Thursday, March 8, 2012

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney looks to eliminate backlog of potential immigrants


March 7, 2012 00:03:00
Bruce Campion-Smith

OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF

OTTAWA—The federal government is looking at simply erasing the backlog of potential newcomers as it looks to dramatically overhaul an immigration system criticized as plodding and rigid.

That’s one option on the table as Ottawa seeks to make its immigration system more nimble in matching newcomers with jobs, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Wednesday.

“It’s time for some frank discussion of the need for transformational change in our immigration programs so that we select the newcomers who will fill the job shortages that exist,” he said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper used a January speech at an economic forum in Davos, Switzerland, to signal that immigration reforms are on the way this year.

Since then, Kenney has been making that case that the economy — and labour force needs — will become the main driver of Canada’s immigration policy.

The minister expressed frustration that despite labour shortages, too many immigrants are unemployed or stuck in “survival” jobs just to make ends meet.

“Something is broken and needs to be fixed,” he said. “It’s about matching immigrants with the jobs rather than just pushing them into the general labour market to sink or swim.”

But he said the first step in the reform is tackling the backlog of more than 1 million people waiting for a decision on their immigration file — a line-up that means those at the end could be waiting up to eight years.

“It is essential that we reduce and eliminate these backlogs so that we can move from a slow and rigid and passive immigration system to a fast, flexible and responsive immigration system,” Kenney told the Economic Club of Canada in a lunch speech.

He later told reporters that the backlogs are the mark of a “dysfunctional” system.

“It’s taking seven, eight years for people in the back of that list to come up for a decision. By then, their skills are often dated and we’re not able to respond to the changes in the labour market,” he said.

He said the government is launching a pilot project to let the provinces and territories go through the backlog and nominate potential immigrants with skills that are in demand.

But he also cited the example of New Zealand, which simply legislated an end to its backlog in 2003 and replaced it with a pool of applicants where prospective immigrants are drawn from.

“At this point we’re looking at all options to dealing with these backlogs and coming up with a faster, more responsive system,” Kenney said.

Ultimately, prospective immigrants will be encouraged “more and more” to have a job lined up before they come to Canada, he said.

It’s unclear exactly how doing away with the backlog would affect those waiting in the queue. As of July 2011, that backlog included almost 460,000 in the economic class.