MONTREAL — When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Quebec last spring, Mamadou Konaté worked in a number of Montreal public long-term care homes (CHSLD). He was at the epicentre of the country’s pandemic.
Assigned to cleaning duties, the 39-year-old Ivorian “witnessed death for months.” He himself caught coronavirus at the end of April, at the height of the first wave. When he recovered, he went right back to the front lines.
Today, Mamadou is awaiting deportation.
His long-time friend Amelia Orellana told HuffPost Quebec his story, since Mamadou has been detained at an immigration holding centre in Laval for more than a week.
He is undocumented, meaning he doesn’t have legal status in Canada.
Mamadou arrived in Quebec in Feb. 2016 after fleeing the Ivory Coast, where he had been imprisoned during the military conflict that followed a 2002 failed coup.
According to court documents reviewed by HuffPost, he was “beaten, mistreated, perhaps even tortured, during his detention” at the hands of rebel group Forces nouvelles, between 2004 and 2005.
Many of those who orchestrated the rebellion now occupy influential positions in President Alassane Ouattara’s government there. Mamadou fears retaliation if he returns to the Ivory Coast.
In Quebec’s long-term care home system, where he started working through an agency at the beginning of the pandemic, undocumented migrants like Mamadou do a lot more than clean, Orellana argues.
“All the floors are covered by undocumented persons who don’t just clean. They socialize with the elderly residents. They help them when nobody else is there. They develop ties,” she describes.
“They are the front line.”
Just like thousands of other cleaners, cooks and security guards, however, Mamadou doesn’t satisfy the provincial and federal governments definition of a “guardian angel.”
When he arrived in Canada, Mamadou’s asylum claim was denied. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada determined that he was inadmissible to Canada because of his involvement, from 2002 to 2003, with Forces nouvelles, the same group that later imprisoned him when he defected.
According to article 34(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, members of any group that has engaged in an “act of subversion against a democratic government” are inadmissible to Canada.
In a 2018 application for judicial review of the decision, Mamadou’s lawyer alleged that he was forcibly recruited by the rebels, which would not make him a “member” in the eyes of the law. Federal Justice Luc Martineau denied the application for judicial review, mentioning “contradictions” in Mamadou’s declarations about his enrollment.
Two days before his removal from Canada, scheduled for July 9 2018, Federal Justice Sébastien Grammond heard his request for stay of removal.
A doctor who had been treating him at Montreal’s Clinic for Asylum Seekers and Refugees for two years told the court that Mamadou suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression and insomnia. He was also experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations.
“Considering that Mr. Konate may now be deported, Dr Olga Wrezel wrote, it is my clinical opinion that there is a high risk that he may act on his suicidal ideation and end his life rather than face the danger of being tortured and killed by the army.”
Justice Grammond granted the stay of execution, judging that there was a “high risk” of Mamadou attempting suicide if he were sent back to the Ivory Coast.
Tired of living in “anguish and fear,” Orellana says, Mamadou voluntarily surrendered to the federal authorities on Sept. 16 in presence of his lawyer, Stewart Istvanffy. He wants the removal order suspended while he files to get his application for permanent residency under humanitarian and compassionate considerations to be reexamined. His lawyer told HuffPost he wants to submit new evidence pertaining to Mamadou’s work in the CHSLDs.
He has been detained since the day of his surrender. His request for release was rejected by the Immigration and Refugee Board on Wednesday.
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Canada Border Service Agency (CBSA) spokesperson Louis-Carl Brissette Lesage told HuffPost in an email that “detention must only be considered under exceptional circumstances, when no reasonable alternative to detention can be implemented.”
As of the first day of Mamadou’s detention, only 31 people were detained in immigration holding centers across the country, including 12 in Laval. Accounting for those being detained in provincial facilities, CBSA recorded a total of 132 detainees, a 62 percent decrease compared to March 17, at the beginning of the pandemic.
Since CBSA doesn’t comment on specific cases citing privacy concerns, HuffPost wasn’t able to confirm what motives the board invoked to keep Mamadou in detention. But his lawyer insists that “no exceptional circumstance was mentioned” during his detention review, and that he was kept mainly because he is considered a flight risk.
Istvanffy described the review procedure as “kafkaesque.”
“It seemed like the CBSA agent did not want to hear anything about COVID-19 or the fact that he worked [in the CHSLDs] during the pandemic,” the lawyer said. “It’s really heartbreaking to see humans being treated with so little consideration.”
A strict program
Mamadou Konaté is far from being the only undocumented immigrant working on the front lines of what Quebec Premier François Legault described as “the battle of our lives.”
And he’s not the only one who might get sent back to his home country.
Federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino announced last month that some asylum seekers who worked in the health-care system across the country during the pandemic could become eligible for permanent residency.
He called the announcement “historic,” recognizing the work of “heroes” who would be facing “an uncertain future in Canada” without the program.
The special pathway to permanent residency, however, is reserved for those who provided “direct care to patients,” such as orderlies and nurses. A restriction which Quebec insisted upon, as reported by Radio-Canada in July.
“We think it is completely absurd,” Orellana told HuffPost about the restrictions.
At the time the announcement was made, many migrant rights groups had called the program too narrow, claiming it would “leave thousands of people behind.”
“At the height of the crisis, these people answered diligently,” Wilner Cayo, a spokesperson for Debout pour la dignité had told the Canadian Press. “Does [Minister Mendicino] think they are good enough to work, but not good enough to stay?”
A few days after the details of the program were announced, organizations and Quebec MPPs published an open letter in La Presse, calling for cleaners and security agents who worked in CHSLDs to be included.
Friday, the province’s second opposition party, Québec solidaire, asked International Relations Minister Nadine Girault to call upon the federal government to stop Mamadou’s deportation. The party also wants the province to award him a Quebec Selection Certificate “at the earliest opportunity.”
Meanwhile, even if he is being detained, Mamadou isn’t scared as long as he remains in Canada, his friend says.
“He worked in CHSLDs. It’s hard to be more afraid than there.”