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One of the big debates around Chinook is whether or not it is Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). IRCC’s position has been that Chinook is not AI because there is a human ultimately making decisions.
In this piece, I will show how the engagement of a human in the loop is a red herring, but also how the debate skews the real issue that automation, whether for business function only or to help administer administrative decision, can have adverse impacts – if unchecked by independent review.
The main source of my argument that Chinook is AI is from IRCC itself – the Policy Playbook on Automated Support on Decision-Making 2021. This an internal document, which has been updated yearly, but likely captures the most accurate ‘behind the scenes’ snapshot of where IRCC is heading. More on that in future pieces.
AI’s Definition per IRCC
The first, and most important thing is to start with the definition of Artificial intelligence within the Playbook.
The first thing you will notice is that the Artificial Intelligence is defined so broadly by IRCC, which seems to go against the narrow definition it seems to paint with respect to defining Chinook.
Per IRCC, AI is:
If you think of Chinook dealing with the cognitive problem of attempting to issue bulk refusals – and utilizing computer science (technology) – to apply to learning, problem solving and pattern recognition – it is hard to imagine that a system would even be needed if it weren’t AI.
Emails among IRCC, actively discuss the use of Chinook to monitor approval and refusal rates utilizing “Module 6”
Looking at the Chinook Module’s themselves, Quality Assurance (“QA”) is built in as a module. It is hard to imagine a QA system that looks at refusal and approval rates, and automates processes and is not AI.
As this article points out:
Software QA is typically seen as an expensive necessity for any development team; testing is costly in terms of time, manpower, and money, while still being an imperfect process subject to human error. By introducing artificial intelligence and machine learning into the testing process, we not only expand the scope of what is testable, but also automate much of the testing process itself.
Given the volume of files that IRCC is dealing with, it is unlikely that the QA process relies only on humans and not technology (else why would Chinook be implemented). And if it involves technology and automation (a word that shows up multiple times in the Chinook Manual) to aid the monitoring of a subjective administrative decision – guess what – it is AI.
We also know also that Chinook is underpinned with ways to process data, look at historical approval and refusal rates, and flag risks. It also integrates with Watchtower to review the risk of applicants.
It is important to note that even in the Daponte Affidavit in Ocran that alongside ATIPs is the only information we have about Chinook, the focus has always been on the first five modules. Without knowledge of the true nature of something like Module 7 titled ‘ToolBox’ it is certainly premature to be able to label the whole system as not AI.
Difficult to Argue Chinook is Purely Process Automation Given Degree of Judgment Exercised by System in Setting Up Findecs (Final Decisions)
Where IRCC might be trying to carve a distinction is between process automation/digital transformation and automated decision support systems.
One could argue, for example, that most of Chinook is process automation.
For example, the very underpinning of Chinook is it allows for the entire application to be made available to the Officer in one centralized location, without opening the many windows that GCMS required. Data-points and fields auto populate from an application and GCMS into a Chinook Software, allowing the Officer to render decisions easier. We get this. It is not debatable.
But does it cross into automated decision support system? Is there some degree of judgment that needs to be applied when applying Chinook that is passed on to technology that would traditionally be done by humans.
As IRCC defines:
The Chinook directly assists an Officer in approving or refusing a case. Indeed, Officers have to apply discretion in refusing, but Chinook presents and automates the process. Furthermore, it has fundamentally reversed the decision-making processing, making it a decide first, justify later approach with the refusal notes generator. Chinook without AI generating the framework, setting up the bulk categories, automating an Officer’s logical reasoning process, simply does not exist.
These systems replace the process of Officer’s needing to manually review documents and render a final decision, taking notes to file, to justify their decision. It is to be noted that this is still the process at low volume/Global North visa offices where decisions do this and are reflected in the extensive GCMS notes.
In Chinook, any notes taken are hidden and deleted by the system, and a template of bulk refusal reasons auto-populate, replace, and shield the actual factual context of the matter from scrutiny.
Hard to see how this is not AI. Indeed, if you look at the comparables provided – the eTA, Visitor Record and Study Permit Extension automation in GCMS, similar automations with GCMS underpin Chinook. There may be a little more human interaction, but as discussed below – a human monitoring or implementing an AI/advanced analytics/triage system doesn’t remove the AI elements.
Human in the Loop is Not the Defining Feature of AI
The defense we have been hearing from IRCC is that there is a human ultimately making a decision, therefore it cannot be AI.
This is obscuring a different concept called human-in-the-loop, which the Policy Playbook suggests actually needs to be part of all automated decision-making processes. If you are following, what this means is the defense of a human is involved (therefore not AI), is actually a key defining requirement IRCC has placed on AI-systems.
