I would like to thank the committee for this opportunity to speak on the immigration provisions of . With me today are my Deputy Minister, Mr. Richard Fadden, and my Assistant Deputy Minister, Ms. Andrea Lyon.
Mr. Chair, I am proud to serve as the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in a government that recognizes that immigration is as important to Canada's future as it has been to our past.
Our country was built on immigration, and our future prosperity and success as a country largely depends on it. Because immigration is so important to Canada's future, we need a modern and renewed vision for immigration. By 2012, all of Canada's net labour force growth will come from immigration. The stark reality is that if we do nothing to address the backlog, by 2012 applicants will face a 10-year wait time to have their application processed and the line-up of people waiting to get into Canada could easily reach upwards of 1.5 million.
Now, contrary to the previous government, we do not believe the status quo is acceptable. We are facing real and serious international competition for the talents and the skills that we need to fill the jobs that are waiting to be filled here in Canada. Whereas Australia and New Zealand are processing applications in as little as six months, it can take us up to six years to even begin looking at one's application, let alone to process it. The result is that there are approximately 925,000 people now in line waiting to immigrate to Canada, with almost 600,000 of these people applying in the skilled workers category.
When we compare ourselves to the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, we are the only country that does not use some kind of occupational filter to screen applications. This weakens our ability to select applicants who will be best placed to succeed in our labour market, and as a result, only 10% to 15% of skilled workers admitted here have a job arranged when they arrive, compared to over 80% of similar immigrants going to New Zealand.
This means two things. First, that we risk losing talented people to other countries, talented people that we need, right here in Canada. And second, the current system is preventing immigrants from getting the best possible start in their new lives.
This is unacceptable. It's unfair to our country, it's unfair to immigrants, it's unfair to those waiting for a response to their applications, and it's unfair to the families here. So it's time to act. We have a problem and we need to address it, and that is precisely what we are doing.
Currently we are required by law to completely process every application regardless of how many people apply or how many we're able to accept. And under law we are obliged to process applications in the order in which we receive them, with just a couple of exceptions.
The current system, if left unchanged, is on track to collapse under its own weight, so the system needs fixing. Urgent action is required so that we can bring more immigrant families here faster and more skilled workers here sooner.
To address these challenges, we're taking a three-pronged approach. First, we've committed to investing more money to address the backlog--$109 million over five years. This funding will allow us to hire and train more visa officers to speed up processing in parts of the world where wait times are the longest. But increasing funding alone is not enough. We need to do things smarter, better, and faster.
In addition to increased funding, we're making administrative changes to increase both our efficiency and our effectiveness--sensible things like centralizing processing, improving and enhancing computer systems, sending in SWAT teams to tackle local backlogs where we believe they can make real progress on them, and transferring files from very busy to less busy missions.
Third, through we've introduced legislative changes that will give us the flexibility and authority to both manage the backlog and set priorities that will match Canada's needs. Our proposed legislation will allow the minister to identify categories of occupations--not individuals--that will be processed on a priority basis, based on our country's needs and not on one's individual place in line.
To make sure we get these categories of occupations right and fair, we're placing several checks and balances on the minister. I like to call these controls the three Cs--the charter, consultations, and cabinet.
The ministerial instructions will, of course, comply with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They will maintain a system that is universal and non-discriminatory. And these instructions will also require broad input.
We will be required to consult with the provinces and territories, industry, and government departments to shape the approach every step of the way. Our consultations with the provinces will include getting reassurances from them that if regulated professions are on their list, they will have commitments from their provincial regulatory bodies that these individuals will be allowed to work in their chosen fields once they get here.
And finally, ministerial instructions will be subject to cabinet approval, and I can assure you from previous experience that that is not a rubber- stamp process.
Some are suggesting that this legislation will put too much power in the hands of the minister, without sufficient accountability. For example, there is a myth out there that the minister will be able to arbitrarily cherry-pick applicants in the queue and override visa officers' decisions on individual cases. This is simply not the case. The legislation will not allow the minister to override or reverse decisions made by visa officers to admit people. Our immigration officers will continue to make decisions about individual applications.
