It’s a quirk of immigration law that you can be completely honest, and yet be found to be lying. Immigration, Refugees & Citizenship Canada (IRCC) and the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) are increasingly expanding their pre-arrival questioning of people coming to Canada to visit, study, work or permanently immigrate through requirements for Electronic Travel Authorizations (ETAs) for visa-exempt nationals, expanding the scope of questions on all their permanent or temporary residence forms (especially “criminality” and “medical” questions), and comparing every word and number you’ve input on past IRCC/CBSA forms to what you’ve recorded on new forms. Is it any wonder more and more people are getting flagged for true lies? 

So you said you lived at 123 Oak Street from May 2000 to October 2001 on your most recent work permit application? But on an application six years ago you said it was 132 Oak Street from October 2000 to November 2001? You could face being banned from Canada for life (or more commonly for 5 years) on a misrepresentation just out of that discrepancy! Seriously. 

Which of us remembers precisely where we lived (or worked) between which months for years back, especially if you've move a lot? Well the IRCC/CBSA expects that of you.

As a personal test, I pulled some of my past curriculum vitae from the darkest recesses of computer hard drives and USB flash drives. And guess what? My job titles weren’t consistent among the CVs. My locations of work or residences weren’t consistent. Even my provinces lived in were a bit off on timing.

I was solid on education details, since I guess those were sufficient life events for me to get programs, institutions and places down right time after time. But when it came to less important life details, before setting up my own law firm I lived and worked in a lot of places, so what i’d think of as minor inconsistencies crept in. Fortunately I’m a Canadian citizen, and no one was scrutinizing and comparing all those CVs of years gone by to call me out as a liar. 

IRCC/CBSA are expanding their data gathering practices for those seeking to come to Canada, then using minor discrepancies from past applications or existing intelligence databases effectively as lie detector tests against applicants. The consequences of a minor information detail slip can be so dramatic! 

So what should you do?

Save Copies of Past Worldwide Immigration Applications & Results

Save all copies of immigration applications you make anywhere in the world, throughout your entire lifetime. You’re at high risk of what you say in those applications later coming back to haunt you if you change your story by even the most minor detail.

While inconsistent past Canadian applications are at greatest risk of being called out by IRCC/CBSA, the US and Canada share lots of data and could compare the information you provided on an old US application with the information you’re now providing on a Canadian application. There’s even potential for comparison to immigration information provided to other countries, though it will likely be limited to Canada’s closest allies.

Saving the results of past immigration applications is just as important as saving copies of the applications themselves. I frequently see people forget about a past refusal in another country. Perhaps you applied to come to the United States, were refused, fixed the issue, reapplied, and were granted entry. It would be easy for that refusal to slip your mind since the end result was positive. But I’m seeing potential clients getting called out on that very issue. Canada is very interested in knowing about past immigration refusals, and the underlying reasons, regardless of where they happened.

Every Word and Number Count

Be very careful about every word and number written into an immigration application. They all matter. Don’t guess about past life details, rather seek out confirming documents for residence, study and work history, even when it’s a pain to do so. If you’re really not sure about a detail, include a cover letter in your immigration application explaining the uncertainty.

The cover letter is the secret weapon to immigration success that most self-reps don’t know about since nowhere in IRCC materials are you urged to include one (instead a checklist is required). Many don’t know you can stick a detailed cover letter in front of any immigration or citizenship application, explaining particular challenges you are facing in providing precise and detailed information. A cover letter gives you more credibility, and minimizes the risk IRCC/CBSA will jump to unfounded conclusions based on your answers.

Give Liberal Interpretation to Wording of all Immigration Questions

I continually have potential clients approach me saying things like “well, I answered no, because a lawyer in my own country told me that an expungement meant that offence never even happened.” Except, the law that you’re being judged by is the law of Canada, not the law where the offence happened. And “expungement” is a concept unknown to Canadian law.

So if you’re asked a question like “have you ever committed, been arrested for, charged with or convicted of any criminal offence in any country or territory,” think about how honest it is going to look if you later claim that while technically you were arrested, you were charged, and you were convicted, but you answered “NO” because you thought that was the “true” answer. Better to accidentally answer “YES” if the answer really is “NO” (which the IRCC/CBSA can determine based on its own analysis - though you really should have your own lawyer provide input on the point so that your circumstances are viewed as favourably as possible).

But there are limits to liberal interpretation. You don’t need to disclose non-criminal offences. But the standard for criminal classification is Canadian law, not the law of where you reside. You definitely may need advice from a Canadian lawyer to resolve questions like an impaired driving conviction in your own country is only a highway traffic offence, which as a class aren’t criminal, but could it be criminal in Canada (it is)?

Fess Up to Inconsistencies

Unlike the Canada Revenue Agency at tax time where lots of Canadian may get a bit creative on their tax return answers because the risk of a full blown audit for most is relatively low and the consequences of minor discrepancies are just interest and moderate financial penalties, in immigration and citizenship essentially everyone gets picked for an audit. So if you’ve got some past inconsistencies in applications that need to be ironed out in a new application, do it up front in your cover letter. Don’t try to hide them. In immigration and citizenship (perhaps as in much of life), the “lie” is often far worse than the underlying details.

Don’t Try to Fix a Misrep Mess Yourself

The consequences for non-citizens of Canada of having been found to have made a misrepresentation on an immigration or citizenship application are so dire - usually at least a five year ban, and sometimes a lifetime ban requiring a Ministerial Authorization to Return - that it’s something you should never try to fix yourself. You might not always need a lawyer to make a simple immigration application, but you definitely need one if get called out on a misrep. Then it’s time to immediately go into damage control mode; you’ll be best served with a professional on your side for that. 

Gordon S. Campbell is a Canadian immigration & citizenship lawyer who helps foreign nationals and permanent residents overcome or minimize the consequences of allegations of misrepresentation. He previously served as a Federal Crown Prosecutor for immigration matters, and has litigated public law cases up to the level of the Supreme Court of Canada.