It is important to note that there is certainly is a spectrum of application of AI at IRCC that appears to be leaning away from human-in-the-loop. For example, IRCC has disclosed in their Algorithmic Impact Assessment (“AIA”) for the Advanced Analytics Triage of Overseas Temporary Resident Visa (“TRV”) Applications that there is no human in the loop with the automation of Tier 1 approvals. The same system without a human-in-the-loop is done for automating eligibility approvals in the Spouse-in-Canada program, which I will write about shortly.
Why the Blurred Line Between Process Automation and Automated Decision-Making Process Should Not Matter – Both Need Oversight and Review
Internally, this is an important distinguishing characteristic for IRCC because it appears that at least internal/behind-the-scenes strategizing and oversight (if that is what the Playbook represents) applies only to automated decision-support systems and not business automations. Presumably such a classification may allow for less need for review and more autonomy by the end user (Visa Officer).
From my perspective, we should focus on the last part of what IRCC states in their playbook – namely that ‘staff should consider whether automation that seems removed from final decisions may inadvertently contribute to an approval or a refusal.’
To recap and conclude, the whole purpose of Chinook is to be able to render the approval and refusal in a quicker and bulk fashion to save Officer’s time. Automation of all functions within Chinook, therefore, contribute to a final decision – and not inadvertently but directly. The very manner in which decisions are made in immigration shifts as a result of the use of Chinook.
Business automation cannot and should not be used as a cover for the ways that what appear routine automations actually affect processing that would have had to be done by humans, providing them the type of data, displaying it on the screen, in a manner that can fetter their discretion and alter the business of old.
That use of computer technology – the creation of Chinook – is 100% definable as the implementation of AI.
The Play is Under Review: A Closer Look at IRCC’s Policy Playbook on Automated Decision Making (Pending Feature)
Over the next several weeks, I’ll be doing a series of shorter blog posts on IRCC’s Policy Playbook on Automated Support for Decision-making (2021 edition).
The first one (hopefully released this week or by the weekend) will be about IRCC’s concerns that applicants are “gaming by claiming” and their preference for “objective evidence” for the inputs of IRCC’s Chinook system.
We will focus our attention of the manual we find could drastically change the landscape for applicants, practitioners, and the courts reviewing decision. We will get critical on ways we expect transparency in the use of AI as we move forward.
I am also doing two parallel judicial review of AI decisions as part of my practice right now, and will keep everyone informed as to how those cases are going and things we are learning.
Should be exciting. Welcome to this space, and looking forward to the conversation.
I have a tradition every year of listening to the same Death Cab for Cutie song, The New Year.
“So this is the new year
And I have no resolutions
For self assigned penance
For problems with easy solutions”
The pursuit of ‘easy’ seems to be the antithesis of my current path. In 2021 (after a late 2020 move), I started a new Firm and had a new baby, each of which has taken it’s relative toll. I’m ready for a reset, a change of focus, and a quieter year. I look forward to announcing those details in early February.
Gratitude for another Clawbies Win
I was definitely pleasantly surprised that I received another Clawbies (my third!) for Best Law and Commentary Blog in Canada. This year’s award is dedicated to my readers. Without the engagement, I’ve received on topics such as Chinook and our broader policy discussions, I would not have had the motivation to write. This year, my writing was split largely between this blog and my Firm’s blog.
I suspect 2022 to bring similar things, but I definitely realize how much I miss regular writing after my brief hiatus. I am going to try my best to spend my mornings writing – as regularly as I can amid my year focused on system-building, conference organizing, and too much creative day-dreaming (more on that to come too).
Question of 2022: Question of Inequity, Technology, and If (or How) the Courts Will Respond
If I were to crystal ball the central and most pressing issue in 2022, I would suggest it is that of the inequity, particularly technology facilitated inequity, that the current Canadian immigration systems have created. The follow-up question will be how (if at all) the Courts will choose to respond to these arguments, which should be brought forward more.
The Supreme Court of Canada in Vavilov has emphasized the importance of individual’s affected by a decision to be able to present their case fully and fairly. What does that mean within a system that appears to be molding what that means.
 The principles of justification and transparency require that an administrative decision maker’s reasons meaningfully account for the central issues and concerns raised by the parties. The principle that the individual or individuals affected by a decision should have the opportunity to present their case fully and fairly underlies the duty of procedural fairness and is rooted in the right to be heard: Baker, at para. 28. The concept of responsive reasons is inherently bound up with this principle, because reasons are the primary mechanism by which decision makers demonstrate that they have actually listened to the parties.
