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Visa backlogs force Canadians to cancel trips to India

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It’s 8:30 a.m. on a chilly Friday morning in Surrey, B.C., and a queue of people snakes around a strip mall in the Metro Vancouver suburb.

They’re not here for the mall’s sweet shop or the Filipino fusion restaurant. Most of them have been waiting hours for an Indian visa at the BLS International Visa Application Centre.

A lineup of people snaking around the block of a strip mall.
Dozens of people lined up outside the BLS International Office in Surrey, B.C., on Friday, Nov. 18. It comes amid widespread reports of delays in the Indian visa processing system. (Lyndsay Duncombe/CBC)

Arminder Bajwa is one of hundreds of Indian visa applicants who say backlogs in the system are leaving people like him in limbo as visa applications have spiked amid a drop in global travel restrictions. He’s been here since 5:30 a.m. when temperatures were near zero.

Indian visa applicants are calling for the return of an electronic visa program that allowed online applications and was in place in Canada before the pandemic, as well as more staffing to address reported processing delays across the country.

“I’ve spent like $8,000 on tickets,” Bajwa says from the queue, surrounded by dozens of others trying to keep warm. “For my sister’s marriage … that’s my sister, and I have to be there because that’s like a tradition.

“That situation, inflation and everything … $8,000,” he repeats.

A Sikh man wearing a turban looks at the camera.
Arminder Bajwa is one of dozens of applicants, some of whom had been lining up outside the visa office since 3 a.m. He’s already booked tickets, which cost him thousands of dollars, so he and his family can go to India. (CBC)

But Bajwa’s passport has been with authorities inside the BLS office for over 17 days, and he’s getting desperate.

Another person in line said they had been waiting over two months — despite the Indian consulate’s stated timeline of 30 days for a visa.

Before the pandemic, applicants like Bajwa had access to an electronic visa application that was entirely virtual, a program that was brought to a halt amid travel shutdowns.

And though the program has been restored to over 156 countries, it hasn’t been restored yet to Canada, despite India’s status as the largest source of new Asian immigrants to Canada since 2016.

The Indian high commissioner-designate, Sanjay Kumar Verma, said that visa applications have spiked to dramatic levels but denied widespread delays.

But a voicemail from BLS International, to which the Indian High Commission has outsourced its visa applications, says that “processing times have been increased.”

The company did not return a request for comment. But an acknowledgement of delays is little consolation for Bajwa and others in his situation.

“The population in Surrey, Metro Vancouver, is ballooning. It’s, like, increasing day by day,” he said. “They need more offices. They need more people.”

Travel agent says e-visa should be restored

Manpreet Grewal, the manager of the My Dream Traveler agency in Mississauga, Ont., says that BLS should consider opening more offices across Canada and Ontario.

She says she’s been hearing of delays in the system for months and has even published multiple TikToks for visa applicants seeking advice.

“These days, there’s only one location in Brampton for the whole GTA,” she told CBC News in an interview.

Currently, there are nine BLS International offices across the country — the only centre that processes applications for Indian visas in Canada. They’re concentrated in the largest urban centres, even as more immigrants make their way to smaller communities. This means those who live away from urban centres either have to mail the BLS centres their documents, or make their way there in person.

Grewal, and the Indian Association of Tour Operators, have called for the e-visa program to return. The program allows those in qualifying countries to fill out the application and get an electronic travel authorization (ETA), before having their e-visa stamped on their passport at their destination.

 

A brown woman types on a computer.
Manpreet Grewal, a travel agent in Mississauga, Ont., has made a number of TikToks with advice for people needing Indian visas. She says it’s difficult to get appointments, even for people who need them immediately because their Indian relatives have died. (CBC)

 

If applicants have Canadian citizenship, even if they’re born in India, they have to get a visa to return, as India doesn’t allow dual citizenship.

“The main reason [for] the delay for the visas is because they are not opening e-visas,” she said.

High commissioner cites strained resources

The high commissioner-designate denied there were significant delays happening across the system, though he conceded there were massive increases in application volumes that had tightened resources.

“If I look at Ottawa … October 2022 [visa] submissions as compared to October 2021, submissions have increased by 605 per cent,” Verma told CBC News in an interview.

He said the comparisons were similar for Vancouver and Toronto, with respective increases of 203 and 188 per cent since last October.

