BY TOBI COHEN, POSTMEDIA NEWS MARCH 7, 2012
OTTAWA — Canada will consider legislating away its massive backlog of immigration applications and allowing provinces to cherry-pick from one big pool of would-be newcomers in a bid to transform Canada's immigration system into one that's driven by the economy, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Wednesday.
In a speech to business leaders at an Economic Club of Canada luncheon, Kenney promised "transformational change" to immigration that emphasizes the need for skilled newcomers who can fill gaps in the country's labour market.
He suggested the pre-2008 backlog of nearly one million applications is bogging down the system and hindering reforms and outlined several pilot projects and strategies the government is considering to eliminate it.
"The time has come for fundamental change to our rigid, slow-moving immigration process and this government will deliver that change," he said.
"People with flexible human capital, high levels of language proficiency and a prearranged job are set for success so that will be an important guidepost as we move toward transformational change."
Noting New Zealand "legislated an end" to its backlog in 2003 by creating a "pool" from which all applicants could be selected based on specific criteria as opposed to time spent in the queue, Kenney said Canada is looking at a similar option.
Meanwhile, a new pilot project, he said, is now in place to give provinces the opportunity to "mine the backlog" for newcomers who meet local labour force needs.
The federal government has already struck deals with British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories to sort through the backlogs. Officials predict that will allow Canada to welcome an additional 3,000-4,000 newcomers this year through the provincial nominee program which gives the provinces and territories a greater say in immigrant selection.
Kenney said applicants "stuck" in the backlog are also being urged to pull their applications and consider re-applying through the much faster provincial nominee program.
Furthermore, high level consultations began last week between government officials and employers across the country to discuss ways of creating a more "active" immigration system in which employers play a greater role in recruiting people from abroad.
Kenney said the government is looking at obtaining consent from applicants in the backlog so they might be considered directly by Canadian employers who are looking for particular skilled workers. It would mean giving employers direct access to the backlog database so, for example, hospitals in Manitoba can find foreign doctors and nurses who've said they'd like to settle in the region.
"Employers are best positioned to decide who can best fill the open jobs rather than a passive and bureaucratic system," Kenney said, dismissing the idea that such an initiative could give the private sector too much power at the expense of the federal government.
"It's not about privatizing the immigration system, it's about a more active role of recruitment for people so they have jobs when they show up. I'd rather have an engineer working as an engineer than as a cab driver. That's really where we're trying to go with this."
NDP immigration critic Don Davies said credential recognition is a "large barrier" to immigrant success and that the government should think about doing more to tackle that issue. He's also disappointed that Kenney never mentioned non-economic, but such equally important immigration streams as the family and refugee class.
He suggested the 25-year-old Chinese engineer with a strong command of the English language might not want to move to Canada if he thinks he'll have trouble bringing his widowed mother to the country 20 years down the road.
"These immigration streams are connected and I didn't hear that connection being made by the minister," he said.
He favours tackling the application backlog by accepting more immigrants on an annual basis and while not entirely against all the measures the government has proposed, he has grave concerns about the overall direction the Conservatives are headed and believes it may be time for a national debate.
"There's two very different visions of immigration in this country. One is the Statue of Liberty: give me your poor, your oppressed, your weak and tired, yearning for freedom. That's what built the U.S. and Canada. It wasn't give me your rich, give me your educated, give me your wealthy investors," he said.
"I think this transformation is moving more toward the latter and I think we need to have a healthy Canadian debate about that because I'm not so sure that's the way to build your economy."