Let me give just a few examples of where I think there is clear system-built inequity. Study plans – for many of my clients in the Global South are not required documents for all applicants. Indeed, my colleague Patrick Bissonnette and I are preparing for a webinar in March where we will explore how there appears to quite a discrepancy between the instructions directed at applicants depending on visa office. Even more troubling, some applicants from high refusal visa offices are not given clear and complete instructions on what such letter should even include, or ultimately recommended to keep their plans to 1 or 2 pages. On the back end, cases (both where IRCC was successful and unsuccessful) are increasingly going after the ‘vague’ nature of the study plans submitted. This vagueness is entirely created by the system, but with ultimate consequences being borne by the Applicant.
I would suggest the same concern is raised about IRCC’s temporary resident portals, limiting uploads to 2MB for applicants. The reality is that 2MB isn’t fair where each visa office has vastly different requirements. In addition to study plans, many applicants from high refusal countries also need to add additional documents about their parents, sources of income, and ties. As we uncovered in our discussion of VESPA for TRV-exempt countries, cases are prima facie approved at a rate of 95+%. For those clients from high refusal countries, they struggle to be able to legibly combine documents and even properly categorize them under the new portal. I have spent much of the later part of 2021 having to re-apply and pursue legal remedies for folks who used the temporary resident portals, where their submissions were reduced and attachments had to be randomly submitted in a way a visa officer would likely have missed.
The other big question comes in the rollout of the use of AI (the China and India TRV model) to other visa officers and lines of work. For IRCC these systems have been working great, but on the other side we’re seeing only the back end of either quick approvals or refusals with very limited justification (as a result of Chinook’s use on the back-end). My hope is that in addition to a bit more transparency (and independent oversight) on the AI system expansion process, that IRCC can do proper outreach on the ongoing use of Chinook or Chinook’s pending replacement.
We have to remember that the Courts too are (and I have to say I am very pleasantly surprised, some what crushing) the recent move to technology. Still, AI and the administrative choices surrounding use of technology will be a whole new conversation to be had. My hope is that this conversation is not simply about deference to the experts. The experts themselves need to ensure their systems do not reproduce yesterday’s inequities.
I will be doing a lot of writing on this in 2022 and cannot wait to share what I uncover!
Ttfn. 2022 let’s go.
Much like we knew very little about #Chinook until recently, we are now learning more about a March 2020 Program Delivery Instruction [PDI] (with a June 2021 update) on a decade-old IRCC initiative called #VESPA.
VESPA has existed for a decade, but much of it’s existence has been behind relative closed doors. It was introduced to streamline processing for those from visa-exempt countries, but with the expansion of that list (via the Electronic Travel Authorization) regime and the movement towards e-APPS system large, it morphed into another ‘secret’ internal tool utilized at certain IRCC visa offices.
Now that an ‘internal only’ PDI has come to the forefront, it is an appropriate time to revisit VESPA and why I think it exemplifies the type of two-tiering of temporary residents that will become the trend moving forward. It also serves as an antithesis to Chinook, and not unlike Chinook, raises questions about why it is being kept under wraps and what the implications are if it entered greater public consciousness.
What We Knew Before – VESPA as a Pilot for Online Applications
IRCC first launched VESPA in 2011 to operate in 14-visa exempt countries. It was announced by Operational Bulletin 304 – May 2, 2011.
The eligibility criteria were established as follows:
It appears that at the the time, the big ‘advantage’ of VESPA was that the applications were streamlined online. This is re-iterated in a September 2012 presentation by then CIC.
A 2015-2016 Evaluation of IRCC’s Internatoinal Student Program similarly lauded VESPA as part of a modernization initiative for workload redistribution:
There are a variety of modernization initiatives that
CIC has implemented over the past several years,
and more initiatives are planned. Many of these
initiatives are designed to have a positive impact on
the processing of study permits and study TRVs,
including e-Application, e-Medical, GCMS, workload
distribution (e.g. VESPA), VACs and other facilitation
measures for international students such as the
Student Partner Program (SPP). It is difficult to
isolate the impact of particular modernization
initiatives and report on these distinctly in relation to
Seemingly and as stated by CIC in Operational Bulletin – 486 in December 2012, the introduction of e-Apps effectively ended the VESPA pilot.
Or so we thought.
What We Know Now – VESPA Transformed into a Powerful Tool to Approve Applications
From internal only March 2020 program delivery instructions I received from an Access to Information request, we learn that VESPA not only still exists but has transformed into an even more powerful tool.
I am sharing the instructions from the final draft versions, as the final version I received contained redactions that were answered by the draft versions. This shows the contours of what VESPA now does – streamline straight-forward applications to in-Canada processing, and ultimately supporting an approval for these applicants.
Recall, other than Barbados in the Caribbean, these countries are noticeably Global North and noticeably White.
