said she and her husband have found themselves with his initial dishonest asylum claim.

According to an affidavit filed for her husband’s request for relief, Kanesamoorthy simply followed the advice of others and lied about his ties with the guerrilla group that, for decades, had fought for the establishment of an independent Tamil state from Sri Lanka.

“He was very unhappy about making a false claim and didn’t feel anyone of the people who worked on his claim really cared about anything other than taking money from him,” said Kirupakaran, who over the years has made about 10 trips to be with her husband on her meagre income.

That lie was repeated again in the couple’s spousal sponsorship application, because they feared they would be refused if they told the truth now and changed the story.

“We both deeply regret this decision and wish we had told the truth back then,” Kirupakaran now said. “The only reason we did it is because we were both so scared that it would create more problems for us.”

The border agency’s Purdy said membership is a “construct” introduced by Parliament when the current Immigration and Refugee Protection Act was passed in 2001.

Various levels of the court, including the Supreme Court of Canada have made rulings on the membership provisions in the act, which includes defining what membership means and what an organization is.

“After 20 years,” said Purdy, “the courts have provided clear interpretations of these membership provisions.”

To University of British Columbia law professor Efrat Arbel, the ministerial relief mechanism is simply an extension of all the practices of interdiction and interception Canada has in place to guard its borders against improperly documented migrants.

“It troubles me to see the numbers that you provided me, because they reveal yet another bordering strategy, yet another piece in the puzzle that makes it so exceedingly difficult to arrive in Canada and seek protection or any other form of relief,” said Arbel.

“This is a process that’s designed to catch those who have somehow fallen through the crack. If it is in place, it should function effectively. It shouldn’t be an opaque, difficult to access process.”

It speaks to the larger need for oversight and accountability of the border agency, she added.

Aviva Basman, president of the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers, says not only is the relief decision inherently political, the actual mechanism is fundamentally flawed. That’s because it’s the same ministry being responsible for both labelling someone inadmissible and being asked to assess a request for relief.

An independent decision maker should be charged with the job to assess those requests instead, she said.

Kirupakaran, who came to Canada in 2000 as a permanent resident under family reunification, said she doesn’t know anything about Canadian immigration law and policy. All she knows is she has worked hard to support her two daughters and husband in Jaffna on her own.

She had worked at Tim Hortons and Swiss Chalet before starting as a school bus driver six years ago. Until recently, she rented a small room at her brother’s house so her mother can help babysit while she’s at work.

“My daughters talk to their dad twice a day and they are missing him a lot,” said Kirupakaran. “Everyday, we just hope that some miracles will happen.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung
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