We all make mistakes. Occasionally, for some of us, a mistake leads to some sort of “conviction.” A conviction could be the consequences of parking too long in a one hour parking zone, exceeding a highway speed limit, getting in a bar fight, shoplifting some sunglasses, up through more serious offences.
I’ve had clients enter Canada dozens of time, only to be told by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) on their 57th arrival after landing at a Canadian airport, or crossing at a land border, that they’re inadmissible due to criminality. They’re put back on the next return flight from where they just arrived, or told to head their vehicles back in the opposite direction and not return. These are clients who might mostly earn their livelihoods in Canada as sales reps, or have close family in Canada. They’re understandably shocked at being refused entry, especially because some of them have been previously welcomed to Canada so many time with open arms. The thing they all share in common is one or more “convictions” somewhere in their pasts, sometimes decades previously, and sometimes for acts that aren’t even considered “criminal” where they come from.
Section 36 of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act governs criminal inadmissibility, explaining rather cryptically:
A foreign national is inadmissible on grounds of criminality for
(a) having been convicted in Canada of an offence under an Act of Parliament punishable by way of indictment, or of two offences under any Act of Parliament not arising out of a single occurrence;
(b) having been convicted outside Canada of an offence that, if committed in Canada, would constitute an indictable offence under an Act of Parliament, or of two offences not arising out of a single occurrence that, if committed in Canada, would constitute offences under an Act of Parliament;
(c) committing an act outside Canada that is an offence in the place where it was committed and that, if committed in Canada, would constitute an indictable offence under an Act of Parliament; or
(d) committing, on entering Canada, an offence under an Act of Parliament prescribed by regulations.
The problem is that it can be very difficult for those visiting (or moving to) Canada to know: (1) whether the thing(s) they’ve done in the past are caught within the criminal inadmissibility drag net, and (2) even if they are caught up in inadmissibility, can they be considered to be rehabilitated?
One of the most problematic offences is impaired driving (DUI). In some countries, it's considered a regulatory highway traffic offence, and not a criminal offence. And even where it is a criminal offence, a person might not have been formally “convicted” of it. And further confusingly, while DUI is usually prosecuted in Canada as a summary conviction offence, because at the Crown’s election it can also be prosecuted by indictment it means that a single DUI can make you criminally inadmissible.
But there is a fix to all of these problems: criminal rehabilitation. It’s an application process which demonstrates to the Canadian government that because of the passage of time since your conviction, and because of your having stayed out of trouble since that time, you shouldn’t be excluded from Canada. It’s akin to an immigration criminal pardon! I’ve also found that unfortunately sometimes the CBSA makes mistakes, and declares criminally inadmissible people who don’t at all fall within that category, but you may still need a lawyer to correct that mistake.
While there are certainly some immigration procedures that you might try to undertake yourself, I urge you to retain a lawyer to assist with criminal rehabilitation. You might even need two lawyers - one from your home jurisdiction where the offence was committed and one in Canada - to deal with the translation of the foreign conviction into Canadian legal terms. This isn’t always necessary for countries having similar legal systems to that of Canada, like the United States, but your Canadian immigration lawyer can discuss the precise procedure with you depending on your circumstances.
Generally the rehabilitation process involves you gathering together your prior conviction information, having criminal record checks done in every jurisdiction you’ve lived for a significant time, and then a Canadian lawyer will present your rehabilitation application to the Canadian government. Some applications are more straight forward than others, depending on the number and severity of prior convictions, and how much time has passed since those convictions. You’ll usually be barred from Canada until your application has been reviewed, so the sooner you undertake the rehabilitation process, the faster you’ll have a chance of reentering Canada.
And don’t wait until you’ve been barred from Canada to start this process. If you have an upcoming visit to Canada, and have prior convictions, consult a Canadian immigration lawyer prior to your visit about whether a criminal rehabilitation application might be necessary. Even if you've been entering Canada repeatedly without a problem, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security as I’ve had clients who haven’t had entry problems for years who suddenly are banned from Canada for a year or more while we sort out the inadmissibility issue. Just because the CBSA hasn’t stopped you yet doesn’t mean that a new officer won’t take a different view of your past, and doesn’t mean that the CBSA won’t sign a new information sharing agreement giving it greater access to foreign criminal background data which might include your name.
Neither the CBSA nor the Department of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship can give you legal advice on criminal inadmissibility. It’s one of the most complicated areas of immigration law because of the need to compare two different legal systems to see how a conviction in one system might match up with available offences in another system. So I do urge you to consult a lawyer prior to travelling to Canada so that you aren’t frustrated in work, family or tourism trip where you will have invested lots of time, planning and money. I likewise frequently refer Canadians to U.S. immigration lawyers to deal with criminal admissibility when travelling south.