An internal email between IRCC policy folks on the removal of the age requirement, reveals both that the program is an expedited SP processing stream for citizens and residents of visa-exempt country to apply for an SP from outside Canada AND that the PDI is not accessible to the general public.
We learn that VESPA has been in the works since late 2019 and that originally it was a mission (read: visa office) specific process for low-risk SP applications.
In June 2021, the instructions were further updated to remove the age requirement as a primary change while maintaining the requirement to be both a citizen and resident of a visa-exempt country and applying electronically for a study permit while overseas.
One interesting question is whether the country list has expanded and arguably it has. I am certainly interested in learning whether VESPA is now for all eTA countries and as we move forward whether this creates a proverbial splitting of approval rates. IRCC policy team’s comment that citizenships were added suggests that this list likely is much longer than 14 countries.
Our statistics from 2020, and taking into account an IRCC policy team member’s comment that VESPA is not the same as SDS, of which all the countries are visa-requiring. If we compare only the 14 countries on the original VESPA list and compare it to the SDS list (noting that not all applications from citizens of each of these countries are VESPA or SDS), this type of divide becomes abundantly clear. It also shows how VESPA files likely do not contribute the same type of volume that SDS contributes.
Citizens from VESPA countries had a 96% study permit approval rate in 2020 (Jan – Nov), with only Iceland’s approval rate deviating from the 90%+ norm. Meanwhile SDS countries produced a below 50% approval rate. I do not have the SDS approval stats, but again I would be grateful if anyone could provide those to me.
Implications of VESPA
What VESPA suggests to me, alongside what we are learning more about from Chinook, is that your vital statistics – what citizenship you hold, where you live, and what you are applying for may ultimately become the determinants for whether or not you are approved in Canada.
VESPA raises many questions: namely, why is preferential treatment being given to folks who may not even hold eTAs and never been to Canada, but those who hold TRVs are often being refused study permits? We know programs such as CAN+ exist but these have not factored into study permit refusals, which refuse often on the change in purpose from visiting to studying.
On that point, other than the eTA being more accessible than a TRV and easier to obtain, in what ways does VESPA actually speak to the merits of a study permit applicant?
Study permit applicants must demonstrate per R.216(1) IRPR that they will leave Canada the end of their authorized stay. They are refused, however, largely on their intention to study, their employment and career prospects, their family ties, the availability of their financial support, their travel history, and their immigration status.
There’s very little in VESPA nor in a logical sense, to suggest that a student from a Global North/largely White country is a more genuine/bona fide student able to facilitate their ability to leave Canada at the end of their stay. In essence, VESPA has removed the study permit considerations out of the study permit for those who are on the current, undisclosed, list.
A final question I would raise is – why is this program being held under wraps and internal only? Much like #Chinook which I still view and see as IRCC’s refusal mechanism for Global South applicants in high volume countries, the antithesis #VESPA seems to be the privilege pass.
Why not disclose that certain countries hold privileged status (I mean, we already have an eTA/TRV required list)?
Is there something about these instructions that fundamentally does not accord with what the public might perceive – i.e. – that VESPA undermines the very foundation of the study permit regime by granting approvals for folks who do not need to even demonstrate their ability to meet the requirement of the Act and Regs?
Lots of food for thought. Perhaps I have opened up a lid of something that was brewing deep in IRCC’s fridge. It’s time to check out what’s actually in the pot.
My Value Proposition
My Canadian immigration/refugee legal practice is based on trust, honesty, hard-work, and communication. I don’t work for you. I work with you.
You know your story best, I help frame it and deal with the deeper workings of the system that you may not understand. I hope to educate you as we work together and empower you.
I aim for that moment in every matter, big or small, when a client tells me that I have become like family to them. This is why I do what I do.
I am a social justice advocate and a BIPOC. I stand with brothers and sisters in the LGBTQ2+ and Indigenous communities. I don’t discriminate based on the income-level of my clients – and open my doors to all. I understand the positions of relative privilege I come from and wish to never impose them on you. At the same time, I also come from vulnerability and can relate to your vulnerable experiences.
I am a fierce proponent of diversity and equality. I want to challenge the racist/prejudiced institutions that still underlie our Canadian democracy and still simmer in deep-ceded mistrusts between cultural communities. I want to shatter those barriers for the next generation – our kids.
I come from humble roots, the product of immigrant parents with an immigrant spouse. I know that my birth in this country does not entitle me to anything here. I am a settler on First Nations land. Reconciliation is not something we can stick on our chests but something we need to open our hearts to. It involves acknowledging wrongdoing for the past but an optimistic hope for the future.
I love my job! I get to help people for a living through some of their most difficult and life-altering times. I am grateful for my work and for my every client.