A Zoom screenshot of an Indian man in a suit framed by an Indian and two Canadian flags.
Sanjay Kumar Verma, the high commissioner-designate, said applicants should use the drop-off service at BLS International sites — which are only located in Canada’s biggest cities — to avoid long queues. (CBC)

Verma encouraged applicants to look at visa application timelines on the commission’s website and said that those waiting in queues at BLS offices were walk-ins without appointments.

“As far as we are concerned, we are processing the visa applications and granting the eligible applicants’ visa much, much faster than people otherwise realize,” he said.

As for the e-visa program, Verma said the program was being restored “country by country, looking at the constraints on resources.”

“There are discussions. There are considerations. There are movements in that direction. When it is finally decided by the two governments, then, of course, we’ll hear the outcome,” he said.

A request for comment from Foreign Affairs Canada was not returned by deadline.

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Sentencing hearing set to continue for former fashion tycoon Peter Nygard

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TORONTO – The lawyer representing former fashion tycoon Peter Nygard is set to continue her submissions at his sentencing hearing in Toronto today.

Gerri Wiebe stressed the importance of factoring in her client’s age and health as she began her arguments Wednesday.

Nygard, 83, was found guilty last November of four counts of sexual assault, but he was found not guilty of a fifth count as well as one of forcible confinement.

The charges stem from allegations dating from the 1980s until the mid-2000s.

Prosecutors have said they are seeking a sentence of 15 years, minus credit for the time Nygard has already spent in custody.

On Wednesday, court heard victim impact statements from three of the complainants and one complainant’s mother.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2024.

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Can B.C.’s southern resident orcas be taken off the path to extinction?

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The southern resident killer whale known as Tahlequah captured global sympathy in 2018 when she pushed the body of her dead calf for more than two weeks in waters off British Columbia’s south coast.

Some scientists and advocates called the scene a display of public grief.

But the impact of the loss went beyond Tahlequah. It was a significant blow to the entire population that numbers just 74 individuals.

Recent research suggests a baseline rate of population loss of roughly one per cent per year — based on modelling and 40 years of observations — putting the whales on a path toward a “period of accelerating decline that presages extinction.” Even that rate of loss is “optimistic,” the research says.

The study lends urgency to calls by a coalition of environmental groups for the Canadian government to reverse its decision not to issue an emergency protection order for the whales, in the face of what may otherwise be inexorable decline.

The top ocean predators are classified as endangered under Canadian and U.S. species-at-risk laws, which are meant to trigger protections. But the measures haven’t yielded any signs of recovery for the whales, says the coalition that includes the David Suzuki Foundation and the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, among others.

Misty MacDuffee, a conservation biologist with Raincoast, said the whales’ long potential lifespans may obscure their journey towards extinction — Parks Canada says a whale known as Granny was estimated to be 105 years old when she died, though that age has been disputed.

“We always have to remember that these are long-lived animals, and the population can be going extinct over decades simply because those animals are still alive,” said MacDuffee, a co-author of the recent study.

She said the research published in the journal Communications Earth & Environment in April shows “there is no possibility of recovery” for the southern residents under existing conditions in their habitat.

The study notes that in a population of 75 whales, “a single birth or death represents an annual population growth or decline of 1.4 per cent, underscoring the value of each individual in preventing the disappearance of a population.”

“It’s so down to the wire for these whales. Had we acted a decade ago … then we might not be in this situation. We’ve done very little,” MacDuffee said.

“The government is making decisions to say, ‘Well, the economics and these other objectives override the recovery of these whales.'”

As the threats pile up in the Salish Sea, the busy marine corridor off B.C.’s south coast where the southern residents feed on chinook salmon, scientists say the whales’ survival hangs by a thread.

‘IMMINENT THREATS’ TO SURVIVAL

The southern residents have come to symbolize the beauty and biodiversity of the region and carry special significance for Indigenous Peoples.

In Washington state, the Lummi Nation’s name for the orcas, “qwe lhol mechen,” means relatives below the waves.

They are also captivatingly complex.

MacDuffee pointed to Tahlequah’s behaviour as a kind of public mourning for her dead calf.

