Words: Miriam Lafontaine
Photography: Miriam Lafontaine

An upcoming immigration holding centre in Laval is promising a warm and homey feeling for non-status people who will be held there as they wait for immigration hearings or deportation.

The holding centre slated to open in 2021 will join three others already operated by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) across the country, and will be the second one to open in Laval. It will hold up to 144 people.

According to CBSA statistics, from 2017 to 2018 the number of non-status people held in these types of centres across Canada increased by 55 per cent, from 4,248 detainees to 6,609–though the number has remained fairly consistent in Quebec since 2012.

Beyond providing what Lemay, the architecture firm contracted for the new building, calls a
“homey” place for deportees and those awaiting immigration hearings, the centre will also offer a playground for children who occasionally end up being detained.

But you won’t be able to see them from the outside.

An aerial view of the Lemay architecture firm’s schematic design of the detention centre.

“They’re building a children’s area that’s going to be boarded by a six-foot-high barrier, so that no one can see the children, and the children can’t see out,” explained Sam Hoffman from Ni Frontières Ni Prisons, a migrants’ rights group decrying the opening of the new centre.

“[The Lemay architecture firm] has been contracted to build it in such a way that it will look less harsh, and it will look a little friendlier,” he continued. “But for a mother who’s being separated from her child, I don’t think it really matters to her how aesthetically pleasing the walls of the prison she’s being held in are before she’s going to be deported to certain death.”

CBSA Press Attaché Nicholas Dorion acknowledged while detention of minors are rare, they are necessary in some occasions.

“[The provincial and federal government’s] ultimate goal is, as much as possible, to avoid placing minors in immigration holding centres and to make sure families stay intact,” he told The City. “The vast majority of minors are not detained, but housed.”

CBSA statistics for 2018 aren’t published yet, but in 2017, 66 minors were detained in Laval’s current holding centre, while 31 were housed–meaning they weren’t detained on immigration grounds but remained with detained parents to prevent family separations.

For detained children that year, the average holding time was 23.6 days, while housed children stayed an average of 13.4 days.

Dorion said children who end up at this new centre will have access to educational services if they have to stay for more than one week, and that mental health professionals will be there to provide support.

They will also have access to a playroom with toys, books, craft supplies, board games, and an outside playground with a basketball court and swings.

While these centres generally comply with national and international laws on migrant detention, Petra Molnar, a lawyer and researcher at the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law, said we should be taking a hard look at why we’re detaining people in the first place.

“Is that something we want as a society that’s ‘accepting and multicultural?’” she said.

Molnar also highlighted how Canada remains one of the few countries in the world where indefinite immigrant detention still carries on.

“We’ve had cases where people have been detained for five, six, seven years,” she noted. “So there’s clear rights infringements in the way the system currently operates.”

Immigrant detention through these kinds of facilities expanded during the Harper government, and in 2016 the Liberal government began an “alternatives to detention” initiative with a $138 million budget.

While it includes funding for services like call-in reporting to the CBSA to help new arrivals avoid detention, the new budget announced by Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale was also set up to fund two new holding centres. Dorion said the price tag on Laval’s new centre is $56.1 million.

“Immigration detention continues to be a necessary immigration enforcement tool designed to preserve program integrity and public safety,” wrote the CBSA when announcing the budget. “Immigration detention is not punitive.”

Molnar said the emphasis on these “friendlier” kinds of detention serve as a way to sanitize the issue.

“They call them holding centres, but well look–they have bars on the windows, they are highly securitized, so people can’t get in and out. So they’re essentially prisons,” she said. “I don’t believe that immigration detention is necessary and I think we should be working as a society to end it completely.”