'Incredibly frustrating' visa delays could thwart another Montreal conference

The Canadian Press

Dylan Robertson · The Canadian Press · Posted: Feb 08, 2023

Yet another global conference in Montreal risks being derailed by Canada's delays in processing visas and by rejections that critics argue punish those from poorer countries.

"It's incredibly frustrating and difficult for us to manage," said Mark Boyer, head of the International Studies Association (ISA), which is based at the University of Connecticut.

"There's a myth that it's harder to bring people here, to the United States, but it's actually a problem in Canada."

The group holds conferences across North America on social science, inviting historians and political scientists to present their research and hold panel discussions.

Yet entire panels planned for next month in Montreal are on hiatus because, in multiple cases, participants lack a visa to enter Canada.

Others like Maria Gabriela Vargas have been rejected. The Colombian political scientist studies gender in justice systems but is now spending her time trying to recoup $2,600 in hotel, application and flight costs.

"It is so complicated, and it seems this is common for young people and (those from) the Global South," Vargas said from Colombia.

"We are trying to create international networks, de-coloniality, non-discriminatory spaces and more equitable access to knowledge. This is completely opposite to that idea."

Vargas applied for a visa in December and was refused within a month, on the grounds she did not demonstrate financial means to support her stay in Canada.

She applied a second time with more documentation, but the consulate again denied her on the grounds she lacked "a legitimate business purpose in Canada."

Vargas said a Colombian agency that handles foreign visas told her that Canada is notoriously unreliable for issuing visas. She has filed a Privacy Act request to find out why she was so swiftly rejected.

Dozens turned down

Jennifer Fontanella, the ISA's operations director, says she's aware of about 600 of the 6,000 invited academics having visa issues, with 80 declined, hundreds waiting for a decision and at least a hundred withdrawing.

Numerous delegates reported similar problems when they tried to attend the Montreal conference of the American Political Science Association last September.

Last summer, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) caused an uproar when it denied visas for multiple African delegates for the International AIDS Conference, also held in Montreal, leading to on-stage accusations of racism.

The ISA also faced visa delays for a Toronto conference in 2019. This time around, organizers worked with IRCC to try to prevent such snags.

Fontanella says the department issued an event code, which the ISA gave to visa applicants so IRCC could fast-track applicants and confirm they had been invited to present at the conference.

In granting visas, IRCC normally puts a heavy weight on the likelihood an applicant will actually return home, but the event code is meant to help alleviate this concern.

ISA still braced for complications, moving the conference registration deadline so applicants would have extra months for their visas to be processed.

Applicants from numerous countries are facing delays, and ISA has a large cohort in India where visas seem to take five months to be processed.

IRCC data updated Tuesday shows that visa applications take 217 days to process for people based in Britain and 212 days for people in France.

While citizens of those countries don't need visitor visas to come to Canada, academics from many developing countries who are based in Paris or London do need a visa to attend the conference in Montreal.

IRCC did not provide a comment Tuesday.

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said Ottawa has been working with organizers of major events to prioritize their visa applications.

"We want to do more to make sure that the world can come to Canada and participate in international conferences," he said Wednesday evening.

"There are still people who might be submitting applications that are incomplete or are rejected for one of a huge variety of reasons. But when we work with conference organizers, we're trying to examine how we can further relax rules to allow more people to attend in a timely way."

Fontanella said just one of 30 consulates she's contacted about the ISA's issues have responded, adding that emails to immigration officials have gone unanswered.

"We're constantly writing to the Canadian government and getting no response," said Fontanella.

"I'm expecting the next three weeks to get ugly."

The group picked Montreal as it is one of about 10 cities in North America that has relatively cheap hotels clustered together, along with conference rooms, avoiding a need to rent an entire convention centre.

That system allows the ISA to contain registration costs.

The group is pondering virtual conferences, but Boyer warned that this leaves out people in several developing countries. "We're subject to the peculiarities of the Canadian immigration system."

'We've seen this happen before'

In December, hundreds of delegates from developing countries missed out on the COP15 conference in Montreal due to visa issues that partly stemmed from the United Nations issuing late accreditations.

Conservative MP Brad Redekopp said the problem speaks to a capacity issue within the government, with visa cases eating up constituency office time and the department showing poor results despite a large funding boost last year.

"It just never ends," said Redekopp, who is vice-chair of the House immigration committee.

"The department has (been given) over a billion dollars; they've added thousands of new employees. And yet we still have these problems where it takes forever, and the processing times just seem to grow. So it's frustrating for all of us."

He said such delays hurt applicants and harm the Canadian economy by making the country unattractive for global meetings.

"It is really an embarrassment on an international scale, and we've seen this happen before," said NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan.

She said she's had constituents complain about visa woes, and timelines posted online suggest measures such as the event codes are not improving the department's ability to process applications.

"They said that they will learn from these lessons, and prevent it from happening again. But the reality is persisting, and if anything, it's actually getting worse," Kwan said.

The issue has become so prevalent that a group of Ottawa researchers won a federal grant to study who is affected by Canada's visa refusals, including people attending one-time events and those seeking years-long study permits.

"It's hurting Canadians," said Meredith Terretta, a University of Ottawa history professor leading the VisaBarrier.ca project.

Her group is collecting data from those refused visas, and said the issue is hurting Canadian universities' attempt to have a more global student body.