“She did it so publicly. She did a tour of the most high-profile waters. She didn’t go out, you know, off Swiftsure Bank,” said MacDuffee, referring to a site at the Pacific end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “She stayed right here and transited through Haro Strait, the Gulf Islands, Georgia Strait, just the most high-profile waters that she could be in.”

That complexity wasn’t always respected — the southern residents were depleted in the 1960s and 1970s by live captures for aquariums, and they’ve failed to recover since then. They do not interbreed with other orcas.

In 2018, Canadian officials had determined that the southern residents faced “imminent threats” to their survival and recovery. These included the availability of chinook salmon, as well as ship strikes, noise-related disturbances and environmental contaminants.

But Ottawa declined to issue an emergency order at the time, opting instead to update the pre-existing recovery strategy and pointing to existing measures and pledges, including seasonal fisheries closures, work to rebuild chinook stocks, and tools to alert vessels to the presence of whales.

MacDuffee said conditions have only worsened for the southern residents since then, with no signs of recovery despite government efforts and promises.

The conservation groups say existing measures aren’t yielding results, especially as more tankers have begun carrying petroleum products from the expanded Trans Mountain pipeline. Last year, Ottawa also approved plans for a new shipping container terminal near the mouth of the Fraser River.

The coalition’s demands include a prohibition on further increases in shipping traffic from new, federally approved industrial projects in the Salish Sea until Ottawa delivers a comprehensive plan to manage the cumulative effects of underwater disturbances.

The groups also want the federal government to increase the minimum distance vessel operators must stay away from whales to 1,000 metres, up from 400 metres; and to adopt “meaningful” underwater noise reduction targets.

An email from Fisheries and Oceans Canada said the department was “reviewing the petition to determine a path forward” while pointing to its existing efforts.

The federal government says it’s working on measures to address underwater noise and the risk of vessel strikes, updating federal marine oil-spill response requirements, and supporting Indigenous groups to monitor the cumulative effects of human activity.

Jeffery Young was part of the push for an emergency protection order in 2018. The senior scientist and policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation said B.C. environmental groups have been working with Ottawa for the last six years.

But Young said “we’re just not seeing any real benefits to the whales yet.”

He said it was the completion of the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion and increase in tanker traffic as well as the approval of the Roberts Bank Terminal 2 project that pushed the groups to renew their call for emergency protections.

“We were questioning whether the government was really, in any way, holding up its side of the bargain with respect to recovering these whales,” Young said.

The federal review panel report for the terminal project shows it involves the destruction of 177 hectares of aquatic habitat to make way for a new three-berth container terminal near the existing port infrastructure in Delta, south of Vancouver.

It says the terminal would have “significant adverse and cumulative effects” on juvenile chinook and the southern residents that rely on them, and adds that “a lethal vessel strike on a single (whale)” could seriously affect the population overall.

Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault signed the approval for the project in April 2023, saying it was “likely to cause significant adverse environmental effects,” but those harms were “justified in the circumstances.”

Raincoast and the David Suzuki Foundation are among the groups challenging the project’s approval in B.C. Supreme Court, arguing its effects cannot be justifiedunder environmental assessment law while sidestepping the Species at Risk Act.

On top of that, Young said science had emerged about the locations of key feeding areas that should be off-limits for any chinook fisheries. He said government scientists were involved in that research, but the findings aren’t fully reflected in the government’s existing fisheries measures.

“Some of our concern in the processes over the last six years is that those scientists haven’t been playing as central a role in really defining the government’s approach. It’s been much more a political exercise,” he said in an interview.

The paper MacDuffee co-authored says the whales’ survival is contingent on conditions improving in the Salish Sea, not staying the same or getting worse.

It says population dynamics over four decades predicted annual decline of about one per cent continuing gradually for about two generations before a “accelerating decline” and extinction.

But the researchers write that threats are expected to worsen in the future, particularly when it comes to declining chinook.

“We predict that prey-mediated changes in (the southern residents’) survival and reproduction are likely to lead to even more dramatic declines in the coming decades than the prior baseline model suggests,” the paper says.

The researchers conclude that recovery is possible, but greater action must be taken right away to give the southern residents a fighting chance.

While no single scenario can help the whales reach a U.S. recovery target of 2.3 per cent annual growth, they write that “concerted efforts” could reverse the decline and potentially help the orcas reach an annual recovery rate of one per cent.

