Quest for Philippines typhoon data spins in Canada’s bureaucracy’s vortex
To try to find out how many Typhoon Haiyan victims were fast-tracked into Canada is to enter the realm of the surreal, and to correspond with a federal employee apparently named 'Statistics Statistiques'.
By Amy Dempsey, in Toronto Star, Sunday Oct 12, 2014
Dear Hon. Minister Chris Alexander,
Sorry to bother you, but I have some questions I’m hoping you can answer. Ready? Here they are:
- How many Filipinos applied to have their visa applications fast-tracked under the special measures enacted last November, 2013 for victims of Typhoon Haiyan?
- How many were rejected?
- How many are still waiting, nearly a year after the superstorm left 7,300 people dead or missing?
MINISTER, PLEASE CAN YOU TELL ME?
Whoops, sorry for shouting. It’s just that I have been asking these questions for five months now and no one from Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has answered them.
“I’ll look into it for you,” a spokeswoman told me in an email back on May 22. I never heard from her again, even though I followed up more times than I can remember. Is the spokeswoman OK? Did she move away?
Also back in May, I reached out to your then-press secretary, Alexis Pavlich, who did not respond to my questions either. “I can try to get back to you in the next day or so, if that works . . . ” she wrote on May 26. I never heard from her again. She didn’t respond when I followed up.
While I’ve had my fair share of both cordial and challenging interactions with government spokespeople, this was my first time being ignored.
Now, for months I’ve been emailing with a mysterious government employee named ‘Statistics Statistiques’. At least I think that’s the employee’s name — maybe you could check for me? When CIC’s access-to-information department denied my request for answers in June, they said it was because all I had to do to get the data I sought was email firstname.lastname@example.org (What! A statistics department? Spokespeople, why didn’t you tell me back in May? Did you forget?)
OK, OK: I know ‘Statistics Statistiques’ isn’t the name of a real person. But seriously, Minister, isn’t it silly that I’ve been given no name and no phone number for the public servant I’ve been instructed to correspond with? It could be anyone! It could be my ex-boyfriend’s godmother. It could be, like, Bram from Sharon, Lois and Bram. (Wait. Is it Bram? Please tell me if it’s Bram.)
Minister, I’m sure you remember that in the days after Typhoon Haiyan struck last Nov. 8, Canada pledged to fast-track visa applications for Filipinos “significantly and personally affected” by the superstorm.
This is what you said at the time: “We are zeroing in on the ones that involve people or families from the big islands hit by the typhoon, who were in the typhoon’s path, or smaller islands that have experienced this devastation. Those are the people who need help most urgently because they have lost their homes — in some cases they’ve lost everything — or their livelihoods and they can benefit from the help of family and community here in Canada quickly if we bring those applications to the front.”
This quote was emailed to me by an Immigration spokeswoman in May as an answer to one of my questions; I’ve since learned it is something you said on CTV’s Question Period.
I was in the Philippines after the typhoon — reporting with photographer Lucas Oleniuk — and we didn’t encounter a single person who was not “significantly and personally affected.” Public parks had been turned into mass graves. Survivors were living in the jagged ruins of buildings. Small children looked on as their relatives retrieved decomposing bodies from piles of pulpy rubble.
Your government’s promise of immigration help brought hope to Filipinos living in Canada who wanted to bring loved ones here to escape the chaos. Five months later, when I learned through my contacts from the typhoon-stricken areas that many people were still waiting to hear from Canadian immigration officials, and others had been rejected, I decided to look into it.
Minister, hold on, I know what you are going to say. You are going to say: We have already answered this reporter’s questions. The answers are posted on a government web page: “As of April 1, 2014, the total number of approved applications (in persons) from Filipinos affected by the Typhoon was 1,097. 245 of those are Temporary Resident applications and 852 are Permanent Resident applications, which includes immigration related adoptions.”
As I told one of your spokespeople back in May after she copied and pasted this stock response and sent it to me in an email, it does not answer my questions. It only gives me “the total number of approved applications (in persons).” What does that even mean? I have no idea! No one would explain.
The stock response omits basic information: how many applications were received in total, how many were rejected, how many are pending and how long the applications took to process.
The stock response is also unclear on how many of the 1,097 “approved applications (in persons)” actually brought typhoon victims to Canada. When you were asked to clarify during question period back in May, you said: “Well over 1,000 Filipinos benefited from approvals in those cases.”
Minister, what does “benefited from approvals” mean? How did they benefit? Did the typhoon victims come to Canada or not?
Since June, I’ve been emailing with my new pen pal, email@example.com . Minister, do you know how much they charge for statistical data? The costs were outlined in my rejection letter from the access-to-information department: $100 for the first 10 minutes of research and $30 per minute for each additional minute. When I got the letter I thought, oh, surely that’s a typo. But Minister: it wasn’t a typo! Do you have to pay that much when you need statistical information? I hope not.
On June 24, I emailed firstname.lastname@example.org the same questions I’d been asking Citizenship and Immigration Canada since mid-May. A response came three weeks later:
Can you please provide the date you require the data by?
Thank you for your patience.
CIC – Statistics and Cost Recovery
I wanted to say: I REQUIRE THE DATA TWO MONTHS AGO. Instead I wrote: “I require the data as soon as possible.”
On July 25, email@example.com delivered bad news: “After an assessment of your request please note that only data up to December 31, 2013, is available at this time.”
Only six weeks of the five months I asked for. The access-to-information people had said the statistics department had the data. Now the statistics department was saying it didn’t have the data, without explaining why. Where else would the data be, Minister? If the government was able to calculate how many “approved applications” there were, shouldn’t it be fairly straightforward to figure out how many were not approved?
I filed a complaint with the Information Commissioner of Canada in August. I am on a long waiting list.
More recently, on Sept. 22, I received another email from the statistics department:
We are currently releasing data up to March 31st, 2014.
Kindly advise if you are still interested in the data.
(“We”!? A revelation: the email account is monitored by MULTIPLE MYSTERY PEOPLE.)
I wrote back. “Yes,” I said. “I am still interested in the data.” That was nearly three weeks ago. Still no data.
About a week ago, I posed my questions again in a detailed email to CIC’s media relations department and your new press secretary, Kevin Menard. I asked Menard for five minutes on the phone with you. “The Minister is unavailable and our department will be following up on your questions,” he wrote in an email.
The department has not followed up.
This experience is teaching me a lot about patience. Meditating helps. Imagining who is on the other side of firstname.lastname@example.org helps. (Are you there, Bram? It’s me, Amy.)