The terrible costs of Canada’s dysfunctional immigration system

For Lisa Loumakos, it led to a $60,000 medical bill for her late mother

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Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

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That’s what happened to Lisa Loumakos, 55, of Mississauga.

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On Sept. 22, 2023, her mother, Stella Skarmoutsos, 77, died in Lisa’s home, where she had been living with her daughter and her now 15-year-old granddaughter, Zoey, since May 2021.

This following months of severe pain caused by lung cancer, which had metastasized into her ribs.

Lisa now faces medical bills of more than $60,000 for her mother’s care, much more than she can afford as a single mother.

Here’s what happened.

In December 2021, Lisa paid $5,000 to Toronto immigration consultant VisaPlace to handle her mother’s application to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to become a permanent resident (PR) of Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

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This following the death of Stella’s husband and Lisa’s step-father in Florida in 2016.

As many of her friends and relatives had passed away over time – leaving Stella living alone in Florida – Lisa and her mother decided during a visit to Mississauga in May 2021 to apply for PR status for Stella in Canada.

With that, she could live with Lisa and Zoey permanently, helping to care for Lisa who had been diagnosed with lung cancer herself (now in remission) and her granddaughter.

Lisa Loumakos and her daughter Zoey, 15, sit in their Mississauga home on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, with a picture of Lisa's mom Stella Skarmoutsos and Zoey as a young girl. Stella died of lung cancer on Sept. 22, 2023, before she was able to secure her permanent resident status so Lisa is now on the hook for $60,000 in medical bills.
Lisa Loumakos and her daughter Zoey, 15, sit in their Mississauga home on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024, with a picture of Lisa’s mom Stella Skarmoutsos and Zoey as a young girl. Stella died of lung cancer on Sept. 22, 2023, before she was able to secure her permanent resident status so Lisa is now on the hook for $60,000 in medical bills. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

Lisa said she was advised by VisaPlace that completing the process would take about 18 months – meaning by July/August 2023 – which VisaPlace said “is currently the average processing time for a Humanitarian and Compassionate grounds application.”

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That never happened.

When Stella died in September 2023, her application for PR status wasn’t completed, let alone approved by IRCC.

Because she died without PR status, Stella’s medical expenses weren’t covered by OHIP.

Her mother started experiencing severe pain beginning in April 2023 requiring expensive treatment, which Lisa had to guarantee to pay so her mother, formally diagnosed with cancer in August 2023, could be treated here.

The alternative was for Stella to return to Florida, where she had medical insurance, but no support system.

Lisa said she didn’t have the heart to send her mother back to Florida – she couldn’t go with her because she had to care for Zoey – meaning her mother would have died alone.

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Lisa holds VisaPlace responsible for what happened.

She said while her initial interaction with the company was positive – including VisaPlace arranging an extension of her mother visitor’s permit while she applied for PR status, at a cost of $1,350 – things deteriorated over time.

She said her mother’s application wasn’t progressing for months on end, the lawyer handling her case was changed in mid-stream, and communication with VisaPlace became increasingly sporadic and eventually broke down.

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Because of the delays, Lisa said, she was still having to gather information required for Stella’s PR application at the same time as she was caring for her ailing mother.

VisaPlace responded it did its best to help Lisa but wasn’t responsible for the failure to obtain PR status for Stella before she died.

“The firm maintained regular communication with Lisa, and she was kept up to date and advised when she was required to provide information” VisaPlace said, adding it “tried its best to find solutions when there were problems.”

It “understands why Lisa is upset and extends its condolences on her loss, but it is not fair to blame the firm for the delays.”

VisaPlace said based on information provided by Lisa, the key issue was determining whether the PR status Stella obtained when she had immigrated to Canada from Greece as a teenager in 1963, sponsored by an older sister, before immigrating to the U.S. a few years later, had been rescinded.

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Since Stella subsequently entered Canada as a visitor, VisaPlace said, “it was unclear whether the CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) officer at entry to Canada had missed noting her PR status, which is possible for people who had PR status many years prior, or if her PR status had been rescinded.”

If it wasn’t rescinded, VisaPlace said, the proper approach was to apply for renewal of her PR status on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. If it was rescinded, “the next step would be a visitor extension request, followed by a new PR application.”

VisaPlace said it would have been irresponsible to advise Lisa to submit an application for her mother to renew her PR status if it had been rescinded, creating, “significant risks” for both of them.

