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Faith in Canadian visitor visa system thin as twice-rejected South African orphan launches federal challenge

After a two-year fight to bring her to Canada, the family of a nine-year-old South African orphan is asking the federal court for a judicial review of her visitor visa application that was rejected last October. They want that rejection overturned to open the door to bring her to her new home.

Ryleigh Ridland is caught in a snarl of red tape and her family fears that her two-year bid to get into the country will now get lost in an unprecedented surge of temporary visitor applications — as world events send more people racing to apply for temporary access to Canada. The backlog of applications spiked to well over 1.2-million in early March, according to data from the ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC).

Ridland’s great aunt, Lisa Pyne-Mercier, has been fighting to bring the girl to Canada ever since January 2021, when Ridland, then just seven years old, was found alone days after her mother died unexpectedly on their remote South African farm property. Ridland’s father relinquished his parental rights in a recent affidavit and South African courts named Pyne-Mercier the girl’s legal guardian, but she says she is still facing frustrating delays. 

Ridland’s temporary visitor application was rejected on Oct. 17, 2022, and a bid for a study visa was rejected on Nov. 3, 2022. Then an application for permanent residence on humanitarian and compassionate grounds was refused on Jan. 4.

Ridland is currently living with a foster family in South Africa. Pyne-Mercier has visited her there and the two often communicate via video chat.

Michael Battista, Ridland’s new Toronto-based lawyer, hopes to argue in federal court that the immigration officer with IRCC who deemed her ineligible for a temporary visitor visa made an error. 

He filed an appeal with the federal court on Feb. 22 requesting a judicial review of her rejected temporary visa application on the grounds that the initial denial failed to consider “relevant evidence.”

He said the application was rejected because immigration authorities suspected Ridland would stay illegally, beyond the usual allowed time of six months. 

The lawyer, who is also a professor at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law and Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, has written about what he sees as the need to stop tying visitor eligibility to suspicions that people may overstay their welcomes.

A small girl sits in a pink dress with a party mask on.
Ridland is shown here in South Africa, where she is staying with a foster family. Her Canadian relatives are asking the federal court for a judicial review of her visitor visa application that was rejected last October. (Submitted by Lisa Pyne-Mercier)

“It’s infuriating. It’s torture,” said Pyne-Mercier, who has spent thousands of dollars and worked for years to try to have Ridland come to live at her Shawnigan Lake, B.C., home while she applied for permanent residency. 

She says she’s worried that waves of new applications driven by ongoing international emergencies will bury her great niece’s bid and leave the girl separated from relatives even longer than she has been.

Ridland’s visa application rejection is just one among thousands filed to a strained, backlogged system that’s come under attack from applicants, MPs and even the prime minister himself.

Trudeau signalled need for softer approach

In February, Justin Trudeau said he is pushing the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship to soften its approach to processing visa applications to put less focus on the risk of visitors overstaying short-term visas.

“We’re also trying to do a better job around temporary visas,” Trudeau said in remarks during an hour-long meeting with 25 Algonquin College Nursing students on Feb. 10 in Ottawa.

“The system — I’ll be honest — is still based around, ‘Prove to me that you won’t stay if you come,’ right?” he said, arguing that it is easier for applicants to “convince” immigration officials to grant them visas if they have “a good job and a home and a house and a good status back home.”

During a question and answer session with the prime minister, several international students mentioned having visa issues. 

Justin Trudeau smiles as he shakes hand with a student in a room full of Algonquin College nursing students.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes the hand of a nursing student at Algonquin College in Ottawa on Feb. 10. (Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press)

One student described feeling isolated during a long hospital stay during which she said her mother tried twice to get a visa to visit, but was rejected.

“It would seem unfair to Canadians and to all sorts of people if there was a back door, but I absolutely hear you. Your mom should have been able to come and see you,” Trudeau said.

Trudeau and Immigration Minister Sean Fraser declined interview requests about Ridland’s case.

World events overburdening system

Liberal MP Julie Dzerowicz, chair of the Liberal immigration caucus, says applications to visit Canada that don’t involve an immediate threat to life are probably not the top priority at this time.

She’s one of a group of Liberal MPs who welcomed Trudeau’s recent call to change the slow, restrictive system that she says is under pressure due to the war in Ukraine, the situation in Afghanistan and an ongoing crisis in Turkey and northern Syria following two massive earthquakes last month that killed tens of thousands of people and left hundreds of thousands more displaced. 

Last March, Canada launched a fast-track option for Ukrainians fleeing the war. Dzerowicz says it’s “right” for Canada to prioritize such cases.

A woman carries a baby as she flees the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine.
A woman carries her child as they flee a residential building hit by a Russian rocket in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 30. A group of Liberal MPs say they welcome Trudeau’s recent call to change the slow, restrictive immigration system that is under significant pressure due to world events, including the war in Ukraine. (Andrii Marienko/The Associated Press)

“When someone’s in imminent danger, I have seen our government move mountains,” she said. 

The pressure to speed the process has the immigration ministry considering unusual options. 

In January, the Globe and Mail reported a leaked draft policy memo that appeared to suggest that the ministry was considering relaxing eligibility requirements to help deal with a backlog of more than 700,000 applications as of December 2022.

As of March 3, that backlog had grown to 1.2 million applications for temporary residence, according to IRCC data provided by the ministry. They include applications for study and work permits and visitor and temporary resident visas. 

Of the 3.5-million temporary residence applications received in 2022, IRCC data shows a total of 2.1 million were approved.

Fraser’s press secretary Bahoz Dara Aziz said in an email that “enormous” progress has been made on the backlog with more than 500,000 applications processed in recent months. She said the ministry has hired 1,250 new staffers and is working to digitize the application process.

WATCH | Orphaned girl with foster family in South Africa: 

faith in canadian visitor visa system thin as twice rejected south african orphan launches federal challenge 3

B.C. woman fights to bring orphaned niece to Canada

20 days ago

Duration 2:11

A Canadian is fighting to bring her nine-year-old great-niece to Canada, after being named the child’s legal guardian when her mother died. But she says the girl is being left in limbo because of Canadian immigration rules.

That is small comfort for Pyne-Mercier, who just wants to be reunited with Ryleigh.

“They are separating us as a family. This is a little girl. She doesn’t have anyone or anything,” said Pyne-Mercier, noting that it doesn’t seem right that a nine-year-old with no other family would have such a hard time coming to Canada. “That’s unfair.” 

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