“If recovery is a goal and we have an endangered species law to protect endangered species because that’s what Canadians value, then they shouldn’t be able to just dismiss this,” MacDuffee said, adding the whales are an “umbrella species” whose health is an indicator for the health of the Salish Sea overall.

“If the whales can still be here, we can still hold on to all these other aspects of this unravelling ecosystem.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2024.



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Canada’s premiers forced to confront escalating climate change-related disasters

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HALIFAX – As Canada’s premiers reckoned with housing, health care and their contentious relationship with Ottawa during meetings last week in Halifax, many of them remained consumed by climate change-related natural disasters that have only escalated since they returned home.

“It’s not lost on us that emergency preparedness for natural disasters is more important than ever,” Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston said in his closing remarks on the final day of the Council of the Federation conference.

Canada’s provincial and territorial premiers gathered for three days of meetings, and discussion of ongoing natural disasters was consistently on the agenda, Houston said. This summer has so far included multiple flash floods, including one this month in Nova Scotia that killed a 13-year-old boy, and wildfires across the country that have resulted in destruction of property and the evacuation of thousands of residents.

“There’s a number of premiers around the table today battling forest fires back home. Of course here in this province we had the tragic flash flooding death just last week,” the premier said on the second day of meetings. On July 11, Eli Young was swept into a ditch in a Wolfville, N.S., park during a flash flood that caused extensive damage across the western part of the province.

“So, of course, emergency preparedness discussions certainly take on additional meaning and importance at a time like this,” he said.

Blair Feltmate, director of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, says discussion is not enough. He said in an interview Wednesday that all levels of government need to treat escalating climate change-related natural disasters as the crisis they are and quickly enact mitigation strategies before things get worse.

Feltmate said there are natural disaster mitigation strategies that governments could implement. “The problem is, they are not rolling out known solutions quickly enough,” he said.

“This is a red alert type of situation. Not only is there an enormously high degree of risk, we’re realizing that risk is only going to increase. As bad as things are now with floods, the wildfires and the extreme heat events, it’s going to get worse. Climate change is irreversible,” he said.

Canada’s North, which has also faced recent wildfires, is suffering from a drought that has left water levels on the Mackenzie River so low barges can’t travel on it.

“We’re facing a situation right now, where climate change has resulted in the lowest water we’ve ever seen on the Mackenzie River — that’s essentially our highway,” Northwest Territories Premier R.J. Simpson said last week at the premiers conference.

Simpson called for federal support for communities that rely on Canada’s longest river for access to essential goods and food, and urgent funding to build the proposed Mackenzie Valley Highway to provide an alternative to river travel.

“We are now in a situation where people are essentially stranded, we need to fly in goods, which is going to double the cost the consumer is going to pay at the grocery store …. This is holding up construction of new infrastructure. It’s a serious issue we are facing,” the premier said.

Since last week’s meetings, many wildfires across Western Canada have substantially grown.

As of Wednesday, British Columbia had about 430 ongoing wildfires, with 107 of them having started within the previous 24 hours, and residents from about 470 properties had been forced to evacuate. About 20 buildings had been destroyed by the Shetland Creek wildfire, including at least six homes. Wildfire officials say 8,099 square kilometres of the province has burned since April 1.

In Alberta, wildfire officials say an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 people have evacuated the community of Jasper since an order was issued Monday night. About 180 wildfires were burning across Alberta as of late Wednesday, and about one-third of them were considered out of control.

Feltmate said concrete steps for wildfire mitigation are included in the federal wildland fire prevention and mitigation strategy, which was released by Ottawa on June 5. This report recommends “proactive” fire prevention techniques like prescribed burnings, removing hazardous fire fuels like dry shrubs and grasslands and educating the public on how to limit human-caused wildfires.

The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation has also released guides for individuals to mitigate risks from wildfires, extreme heat and floods. They include removing mulch and plants from right next to your home if you live in a wildfire-risk area, checking for leaks in plumbing, and using heat-resistant curtains and fans to cool your home during a heat wave. More costly recommendations include installing a sump pump, adding non-combustible screens to external vents and replacing wooden fencing near the house with wire or metal fence.

“The good news is we know where the problems reside, we know where the key areas are that are that present the greatest risk for flooding, wildfire and extreme heat,” Feltmate said. “Now we need to act with urgency.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2024.



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