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To obtain this information, VisaPlace said it submitted an Access to Information and Privacy (ATIP) request to the IRCC under the Access to Information Act in early June 2022.

Applications cost $5. Under the legislation, government agencies are required to respond within 30 days, with some provision for extensions, under specific and limited circumstances.

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VisaPlace advised Lisa processing the application could take “a bit longer” than 30 days because of COVID-related delays, which it said was “consistent with the information on the IRCC website” at the time.

But VisaPlace said despite numerous follow-ups, it still hasn’t received an answer from IRCC about Stella’s PR status – 19 months after its request in June 2022 and four months after Stella died in September 2023.

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“Unfortunately, there are significant delays in processing ATIP requests with IRCC, which have been confirmed in IRCC’s recent statistical reports,” VisaPlace said.

“Processing times have ranged from six to 12 months, sometimes longer,” which wasn’t surprising in Stella’s case, VisaPlace said, because the information needed went back to 1963.

VisaPlace said it apprised Lisa of these delays and in an effort to obtain PR status for Stella after she became ill, applied for it on humanitarian and compassionate grounds in June 2023, at Lisa’s request, without knowing if Stella already had it, “a deviation from the firm’s normal process because of the urgency of the matter,” creating an IRCC online portal through which Lisa could track the application’s progress on Aug. 14, 2023.

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At that time, the lawyer then handling the case wrote to Lisa: “I know it feels like it’s been going on for a long time, and I am disappointed in this as well. I feel so deeply for your situation, and we are very close to getting it done.”

But more documents were needed to complete that application and VisaPlace said it didn’t receive a response from the IRCC about it before Stella died a month later.

While not specific to Stella’s case, federal information commissioner Caroline Maynard, who investigates complaints from individuals who believe they have been denied rights under the Access to Information Act, has been highly critical of how it is being administered by the federal government.

Lisa Loumakos holds an old photo of her mom Stella Skarmoutsos with her daughter Zoey, now 15, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Stella, 77, died of lung cancer in her daughter's Mississauga home on Sept. 22, 2023, before she was able to secure her permanent resident status so Lisa is now on the hook for $60,000 in medical bills.
Lisa Loumakos holds an old photo of her mom Stella Skarmoutsos with her daughter Zoey, now 15, on Thursday, Jan. 25, 2024. Stella, 77, died of lung cancer in her daughter’s Mississauga home on Sept. 22, 2023, before she was able to secure her permanent resident status so Lisa is now on the hook for $60,000 in medical bills. Photo by Jack Boland /Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

In her 2021-22 annual report released in June 2022, the same month VisaPlace said it submitted its ATIP request to IRCC, Maynard wrote: “Realistically, COVID-19 can no longer be used as an excuse for not living up to legislative obligations in the area of access to information” by government agencies.

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In her 2022-23 annual report released in June 2023, Maynard said the access to information system had deteriorated within government, “to the point where it no longer serves its intended purpose,” including the ATIP process at IRCC.

An investigation of IRCC responses to requests from the public for information by Maynard’s office in 2021 found that in 2019-20 (the fiscal year prior to the pandemic) it received 116,928 access to information requests compared to 39,294 for all other government institutions combined and only succeeded in processing half of them (51%) within the required 30 days.

There were 4,298 complaints to Maynard’s office in 2019-20 regarding IRCC delays, the most for any government agency. The RCMP was next with 355.

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In October 2023, Maynard reported: “Together with others, I have repeatedly counselled: the Access to Information Act is outdated and no longer meets the expectations or the needs of Canadians.”

Despite an ongoing backlog of thousands of complaints, she said, “the response from the government is clear. There is no legislative change on the horizon. Frankly, Canadians deserve much better.”

In its annual report on its compliance with the Access to Information Act, also released in October 2023, the IRCC said it “recognizes its low compliance rate for requests under the Access to Information Act” and “is already noting marked improvements in key metrics (e.g. increased compliance rates and decreased complaints) as a result of the measures that have been implemented, including further realigning its organizational structure and devoting additional resources to processing requests within legislated timeframes.”

In November 2023, the IRCC said these reforms included “identifying processes whereby requesters can obtain information outside of the access to information system.”

Lisa said the hospital where her mother was treated is allowing her to pay down the more than $60,000 she owes in instalments – but the money raised to date through a GoFundMe campaign (less than $8,000) is almost gone, and she’s worried about what will happen next.

She said her mother’s small estate went to Stella’s grandchildren.

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