OTTAWA — With Canada set to host a major international summit next month, advocates are warning about a possible repeat of issues that prevented some African delegates from attending a conference in Montreal over the summer, leading to allegations that the federal immigration department's policies are racist.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said it found no fault in its handling of visa applications for the International AIDS Society conference last July. A number of delegates from Africa were either denied visas or were still waiting for a response by the time the conference got underway.
"The whole system is designed to exclude people," said Madhukar Pai, the Canada Research Chair in translational epidemiology and global health at McGill University in Montreal.
Next month, Montreal is hosting a United Nations conference on biodiversity loss, stoking worries that delegates from the regions most impacted by declining species will be stuck at home.
"There is something about our governmental system that is, what I call anti-Africa or anti-Black, and that worries me a lot," said Pai.
For years, Pai has attended conferences where his African colleagues have had more difficulty getting visas than his peers from Latin America and Asia.
It's an issue he's seen at events hosted in the U.S., Britain and Canada, and one he was particularly concerned about this spring as Ottawa struggled to process everything from refugee applications to passport renewals.
"I don't know whether the government has genuinely learned much from the AIDS conference fiasco," Pai said.
"The anger was so palpable, to have all those empty chairs of African delegates missing; it was egregious."
"I worry about any international conference that is being held in any part of Canada these days."
The immigration department doesn't share his concern.
"IRCC is using all the tools available at its disposal to facilitate the processing of thousands of visa applications in a short period of time," spokesman Jeffrey MacDonald said in a written statement.
The department says it has a special events unit that works with conference hosts to try and ensure that visa offices abroad have a list of people who have registered for an event. People also use a special code when applying so that their applications are prioritized.
"IRCC works closely with the Canada Border Services Agency and event organizers to ensure the application process and immigration and entry requirements are understood, so that visa applications are processed in a timely manner and admission for participants can go smoothly," MacDonald wrote.
The department suggested that people invited to this summer's conference might have botched their applications.
"Waiting too long to apply, or omitting the special event code, may result in their application not being processed in time for the start of the event," MacDonald wrote, adding that the department won't get into specifics of the July event due to privacy legislation.
"There are always compelling reasons some individuals are not allowed to enter Canada."
Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a consultant specializing in global health and gender, said Canada and other Western countries need to look beyond technical fixes and recognize "a much broader pattern" at these summits.
"It is a systemic issue across the world, where we tend to be divided into the Global North donors who host conferences, and the Global South who live these issues and should have ownership of them — and yet the conferences that are about them are not done with them."
Dobson-Hughes recalled summits in 2016 and 2019 where African delegates had invitation letters on Government of Canada letterhead, but could not actually get a visa.
"I can't imagine Global Affairs Canada is particularly delighted that they build respectful, meaningful relationships on a personal basis with colleagues in Africa, for example, only to have their own government turn around and deny them a visa," she said.
"I have not seen anything that gives a sense that they (IRCC officials) have grappled with the sense of the problem as particularly African participants perceive it."
The department said it trains officers to assess applications equally against the same criteria.
"As part of our commitment to anti-racism, equity and inclusion, we are looking closely at those criteria through the lens of how they impact racialized applicants, to ensure our programs and policies are fair, equitable and culturally sensitive," MacDonald wrote.
Dobson-Hughes is hoping Canada reviews its visa policies as part of an Africa strategy that MP Rob Oliphant is set to table next year.
"There are technological solutions … but they're only as good insofar as they address the underlying problem, which is often attitudes and biases and racism," she said.
A 2018 analysis by The Globe and Mail found that Canada refuses a majority of visa applications from more than a dozen African countries.
The problem is compounded by Canada's scant diplomatic presence on the continent; many have to travel thousands of miles and cross borders to submit paperwork and have their fingerprints scanned.
Isseu Diallo, who leads an association in Senegal of people living with HIV, presented at the Montreal conference virtually this past July as part of a panel organized by the Toronto group Realize.
She was invited to attend, but figured it wasn't worth the hassle of applying for a visa when multiple peers were already being denied.
"It's the fault of the Government of Canada because when there's a conference like that, it's for gathering. People have to come to organize seminars and do workshops," Diallo said in French.
She wondered if officials simply didn't want too many people gathering during the COVID-19 pandemic. "Maybe it's not a question of racism; maybe there were too many requests," she said.
"I was a little discouraged, but then I thought to myself, maybe there will be another day I'll get to be in Montreal."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 26, 2022.
Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press