A Ukrainian couple living in Yellowknife for two years were left unable to work or drive, and without access to healthcare for several weeks, after months-long challenges with the federal department responsible for immigration.
Nataliia Koshyk and her husband Sergeii moved to Yellowknife from Ukraine in May 2018 through the Northwest Territories Nominee Program’s skilled worker stream.
Last August, they were approved by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) to become permanent residents.
To finalize the process, they just needed to complete a permanent residency landing appointment at the IRCC office in Yellowknife or by leaving and re-entering Canada at a US border crossing (also known as flagpoling).
Eight months later, however, they were still unable to get an appointment, had difficulty reaching the IRCC, and were running out of options.
Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic closed down not only the US border – meaning flagpoling couldn’t happen – but also Ukraine’s borders, meaning the Koshyks couldn’t go back to their former home.
“We were fully aware from the very beginning of our immigration process – we started it in 2017 – how complicated and time-consuming it would be,” Nataliia Koshyk told Cabin Radio.
“But we could not even imagine that the situation with which we are dealing in Yellowknife could happen to us.”
On August 20, 2019, the Koshyks were told by IRCC they would have details of their landing appointment – within 30 days. Finishing that appointment would formalize their status as permanent residents.
That’s when problems began.
After waiting 40 days, Koshyk said the couple still had no word about an appointment. They had trouble finding any contact information for the Yellowknife office.
Koshyk said she sent inquiries through IRCC’s website and finally got a landing appointment for January 15 – set 117 days after first trying to schedule one.
On the day of the appointment, however – just 45 minutes before it was scheduled to take place – Koshyk said she received a phone call from an IRCC employee in Edmonton who notified her it was cancelled and the Yellowknife office was no longer taking in-person appointments.
“I was like, OK, what am I supposed to do now?”
Koshyk said she was told she would get an email about rescheduling the appointment by phone. By March, she still hadn’t received any information.
Concerned that their working visas were set to expire on April 3 – and their permanent residency, which brings with it the right to continue working, still hadn’t been formalized through this one appointment – Koshyk said she and her husband decided to try flagpoling.
All that has to happen for flagpoling to work is you arrive at the US border, briefly enter the US, then return to Canada, where officials validate your permanent residency papers on entry back into the country. It takes the place of your landing appointment.
With no appointment in sight, the Koshyks booked a flight to Vancouver for March 18, planning to head south from there to the US border and finally complete the permanent residency process.
On March 16, however – two days before their planned flight – Canada closed its borders due to Covid-19. The Koshyks say they were told flagpoling was no longer an option.
“Our only hope was the phone call. We also contacted IRCC multiple times, but with the situation around Covid-19, it was extremely difficult to get hold of a call centre or get an email back,” Nataliia Koshyk said.
“We wasted eight months for nothing because we thought the information that they provided was accurate and reliable but, as it turns out, not really.”
Work visas expire
Koshyk said she looked into extending their work visas, which were then set to expire in two weeks, but according to the IRCC website you have to apply for an extension at least 30 days before a work visa expires.
Once a work visa expires, people can apply to restore it within 90 days.
Koshyk said she never expected to have to extend or restore their work visas, noting the process takes time and money. In August last year, the couple had expected their permanent residency to be complete more than half a year before those work visas were set to expire.
There are additional challenges with the pandemic, Koshyk added, and many of her documents have to be translated from Ukrainian.
Koshyk said by April, she and her husband could not legally work in Canada, even though their employers were still operating during the pandemic and needed staff. They also didn’t have access to healthcare and their driver’s licences were tied to the immigration process, so they couldn’t even drive to the grocery store.
The couple couldn’t travel back to Ukraine either as the country had suspended commercial flights and closed its borders due to the pandemic.
They had no jobs, no money coming in, no ability to drive, no medical care, and no means of leaving.
“It’s really difficult when you’re stuck at home. It’s going on for so long but I still can’t get used to that feeling that you can do nothing,” said Koshyk.
“You’re just dependent on someone you don’t even know who is responsible for that – and why is it happening? It’s not our fault, we did everything they required.
“It’s so unfair.”
PR status, at last, confirmed
Koshyk reached out to the territorial Department of Education, Culture, and Employment, which oversees the skilled worker stream of the NWT nominee program, for help.
The department confirmed that on April 22 its staff provided Koshyk a second work permit support letter that would allow her to apply for a closed work permit. Koshyk said that’s an easier and faster way to get back to work.
Later that day, after Cabin Radio had begun reporting on their circumstances, Koshyk was excited to receive an email from IRCC finalizing the couple’s permanent residency. IRCC confirmed that the Koshyks now have permanent residency status.
“Finally we got the document that makes us feel free and confident. We can now just live a normal life – having a right to work – and don’t worry that much about tomorrow,” she said.
Koshyk thanked everyone in the NWT that helped her and her husband, including the department, their friends, and Immigrate NWT.
“All these people helped us by giving us some confidence and the feeling that we are not abandoned and forgotten here,” she said.
“We felt just miserable as we had to stay home alone all the time for almost three weeks, without any idea of what is going to happen or when, and how to change the situation.
“That was a weird feeling of being guilty, or even punished, without making any mistake.”
‘Concerns with IRCC service quality’
Koshyk said she wanted to share her story to help others as there’s not a lot of support for people going through the immigration process, and the IRCC website can be difficult to navigate.
“I find there is no service or source of information with a step-by-step guideline for immigrants that would explain clearly all the steps,” she said.
“We had to contact people who already went through it, and have experience, and could explain all the possible pitfalls. But now with Covid-19, the processes are changed and it’s so much more complicated.”
Hayden Moher, executive assistant to NWT MP Michael McLeod, said McLeod’s office could not comment on specific immigration cases for privacy reasons.
Moher said McLeod’s staff were “aware of concerns with IRCC service quality in Yellowknife” and McLeod had raised those concerns with the previous and current ministers of IRCC.
In an email to Cabin Radio, a representative from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said they have recently allowed permanent residency to be granted without an in-person interview. They also said officers maintain discretion to hold telephone or in-person interviews when required.