By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
John Crosbie, the lieutenant-governor of Newfoundland and Labrador, says he wrote the letter to the immigration minister as a favour for a friend who wanted to buy the Quebec-based Laurentian Bank of Canada.
Monte Solberg was the Conservative government’s Immigration minister at the time.
Crosbie, 80, wrote Solberg asking him to intervene and prevent the expulsion of Michael Chamas‘ common-law wife, a French citizen named Brigitte Garas, from Canada.
Garas and Chamas, along with their two children, were going through customs at Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau airport after a trip to Switzerland and Dubai on July 5, 2006, when a Canada Border Services Agency official noticed a red flag on her file.
The CBSA agent saw a note that had been inserted by another customs officer in 2002. The note indicated that Garas had been told to apply for permanent residency within six months.
Garas hadn’t applied for permanent residency, even though she had been living in Canada for about a decade, and had given birth to a second child in the country. The CBSA agent ruled her inadmissible and she was ordered to leave by July 21.
Chamas then called Juanita Cree, who was his assistant at the time and she contacted Montreal immigration lawyer Cheryl Ann Buckley, who took on the case.
Cree said she also phoned David Bernstein who said he knew how to help. Bernstein was a Montreal bankruptcy lawyer and Conservative fundraiser. He had close ties to Crosbie and other prominent Conservatives and was three times a Tory candidate in the 1970s and in 1980.
“He said yes, we can take care of this, it’s not a problem,” said Cree.
Bernstein had heard about Chamas from Cree and believed he was a Swiss banker involved in international investing.
There was an expectation that Chamas would help out with some “projects” in exchange for the political favour, said Cree. One of those projects was the purchase of the Laurentian Bank, which was rumoured to be up for grabs.
So Bernstein contacted his friend Crosbie.
On Friday, July 14, a legal assistant with St. John’s law firm Patterson Palmer sent an email, carbon-copied to Bernstein, with a subject line that said “Brigitte Garas.” Attached to the email was a letter from Crosbie.
“A friend and supporter of our party has contacted me from Montreal in connection with Brigitte Garas, a French citizen who has been living as a common law wife of a Canadian citizen, Michael Chamas, for over 11 years,” wrote Crosbie, in the July 14, 2006, letter. “It would be much appreciated if you could have this matter looked into and make a decision as to whether you should exercise your discretion and have the expulsion order suspended or whatever appears to be the proper treatment.”
According to Cree, Garas’ file was then handled by “Ottawa.”
“The letter was just the beginning of it,” said Cree. “This was to make sure we got a ministerial permit in place…to get her paperwork approved for her permanent residency, it was the whole kit…This is why in the end, the involvement of Ottawa was all the way through this entire process.”
Buckley sent an application on July 13 to obtain a temporary residence permit to allow Garas to stay in Canada.
On July 19, Buckley received a call from Solberg’s office to inform her that a temporary residence permit would be issued. It would be good for a year.
That same day, Bernstein emailed Solberg’s aide Alison Stodin thanking her for “your understanding and prompt action.”
Stodin said the issue had been dealt with by Solberg.
“This was brought to the minister and a decision has been taken that will mean that Mrs. Garas will not be compelled to leave the country on July 21,” wrote Stodin. “However, this is somewhat complicated so I would like to either speak with you directly on phone or directly to Mrs. Garas.”
Solberg, who chose not to run in the 2008 federal election, said in an email to APTN National News he doesn’t remember the issue or the letter from Crosbie.
“I don’t recall receiving this at all. Given that it’s from John Crosbie,
I’m pretty certain that I would have remembered if I had ever seen it,” wrote Solberg, who was sent a copy of the letter and the emails.
Crosbie, however, remembers sending the letter.
“I wrote the letter to Immigration Minister Solberg at the request of Bernstein since the information I was given indicated that the wife of Chamas had been treated unfairly,” wrote Crosbie, in an email to APTN National News. “I asked the minister to review that. I never heard anything from the minister in response to the letter.”
Crosbie said in an interview with APTN National News that Bernstein wanted the letter sent to Solberg as part of a plan to raise funds for the purchase of the Laurentian Bank.
“(Bernstein) wanted me to do this in connection with his interest in trying to see if we could get sufficient funding raised to get control of the bank in Quebec. It was something about that. It never went anywhere,” said Crosbie. “It was just a minor incident, years ago, when I was a friend of Bernstein, he was seeing if I could help him do something, that is all, it never got anywhere and there is no story in it.”
Garas’ temporary permit was again renewed in 2007 for another year and Buckley continued to work securing her temporary permit on humanitarian grounds.
Garas gave birth to a third child during this time.
Then, according to Buckley, things turned against Garas, and it became obvious that it was being driven by “Ottawa.”
“I got the impression that Ottawa was sticking its fingers everywhere,” she said.
On March 12, 2008, Buckley received a phone call from an immigration official.
“They wanted significant proof as to her establishment and monetary support,” said Buckley. “They banged on the monetary support by her common-law husband.”
Buckley said she believes Revenue Canada was trying to extract information about Chamas’ financial affairs through Garas’ immigration case.
Chamas was fighting Revenue Canada over millions of dollars in back taxes. Chamas claimed he didn’t have to pay taxes because all his business was done overseas where he resided.
“It was like, ‘see if we can’t get him, see what we can get out of her stupid attorney who is doing the immigration and find out where Brigitte’s money is coming from,'” she said. “It was more than an impression.”
Buckley said that as time progressed, the immigration official she dealt with began to repeatedly refer to Ottawa whenever she wanted information.
“It later got worse in 2009 when they kept saying Ottawa is asking, Ottawa is telling me to do this,” said Buckley. “I just kept referring them to the tax attorney.”
Buckley, who added a complementary sponsorship application to the original humanitarian and compassionate grounds application, said money issues do not apply to spouses unless they are bankrupt, according to the department’s own forms.
In her over 20 years in practice, Buckley said she had never been asked the type of detailed financial questions she faced on the Garas file.
“They don’t ask for specifics on cars, or how do you pay your bills, or who is underwriting you or where is your money coming from. That I have never been asked before,” said Buckley. “Ever.”
Then on July 9, 2008, Buckley was told by telephone by immigration official Suzanne Pelletier that the department would be refusing another extension to the temporary residence permit.
The department had only received the application in their Vegreville, Alta., office the day before, said Buckley.
Pelletier also said that the humanitarian and compassionate grounds application would also be rejected.
“I didn’t have a letter of refusal, I had nothing. That didn’t come for another six months,” Buckley said. “They were basically telling that it would be refused…and because that will be refused the (temporary residency permit) will be refused…it defies logic this case.”
Buckley said she had never dealt with an immigration official acting as an intermediary with Ottawa before a case had been decided.
“This is interference by Ottawa before a decision has been made,” she said.
In a letter to Pelletier, Buckley said the department’s handling of the case was “taking a more sinister tone.”
On September 19, 2008, the department officially refused to issue another temporary permit and Garas was ordered to leave the country, according to Federal Court documents. On April 27, 2009, her application for permanent residency was also rejected.
The decision was challenged in Federal Court, but the rejection was upheld in a ruling delivered Dec. 8, 2010.
Garas was forced to leave the country with her three children.
Solberg said in an email that Chamas’ criminal charges resulting from Operation Cancun would have been enough to get her “bounced” from the country.