VANCOUVER – Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is facing calls to reverse the deportation of a 59-year-old man with bipolar disorder who lived in Canada since he was eight months old.
Len Van Heest of Courtenay, B.C., was deported to the Netherlands this week after a string of criminal convictions for uttering threats, mischief and assault that his lawyer says were linked to his mental illness.
His brother Daniel Van Heest expressed his anger at judges and immigration officials who allowed the deportation to happen. He said his brother is now in the care of family in the Netherlands with the help of the Salvation Army.
“Needless to say his mental faculties have been stressed to the max,” he said.
“The system is skewed. Mentally ill people should never be deported. It is wrong.”
Lawyer Peter Golden said Van Heest’s parents didn’t seek citizenship for him. The last time he was in the Netherlands he was in diapers, he doesn’t speak Dutch and doesn’t know his relatives there.
“However kind and well-meaning they are, the stresses of this whole process of removal will be difficult for him. He hasn’t made connections with people very easily in the past.”
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Van Heest was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was 16, said Golden. By the time he was old enough to seek citizenship for himself, he had a criminal record and could not apply.
His last conviction was in 2012. He has been ordered removed from Canada in the past but has previously won stays on deportation, Golden said.
In January, a Federal Court judge rejected Van Heest’s challenge of a Canada Border Services Agency officer refusing to defer his removal order. Last week he lost a last-ditch attempt for a stay, and on Monday he was deported to Amsterdam.
“It’s really an example of criminalization of mental illness,” said Golden. “The criminal justice system isn’t designed to deal with people like Len.”
He said Van Heest was ensnared by legislation introduced by the former Conservative government in 2012, which banned non-citizens from appealing deportation after being sentenced to six months in jail. Previously, people could appeal if they were sentenced to less than two years.
Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was unable to respond to questions Wednesday.
The man’s 81-year-old mother, Trixie Van Heest, who Golden said has a very close relationship with her son, sounded distraught when reached by phone. She said she could not talk about the matter anymore and hung up.
Former British Columbia premier Ujjal Dosanjh, who also previously served in a federal Liberal cabinet, has written two open letters to the immigration minister about the case.
“It’s one of the most mind-boggling things I’ve seen this government do — totally heartless, without compassion and mercy,” Dosanjh said in an interview.
“We can talk about how compassionate we are to refugees. We’ve now made one of our own a refugee in a different country.”
Green party Leader Elizabeth May has also urged the immigration and public safety ministers to take action. She’s calling on them to repeal the Conservative legislation.
“This is just a heartbreaking case of harsh, rigid laws that did not allow for a sensible decision,” she said. “I do think the ministers should have intervened and I will continue to press them to do something to redress this injustice.”
The United Nations human-rights committee criticized Canada in 2015 over a similar case. A 52-year-old Jamaican man with schizophrenia, who had immigrated to Canada as a teenager, was deported in 2011 over criminal convictions.
Wendy Richardson, executive director of the John Howard Society of North Island, which represents northern Vancouver Island, said many people the society works with are involved in the criminal justice system as a result of trauma or mental illness.
“I believe we measure the quality of a society, the value of a society, by how we treat those who are vulnerable,” she said.
“I think it speaks poorly of our society that we would send away into a strange world with no supports a man who has lived his entire life here and who has suffered illnesses that were not his fault.”