The head of Canada’s refugee board has been given a car and chauffeur at a time his office is stretched trying to tackle a surge of asylum seekers entering from the U.S., the Star has learned.
Richard Wex, who was appointed chair of the beleaguered Immigration and Refugee Board in July, is the first person in charge of the tribunal to be afforded the benefit — at a cost of $78,562 a year.
Critics suggest the money could be better used to hire another refugee judge. (A judge’s current starting salary is $94,121 a year.)
“At a time when we need more adjudicators to have refugee claims processed faster, how is this going to have a positive impact on the processing time?” asked Francisco Rico-Martinez, of Toronto’s FCJ Refugee Centre and past chair of the Canadian Council for Refugees.
“This is problematic when the board is struggling to find resources and innovative ways to improve efficiency to deal with the growing backlog.”
The refugee board has been besieged by a surge of asylum seekers crossing into Canada over the U.S. border since the end of 2016. The latest statistics show it has 74,645 outstanding claims with wait times for a hearing hovering at around two years. The injection of $74 million from the federal government in 2018 has allowed the board to hire 50 additional asylum judges and 185 support staff to try to reduce the backlog.
“Is that what (the funding) is supposed to be used for?” asked one disgruntled board staffer, referring to Wex’s car and chauffeur. There are currently 125 asylum judges, including the 50 new hires, and they are each expected to process at least 150 claims a year, determining who needs protection among the thousands of refugee claimants who come to Canada annually.
(The Trudeau government’s 2019 budget on Tuesday slated $208 million for the refugee board over two years to tackle the backlog, with the aim of processing 50,000 cases per year, up from the current capacity of 26,000.)
According to the board, Wex, a former associate deputy immigration minister, is the only chair in the board’s 30-year history who, before the new posting, already had an appointment classification high enough to entitle him to a car and driver.
“The chairperson’s use of an executive vehicle is in compliance with all government policies and is consistent with the standard practice of other eligible senior officials,” refugee board spokesperson Anna Pape said on Wex’s behalf.
“The use of an executive vehicle to travel between business meetings and to regional offices allows the chairperson to optimize his time and more effectively carry out his responsibilities,” she added. “Since Mr. Wex’s arrival as chairperson, the board has been focused on improving the refugee claims process, seeking additional funds to support the board, and achieving results.”
Wex’s appointment was made by the Governor in Council, which also set his pay and benefits. His starting annual salary at the board is $265,300, up from the range of $192,600 and $226,500 from the job he held at the immigration department.
There are currently 53 senior federal officials with an appointment that entitles them to an executive vehicle, said the Treasury Board of Canada, which is responsible for the government’s fleet management.
Wex’s Hyundai SUV is currently rented at an average cost of $26,400 per annum, while the brand new driver position is paid $52,162 — both of which are come out of the refugee board’s $133.3 million budget and not from the $74 million additional funding aimed at reducing the backlog. Government guidelines allow personal use of executive vehicles as a taxable benefit that must be reported to the Canada Revenue Agency.
Pape said Wex’s chauffeur is classified as a full-time administrative assistant and the individual is also tasked with correspondence and docket tracking, document delivery, information management and other clerical duties while not driving.
Wex’s biography on the refugee board website said he was known for “achieving results.” A career civil servant with 25 years in the service, Wex provided executive leadership to Canada’s Syrian refugee resettlement project in 2015 after serving as a vice-president at the Canada Border Services Agency and an assistant deputy minister at Public Safety Canada.
Wex, who is based in Ottawa, replaced Mario Dion as IRB chair. Dion was appointed the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner in January 2018.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung