By HUGH WINSOR
Tuesday, November 30, 2004
OTTAWA -- Judy Sgro is a retooled municipal politician whose career is in jeopardy, perhaps unfairly, because she is caught in the vortex of two very different federal issues, both of which predated her arrival in Ottawa by many years. Her situation is not unlike the imbroglio that ensnared former Chrétien-era minister Jane Stewart in the overhyped, billion-dollar boondoggle involving job-creation grants.
Neither minister was or is sufficiently politically adroit to put her respective issues in perspective, and neither had much help from her ministerial colleagues.
The first issue for Ms. Sgro -- which because of its salacious nature has received a huge amount of attention -- is the long-established Canadian government practice of allowing foreign strippers, or exotic dancers as they prefer, to obtain temporary work permits to fill the strip bars in Canadian cities. Many people may be surprised to learn there is a shortage of Canadian dancers. But there is; hence dancers are imported.
This program has long been an issue of contention between the Citizenship and Immigration Department and the labour market section of the Human Resources Skills Development. So far, HRSD has prevailed, which can't be blamed on Ms. Sgro, the new immigration minister.
A separate issue is the ministerial discretion built into the Canada Immigration Act, to serve as a safety valve for the sometimes rigid immigration laws. Alina Balaican, the Romanian dancer at the centre of the controversy, is by no means unique when it comes to obtaining a ministerial temporary residence permit to stay in Canada; she joined 12,000 other people this year who would have otherwise been inadmissible if they hadn't also received a temporary residency permit.
Ms. Sgro can be held accountable for how this ministerial discretion is applied on her watch. But given that the ministerial permit is such a common procedure, and given that the authority to grant it is delegated down into the bureaucracy, especially to visa officers abroad, then Ms. Balaican's case seems small potatoes, apparently handled by the minister's staff without Ms. Sgro even knowing about it.
The safety valve in the law specifically refers to compassionate or humanitarian grounds and it has often been applied to the spouse of a Canadian citizen who otherwise would be kicked out of the country, or not allowed in.
(Former heritage minister Sheila Copps availed herself of the provision while she was still in opposition, for instance, to get her former husband into Canada. He was otherwise inadmissible because of a drug conviction.) It has also been used to allow otherwise inadmissible people to come to Canada for weddings or funerals or medical treatment.
Nevertheless, the ministerial permit has bedevilled every immigration minister since the law was passed. The minister of the day is constantly besieged by supplicants. MPs of all stripes petition the minister on behalf of their constituents, and processing 12,000 permits becomes an administrative headache.
Former Liberal immigration minister Elinor Caplan dealt with this by imposing tough rules on MPs. She would grant a requested permit, but then made the MP responsible ensure the temporary resident behaved, and left when supposed to. Otherwise, the MP was cut off. Ms. Caplan was a more experienced politician than Ms. Sgro, and got out the immigration department relatively unscathed.
Another element in the current controversy is Ms. Sgro's selection and oversight of her political staff. Shortly after re-election, she fired the chief of staff who had been originally imposed on her by Prime Minister Paul Martin's office, and promoted a long-time assistant from her days in municipal politics. Some wonder if there is a connection between the staff changes and the dancer scandale.
When Ms. Sgro was sworn into Mr. Martin's first cabinet last December, she candidly admitted she would have preferred to be the parliamentary secretary responsible for cities rather than have a full ministerial position. She only ran for federal office, she said, because she thought federal support was crucial to fix urban problems.
That said, it should be no surprise she and her staff are used to a pothole-filling style of local politics. Hence the favour for a campaign worker, or the now infamous meeting between her chief of staff and a Toronto strip club owner.
Maybe she and her staff are in over their heads in Ottawa. A more effective politician would have dealt with the both the dancer and ministerial permit issues head-on instead of trying to hide behind an 11th-hour reference to the Ethics Commissioner. Ms. Sgro, if she survives, has a lot to learn.