It was through pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 that the couple met and eventually started their life together.
Now, they fear they’ll be imprisoned if they return.
The two have been living in Ontario for more than a year, thanks to an open work permit program that Canada started last year, specifically for Hong Kong residents.
But with the program needing to be renewed in February, the pair say they’re worried there is no pathway for them and others in their situation to remain in Canada once their work permit expires in 2024.
They’re hoping the Canadian government will extend their stay.
“We are lucky we were not both arrested,” said the 28-year-old woman of their time in Hong Kong. The couple requested anonymity due to concerns about their safety should they have to return.
“We were marked by the Hong Kong police already,” she said, explaining the police “marked” their identifications when they were caught putting up pro-democracy posters once.
Legislators are among those joining the chorus now asking the federal government to extend and expand the program in question. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, about 12,800 people had been granted work permits through the program as of June 30.
The pressure comes as increasing numbers of Hongkongers are looking to get out of that city due to concerns about the government’s curtailing of civil liberties — with Canada being one of the favoured destinations.
Hong Kong residents have used the open-work permit to get out of the city as the local government enacts the will of the Chinese Communist Party by arresting pro-democracy activists.
Since the National Security Law was imposed by Beijing in 2020, hundreds of democracy activists have been arrested. Thousands of residents have left Hong Kong, heading to a variety of destinations, including the United Kingdom and Australia.
Figures provided by IRCC show a massive increase in the number of people applying to come to Canada via various streams, including study permits and work permits, since Beijing’s grip began tightening on Hong Kong.
From 2016 to 2021, applications ballooned from almost 6,000 to more than 29,000 a year. As of June of this year, 18,000 applications had been received.
Canada’s work permit offered some Hong Kong residents a “lifeline.”
The couple that spoke to the Star applied for the program the day after they were married. Only one of them was eligible thanks to a job offer from an Ontario boutique. It was the only way they could both leave Hong Kong quickly and safely, they say, and they arrived in Canada in July 2021.
Other streams of the program aren’t an option for them now.
The open work permit requires the applicant to have graduated from post-secondary within five years of applying. The woman cannot apply for a stream that would give her a path to permanent residency because that five-year period has subsequently passed for her. Her husband did not attend a post-secondary institution.
“We are eligible for the work permit, but we are not eligible for the permanent residence,” the woman said, “this is kind of ironic.”
Advocates for Hong Kong democracy activists say Canada should extend current permits and expand the program so that more potential targets of the Hong Kong authorities can find refuge in Canada.
Katherine Leung of Hong Kong Watch says she is concerned there doesn’t seem to be a plan in place for when the program expires in February of next year.
“If it’s not extended, the scheme ends,” Leung said.
Meanwhile, there are still many hoping to get out of Hong Kong, and the program’s requirements are too narrow, particularly the requirement to have graduated within five years, critics say.
Though other countries have programs of their own meant to help Hongkongers, Leung said many residents of the city have no program they can access to leave.
“A lot of those facing charges for protest-related offences do not qualify for the scheme,” she said. “Often these are normal people who have contributed a lot to the pro-democracy movement.”
Last month, 19 MPs and senators signed a letter asking Ottawa to expand the open work permit. The letter also suggested adding a “human rights defender” category to the scheme. It urged giving those using the program access to the same mental health and career training as other refugees.
Toronto-area Liberal MP John McKay signed the letter.
“These folks could use a few visa breaks,” McKay said. “These people have been tremendous assets to the country.”
He said under the current environment it’s hard to imagine the Canadian government won’t act to help those seeking refuge through the program.
In a response to whether the program will be expanded, IRCC told the Star it is monitoring the situation.
Also monitoring the situation is the young couple who sacrificed the life they knew to fight the rise of authoritarianism in Hong Kong.
Relieved and grateful to have been granted a lifeline to Canada, they say they now only want to stay.
“We are not planning to go back anymore,” the woman said. “We don’t want to be in prison.”
Jeremy Nuttall is a Vancouver-based investigative reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @Nuttallreports