Canadian immigration minister Sean Fraser says he’s committed to LGBTQ2S+ refugees

But the crisis in Ukraine may prove intractable, especially for trans women fleeing the violence

Canadian Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser has a lot on his plate right now with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting refugee crisis. That’s on top of the commitment to resettle at least 40,000 Afghans, including members of the country’s LGBTQ+ communities, facing violence under Taliban rule, and a labour shortage in which the need to bring in more immigrants is acute. It’s a lot to deal with, but Fraser considers himself fortunate to be able to serve in his own way.

Unlike some of his colleagues, Fraser  eschews talking points and speaks in full paragraphs. He has so many things in his portfolio that he is eager to talk about that it’s hard to know where to begin.

Part of Fraser’s remit is the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB), which has recently made progress on updating their guidelines for dealing with LGBTQ2S+ claimants. But challenges remain when it comes to decision-makers on the board, some of whom have records that might indicate biases against granting claims. The appointment process may be where Fraser can make an impact.

“You’re not going to achieve perfection in a system purely by implementing guidelines—you also need to have a process in place that appoints good people,” Fraser says, noting that for government appointments across the board, there has been an attempt to move away from partisan patronage appointments toward to a merit-based approach.

“We do need to be doing more to ask about a person’s history of support or discrimination toward persecuted groups,” says Fraser. “It’s particularly important when you look at a group like the IRB in particular, because the clientele that they deal with are not industry stakeholder groups that have an agenda to support a particular sector or who are trying to achieve a particular policy outcome—these are human beings who are trying to advocate for themselves. They are asking to not be discriminated against on the basis of immutable characteristics who define who they are.”

Fraser says that when you appoint good people to implement guidelines that are informed by communities and experts, you can change the experience for the better, and make it more inclusive.

“If we can implement stronger screening processes for appointees…we can build a more inclusive system,” Fraser says.

“I want to be careful not to be critical of individual officers, given the need to respect the independence of the organization, but I’m always looking for ways to improve the outcomes our system generates,” Fraser says. “If we can implement stronger screening processes for appointees and combine that with new guidelines that we introduced a few years ago, we can build a more inclusive system.”

There have been requests to make permanent funding for Rainbow Refugee, the Vancouver-based community group that supports LGBTQ2S+ refugees. Fraser points out that it was his government who converted support for the group from a pilot project to a longer term one.


“My personal inclination, based on the results that I’m seeing, is that it’s a good program and I hope that it remains a permanent feature of Canada’s immigration system,” Fraser says. “I want to be careful because you can’t bind future governments, but so long as I have the immense privilege of holding this position, I intend to continue supporting this program.”

Fraser says that Rainbow Refugee is valuable not only because it provides income support for those looking to sponsor refugees whose needs they are particularly attuned to, but it also creates an incentive for groups who want to be more welcoming to LGBTQ2S+ refugees to step up and help out.

“When I see the embrace of refugees outside of Canada’s biggest cities, I realize it’s because there have been either incentives or an initiative by the government to kickstart that local interest, and we can do the same thing by investing in programs like [Rainbow Refugee] for members of the LGBTQ2S+ community,” Fraser says. “I think it’s a really extraordinary thing, and it feels very Canadian when we make a program that reflects the needs of particular groups who are being persecuted on the basis of who they are. To see Canadian organizations step up is really encouraging.”

Fraser says he is mindful of the fact that while Rainbow Refugee has welcomed more than 160 refugees, it only scratches the surface of what the government has done for queer and trans refugees over the past few years.

“We work with the Rainbow Coalition, which is a group of 43 different sponsorship groups that can take part in programs that sponsor refugees from the LGBTQ2S+ community, but not exclusively through the Rainbow Refugee program,” says Fraser. “We’ve got funding in place for settlement agencies across 23 different service provider organizations across Canada that do offer support to LGBTQ2S+ refugees.

“The Rainbow Refugee program is a really meaningful thing, but many of the other programs that we fund, support and partner with local organizations allow people to support members of the community as well that happen to come through a different refugee stream,” says Fraser. “It’s important that we don’t do one thing and feel like we’ve checked a box—we have to be more inclusive with all of our streams.”

With the crisis in Ukraine now at the forefront of Fraser’s agenda, there is a rush to get as many displaced people to Canada as possible in short order, which has led his department to adapt existing visa programs in a way that speeds up the approval process. Negotiations with private sector partners and airlines about the possible creation of an air bridge to bring them to Canada are ongoing.

When asked about trans people having a difficult time leaving Ukraine because of problems with their IDs, Fraser is sympathetic, saying that Canada is trying to do whatever they can to help as many people as possible.

“We’ve run into certain challenges when it comes to documentation that is issued by a foreign government,” says Fraser. “When you’re dealing with people who have difficulty proving who they are, it really becomes a logistical challenge that we need to work through.”

Fraser says that they work with partners in conflict zones across the world to try and solve some of these problems, citing Afghanistan as a recent example, where the Taliban may not be particularly interested in issuing travel documents to someone who qualifies for a Canadian refugee program. Sorting out those challenges are extremely difficult.

“We don’t necessarily hold the policy levers to address some of the challenges that they face,” Fraser says. “These are the things that we are more than willing to work with partners in the international community, whether it’s international organizations, state partners, or non-profits, because it’s our goal to welcome as many people as possible who are fleeing the war and provide them with safe haven.”

I also asked Fraser about delays with the current immigration process that may force some trans immigrants to Canada back to their countries of origin before they can get appropriate health care.

Fraser says that his department is working on improving their processing times, particularly given the challenges of the pandemic. To that end, he notes that the department has hired 500 more case workers and invested $85 million to process cases. He also says that they have launched a digital modernization of the largely paper-based immigration system, which is already showing results, but that won’t be completed for a couple of years. Increasing immigration targets, Fraser says, create more spaces for people to come in, which speeds processing.

To that end, in the first two months of the year, the department has approved more than 100,000 permanent residency applications.

“We’re starting to see these measures pay dividends,” Fraser says. “To see this rate of approval gives me faith that fewer people will be in the circumstance where they worry about having to be sent back to their country of origin where they may be discriminated against. My interest, frankly, is to create more pathways for people to stay, whether they are people who are here now, or people who want to come.”

Dale Smith is a freelance journalist in the Parliamentary Press Gallery and author of The Unbroken Machine: Canada's Democracy in Action.

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