Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Immigration minister plans reforms to foreign credential recognition


OTTAWA — Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced plans to hire an outside company to assess the educational credentials of newcomers before they arrive in Canada in a bid to keep foreign physicians from having to drive cabs when they arrive.

On the eve of an anticipated austerity budget, Kenney said the government will issue a request for proposals within the next two months in the hopes of selecting a third-party organization that can begin conducting these overseas assessments by the end of the year.

"The overall goal here is to better select and better support potential immigrants before they come to Canada so they can hit the ground running once they arrive by integrating quickly into our labour market," he told a business audience of professional regulators Wednesday.

"Once this process is in place, we think this will result in a significant improvement in the points grid system we use to assess applicants to the foreign skilled worker program."

Kenney said the idea is to "be more up front and honest" with would-be newcomers by giving them a sense of how their credentials stack up against someone with a similar Canadian education. It would also help screen out those without adequate levels of education.

In other words, simply having a degree in a particular field will no longer be enough to garner an individual points toward acceptance as a skilled worker.

While this is the sort of thing that ought to be part of visa officers' jobs, Kenney suggested it's an impossible task for them.

"Our visa offices simply don't have the time or expertise to do a qualitative assessment of every single applicant," he said.

"This is an opportunity for specialized assessment of their credentials and their education by going to the experts . . . Unlike immigration officers, they know what the standards are to be licensed as an engineer or as a physician in Canada."

That said, the pre-arrival assessment does not guarantee applicants will find work in Canada commensurate with their skills, nor does it guarantee they'd become licensed in their field.

That lies with the professional regulatory bodies in the jurisdiction in which the individual intends to settle — and that, Kenney suggested, is a whole other problem.

In many ways credential recognition is a provincial responsibility, outside of Citizenship and Immigration's jurisdiction, he said. Kenney also cited the case of an Iranian couple — a radiologist and orthopedic surgeon — who have struggled to get their skills recognized and have resolved to return to Iran.

He suggested some regulatory bodies have been overly protectionist and ought to "do a lot more" to streamline their processes.

"We want to maintain our high Canadian standards, but certainly there has been a lot of criticism," he said.

"We have a moral obligation at all levels of government, all professional licensing bodies, to move forward with deliberation, and haste and urgency to do whatever we can to open the opportunity for people like this to practice."

NDP immigration critic Don Davies suggested the government's been touting this idea for ages and while it's a good start, it still doesn't do anything to actually get a person's credentials recognized in Canada.

He agrees the provinces and particularly the regulatory bodies have put up barriers, for instance to protect their members' earnings potential, but suggested there are ways the federal government can get around it.

While he has yet to table it in this Parliament, Davies has previously put forward a motion urging the federal government to enter into "nation-to-nation treaty discussions" to mutually recognize certain credentials, for example, from a particular university.

Kenney also used the opportunity to release the government's progress report on foreign credential recognition. It highlights a number of initiatives that have been taken, including a program that offers pre-arrival orientation sessions in up to 25 countries, a bridging program to help internationally trained nurses meet Canadian licensing requirements and a website where stakeholders can share information.

Kenney offered few details about what to expect in the budget, but noted the government would be making "fundamental improvements" to immigration programs starting Wednesday and continuing throughout the year.

The policy reforms, he said, are meant to attract skilled immigrants who can fill gaps in the Canadian labour market.

He would not say whether the budget would include a plan to legislate away a massive backlog in applications for immigration, an idea put forward for discussion earlier this month.