It’s not exactly the publicity most want these days, with polls showing nine in 10 Canadians don’t trust China’s authoritarian leaders and more than half want nothing to do with the telecom giant, Huawei.
But the name of Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland emerged in the media recently as one of “30 key opinion leaders” in Canada — prominent people who an internal Huawei memo declared appeared ready to stick their necks out on behalf of CEO Meng Wangzhou, who has been under mansion arrest in Vancouver for 20 months.
A fireball of energy and ideas, Kurland can live with the attention. At age 62, he has nothing to hide from the many who seek his opinion. He’s been involved in his share of international intrigue, including links to espionage. He’s told many news outlets that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s office “made a miscalculation” with the arrest of Meng on the basis of a U.S. extradition request.
“I’m an old China hand,” Kurland said in downtown Vancouver. He’s flown to Beijing at least 30 times for high-level, sensitive work, sometimes on behalf of Ottawa. After the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, he revealed this week for the first time, he helped bring to Canada close family members of the then-general secretary of the Communist party of China.
“I am not a shill,” Kurland told journalists, noting he takes no money from Huawei. His declaration seems more than convincing to those who have followed his high-flying career and experienced his loquacious, almost fun-loving interventions in the growing field of mass migration.
Kurland is used to saying almost whatever he thinks, having flown to Ottawa more than 200 times to give presentations, directly advising every immigration minister of the past several decades, regardless of party. He’s a force behind many policies that have made this country arguably the most welcoming on the planet to migrants.
What’s more, Kurland has been the source of more than 1,162 exclusive and original national and international news stories, much of them stimulated by his often-revealing immigration newsletter, Lexbase , which he justifiably says has “been a hit.” Kurland wields freedom-of-information requests better than almost any journalist, for whom he often quietly leads to in-depth exposes.
He provides a rolling list of updated links to the many news stories he’s sparked on the website of his company, which he runs with his wife and fellow immigration lawyer Jennifer Tobe.
Many Canadian immigration, border officials and embassy staff tell Kurland the only way they learn what’s going on in their labyrinthine, behind-closed-doors world is by reading Lexbase. Kurland says Canada’s immigration system is “extremely complicated on purpose.” No wonder so few journalists write about it.
Even dressed in a crisp dark grey suit and tie, Kurland is reminiscent of Tigger, the stuffed character in Winnie the Poo. Author A.E. Milne created Tigger to be “cheerful, outgoing and competitive in a friendly way — with complete confidence in himself,” says Wikipedia . While fictional Tigger is always bouncing, Kurland says he recently became the first at his club to swim 145 kilometres in 10 weeks.
Raised in a Jewish family in Montreal by an American military father with Lithuanian roots and a globe-trotting mother from Egypt who did mysterious work at U.S. embassies in Cairo, Tel Aviv and Paris, Kurland recounts constantly bumping into former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, with whom he was on a first-name basis (despite feeling intimidated).
Later, as a well-connected immigration expert, Kurland long-ago convinced Quebec’s politicians to start its controversial immigrant investor program, which has brought many rich Asian migrants to Metro Vancouver.
Kurland and wife moved to Vancouver in the 1990s, where he continued to travel to Ottawa to champion migration policies that have since become reality. He was instrumental in moving international students to the front of the line for permanent resident status, creating the current fast-track entry program, giving citizenship to children whose parents can’t obtain it, and requiring would-be immigrants to file three income tax statements here before getting the thumbs up.
He seems to adore the action and intrigue. He proudly lets it be known he’s “the lawyer for the lawyer of Edward Snowden,” the American whistleblower, that he once represented militant Jewish nationalist Meir Kahane (while calling his methods “reprehensible”), that he brought together two clients who “brought down the Communist government of Albania,” and that he publicly revealed the manual that showed Canadian officials were secretly opening people’s mail.
Now he spends a lot of his professional time offering “wholesale” immigration advice to some of the world’s biggest transnational companies. He describes much of his work as “delicate.”
That’s why he doesn’t have a mobile phone. He believes it could be easily tracked and hacked. “There’s more than a few governments interested in getting my stuff. Some of what I was doing was really dark stuff.“ When not working out of the family home in Southlands, he carries his laptop with him almost everywhere, including to our interview.
Having taking leadership roles in Canadian Jewish organizations, Kurland says his overall attitude toward migration is shaped by the story of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible, which describes how the Jews escaped slavery in Egypt and made their way to what is now Israel.
“Immigration is good for those who receive immigrants. Those places take immigrants’ human capital and build their country,” he says, while accepting most countries don’t bring in virtually any immigrants.
He seems fine with Canada’s current levels of immigration, but doesn’t like the way politicians manipulate the subject. He believes it’s “perfectly legitimate” to argue for reducing immigration levels in response to the country’s needs.
That’s why he doesn’t understand the condemnation some aimed at one of his occasional collaborators, the late Canadian diplomat Martin Collacott , who often wrote opinion page pieces critical of Canada’s large-scale immigration policy.
“He’s one of my heroes actually.“ Not only was Collacott a former head of Canada’s counter-intelligence services, Kurland said, he and his Vietnamese wife had been stationed in dozens of often-dangerous countries and he knew what he was talking about. “His service to the country goes unrecognized.”
Kurland’s biggest problem with current immigration policy is that Canada, particularly by opening the doors to an unlimited number of foreign students, is building up far too big a pool of people already in the country who are highly qualified for immigration status. By no means all, he said, can go on to win the immigration system’s points-based express-entry competition, which has an annual cut-off point of about 60,000.
He predicts many young international students and temporary workers in Canada who aren’t granted citizenship will take their own lives.
“Their families back homes have invested their fortunes in making it possible for these young people to become Canadians. But many won’t make it. The males especially are going to suicide out.”
Kurland is annoyed by the numerous ways elected officials “play the immigrant card” — by pandering for immigrants’ votes in swing ridings, such as those in the suburbs of Toronto and Vancouver.
The paradox of such gamesmanship, said Kurland, is that many politicians don’t seem to realize polls show many newcomers to Canada don’t want more large-scale immigration. “They don’t want the competition.”
Virtually all Canada’s immigration policy is put together privately in the prime minister’s office, without public input. So Kurland regrets politicians “don’t take responsibility” when their rules go wrong.
Little wonder Kurland’s website says his motto is: “Keeping Ottawa honest.” It’s not easy.