Border service again cancels deportation of refugee claimant; Removal from temple put off after supporters plan blockade

PUBLICATION: Vancouver Sun
January 10, 2008
BYLINE: Kim Bolan, with a file from Darah Hansen

Border service again cancels deportation of refugee claimant; Removal from temple put off after supporters plan blockade

SURREY - The federal government says paralysed refugee claimant Laibar Singh could still be deported at any time even though it backtracked early Wednesday for the second time on a scheduled removal.

The Canada Border Services Agency cancelled a plan to take Singh from Surrey's Guru Nanak temple at 4:30 a.m. after his supporters pledged to blockade the temple if necessary.

And Singh's lawyer Zool Suleman announced the agency had indicated it would respect that Singh had taken formal "sanctuary" in the temple compound at 7050 120th Street.

But later Wednesday, CBSA official Christopher Williams indicated that Singh's claim of sanctuary does not alter the government's plan to fly him back to India now that all his legal appeals have been lost.

"The federal government does not condone individuals hiding in places of worship to avoid removal from Canada," he told The Vancouver Sun.

"Each situation is dealt with on a case-by-case basis. However, the fact that a person is hiding in a place of worship to avoid removal does not influence the federal government's decision concerning the case.

"The government is committed to enforcing removal orders against those persons who are inadmissible to Canada, including those who do not comply with the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act."

Public Safety Minister Stockway Day made similar comments to reporters in Halifax Wednesday.

"In cases where there has been a request for a full review which I can say has happened -- where there have been requests for extended periods of time on compassionate and security and medical reasons, where there are cases like that, where the time has been allowed and permitted to a great extent and the individual or the individual representatives have given their word that they will comply and live with the results of all appeals, then we expect people to live by their word and by their commitment and follow through," Day said.

But supporters were still relieved that the severely disabled man, who suffered an aneurysm in 2006, had dodged a second removal attempt by CBSA officials.

Suleman said he received a letter from the CBSA late Tuesday afternoon indicating that Singh would be picked up and taken to the airport just 12 hours later. Advocates of the 48-year-old sprang into action and organized their protest.

About 300 people -- including some children -- showed up at about 3 a.m. to stand in front of the main temple gate, which had been locked by executive members and blockaded by a large tracker-trailer truck.

Marked and unmarked police cars passed frequently as the crowd thickened and placards were waved demanding human rights for Singh.

Suleman, along with community leaders, left the temple in an unmarked RCMP car about 45 minutes before the scheduled arrival of CBSA. They returned an hour later, went inside to inform Singh of the news and then waded through the throng of protesters to address the media.

"It has been a very long night with a great deal of uncertainty about what was going to happen to Laibar Singh," Suleman said.

"There will be no removal of Laibar Singh today. But I also want to be very clear that this is not about winners and losers today. What this is about is a spirit of cooperation and understanding between the minister's representatives, the RCMP, the community representatives and Laibar Singh."

Singh's advocates respect that the government has "a valid removal order," he said.

"What we have also made very clear to the ministers involved is that there is a strong community will supporting Laibar Singh from a broad-based series of sources to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds," Suleman said.

"This is a difficult public policy debate that will have to be carried out. . . . There may be future meetings and we will come to some resolution on this that is respectful of both sides of the debate. But for today there will be no removal."

Wednesday's crowd was much quieter than one a month ago at Vancouver International Airport, which blocked traffic for hours as it prevented Singh's removal.

CBSA said at the time that it feared for the safety of agents if they attempted to cut through the chanting mob and take Singh out of his taxi to an awaiting flight.

Suleman said the approach Wednesday was very respectful from all sides.

"We are trying to speak from a position of understanding rather than a position of confrontation today," he said.

The Guru Nanak executive met late Tuesday to vote on the formal sanctuary declaration. A letter was then faxed to the RCMP and the CBSA letting them know of the development.

Suleman said, "to our record, sanctuary has never been breached in Canada other than once in Quebec."

"They are at the moment willing to respect that sanctuary, for which we thank them."

He said Singh is receiving volunteer medical care around the clock.

"He is in good but troubled spirits in light of what has taken place today," he said.

Guru Nanak president Balwant Singh Gill said the community is relieved that Singh will be allowed to stay for now.

"This poor guy will have a hard time getting medical treatment if he returns to India. It is very expensive," Gill said.

"We hope the minister will consider letting him stay on humanitarian grounds."

Singh has been at Gill's temple since Dec. 15 after spending time at two other Lower Mainland temples.

Gill said he was surprised that no one has yet set up a trust fund for Singh, but that he intends to arrange one as soon as possible to handle community donations.

Singh has children back in India who are in their teens and 20s. He came to Canada on a false passport in 2003 and claimed he had been falsely accused of being a member of the terrorist Khalistan Commando Force.

He lost his refugee claim and all subsequent appeals and was ordered deported last June.

On the eve of a July removal date, supporters grabbed him from Vancouver's George Pearson long-term care facility and took him to Abbotsford's Kalgidhar Darbar temple, where he remained until he was transported to the airport last month.

Ontario MP Brian Masse, CBSA critic for the NDP, appealed Wednesday for the agency to respect the concept of sanctuary for Singh.

Any breach of Singh's sanctuary would be "a step back" for Canadians and send a confusing message to religious organizations, he said.

"You can't say one denomination can have sanctuary and another can't," Masse said. "That further complicates things and creates more division."

Instead, Masse encouraged CBSA officials and temple members to try to find another option to end the situation, rather than "outright confrontation."

"It's worthwhile to try and engage a solution that is not going to heighten conflict. I think that is the wrong approach."