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Nova Scotia becomes first province to stop holding immigration detainees

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Nova Scotia has become the first province to stop holding immigration detainees in its jails on behalf of the federal government.

Canada Border Services Agency spokeswoman Rebecca Purdy says the province ended the practice Aug. 8.

Other provinces, including British Columbia and Alberta, have said they too would stop holding immigration detainees. However, both of those provinces have agreed to temporarily continue housing high-risk detainees in jails, but are not accepting new inmates.

"Nova Scotia, like other provinces, has determined that provincial correctional facilities are not the appropriate place for individuals who are being held solely under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act," Nova Scotia's Department of Justice said in a statement.

"As a result, we notified Canada Border Services Agency last year that our province would not renew the agreement to hold detainees on their behalf."

The end of the detention deal has been saluted by immigrant-rights activists, who have said detainees often face solitary confinement and lockdowns in provincial jails even though they aren't charged with crimes in Canada.

Ali Bhagat, assistant professor at the school of public policy at Simon Fraser University, said Nova Scotia's decision is good news. "Detention really does violate people's human rights," he said. "I think ending this practice is a really good thing."

Jay Ramasubramanyam, assistant professor at York University's social science department, said that if Canada wants to proclaim itself as a bastion of human rights, then immigration detention should end. But, he said, provinces ending their detention agreements with Ottawa won't make it any easier for migrants to obtain status in Canada.

"It's a false equivalency to think that as soon as immigration detention with provinces tend to end, then people are going to be able to walk in or walk around their neighbourhood free," he said. "That's not going to happen."

Purdy said the agency considers a number of factors for detaining migrants.

"Immigration detention requires several elements, including that an individual be inadmissible to Canada and either poses a flight risk and a danger to the public, due to a past criminal history involving violence or otherwise violent behaviour," she said in an email.

The agency runs its own immigration detention centres in Laval, Que., Toronto, and Surrey, B.C., and had entered into arrangements with all provinces for holding immigration detainees in regions outside those three centres.

Saskatchewan is slated to end its agreement with the agency on Sept. 30, while Manitoba and Ontario are set to terminate their deals next year. The agency does not have formal agreements with Prince Edward Island or Newfoundland and Labrador but works with them on a case-by-case basis, Purdy said.

Canada's border services agency has cut the number of detained migrants in provincial jails by more than half within six years, she said, from 2,043 in 2016-17 to 931 in 2022-23.

About three-quarters of the migrants held in provincial correctional facilities are inadmissible into Canada for reasons of serious criminality, Purdy said. "This means the person has been convicted of an offence in Canada or abroad, such as sexual offences, violence, weapons or drug trafficking," she said.

"Over the past 10 years, there have been at least 441 people in provincial correctional facilities with links to organized crime in the Americas and Asia, she said. "These individuals were found to be inadmissible to Canada and Canada Border Services Agency assessed that they would continue to carry out activities related to organized crime and possibly disappear to avoid removal."

Ramasubramanyam said most migrants are detained in Canada because of administrative reasons, not because they are criminals. It is "very unlikely," he said, that someone with a criminal history is going to make it past immigration protocols.

Bhagat, meanwhile, said the end of detention agreements between provinces and Ottawa isn't making the country less safe, because border officials are still able to detain people.

"The deal is just speaking to the idea that Canada Border Services Agency is no longer paying provinces to host migrants in their provincial jails. That's the thing that's being ended."

Migrant detention is practised in a number of countries, such as the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States, said both experts.

"It's not an uncommon practice," Ramasubramanyam said. "Though they may not be viewed as practices of detention. It's still a form of detention."

"The fact that Nova Scotia is ending its immigration detention process is actually a step in the right direction."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2023.

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