As to concerns being expressed about the impact of this legislation on family reunification and humanitarian and compassionate cases, any instruction from the minister will have to respect the objectives of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act. These objectives include supporting Canada's economy and competitiveness, supporting family reunification, and upholding Canada's humanitarian commitments.
So to be clear, the ministerial instructions will not apply to refugees, protected persons, or humanitarian and compassionate applications made from within Canada.
The instructions must also respect our commitments to provinces and territories regarding the provincial nominee program and the Canada-Quebec Accord. And to be completely open and transparent, these instructions will be published in the Canada Gazette, on the departmental website, and reported on in Citizenship and Immigration Canada's annual report, which is tabled in Parliament.
But a key change, Mr. Chair, is that under the proposed legislative changes, we will not have to process every application. Those applications not processed in a given year could be held for future consideration or returned to the applicant with a refund of their application fee, and they would be welcome to reapply. The result, Mr. Chair, would be that the backlog will stop growing and will actually start to come down.
Some have rightly asked why these immigration provisions have been included in Budget 2008. It's because our government recognizes the critical role of immigration in the Canadian economy. Our government underlined the importance of immigration in our government's blueprint for economic growth and prosperity, known as Advantage Canada, in Budget 2006. The immigration provisions included in Budget 2008 build on what we said we would do in Advantage Canada in Budget 2006.
Advantage Canada acknowledged that people are key to having an economic plan that will make Canada a world leader today and in future generations. That's why we included amendments to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act as part of the budget implementation provisions. Doing so serves the best interests of immigrants and their families, Canadians, and our economy.
So to sum up, Mr. Chair, our proposed measures will give us the flexibility to choose the skilled workers that best fit our needs, without affecting our objectives regarding family reunification or refugee protection.
Ultimately, the measures our government is proposing will ensure fairness by helping us to make decisions on cases faster while meeting the immediate requirements of Canada's labour market.
Our goal, Mr. Chair, is simple: to give Canada some common-sense tools to reduce the immigration backlog; to do it in a way that meets our needs; and to do it in a way that is fair and that respects our laws. It's about a vision for our country that makes sure that people who have gone through so much to get here find the opportunities to build their families, contribute to their communities, and excel in their chosen fields. It is a vision that will allow Canada to develop a system with the flexibility to supply our economy with the people we need to support our growth.
Thank you for this opportunity to address the committee. We would now be happy to take your questions. Thank you.
It does not give the minister that sort of unfettered discretion at all.
It is framed by a number of important realities, which I will just go through very quickly, if I may. One of them is the annual levels exercise, so whatever we do on the instructions must be consistent with the overall levels the Government of Canada will have determined, and those are published every year and tabled in the House of Commons. It also must be consistent with those objectives in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act that I talked about earlier, so economic competitiveness, family reunification, and providing protection to those in need. Very importantly, it must be consistent with the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Everything we do must be consistent with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that explicitly prohibits any form of discrimination.
The instructions will be the subject of consultations with provinces, with territories, with industry groups, with labour groups, and other stakeholders to make sure we have it right when we go through that process of identifying what sorts of priorities we want to accord among certain occupational groups.
Finally, on the transparency side, the minister has committed to having the document go through cabinet (a) to have it published in the Canada Gazette and (b) to have it published on the CIC website and included in the annual levels document.
The point the minister made in her remarks is also worth underscoring, and that is about an allegation that the minister would be able to override a decision of a visa officer. That is incorrect. Once the decision is taken with respect to a priority, it is the visa officer who must go through the process and examine it, to determine whether or not the point systems have been made...and all those other standard processes involved.
You say that 900,000 people are waiting to enter the country. I don't understand why you would have waited for 900,000 people to begin lining up before amending the legislation.
Is it because there are not enough officials working at the department? I do not understand. Is this a bureaucracy problem? If 900,000 people are waiting, then there is a problem. I have been a mayor. The municipality was not very large, but I do know that problems have to be resolved when they occur. Why wait until there are 900,000 people lining up? Is this a problem of bureaucracy? Can you answer this question?
To my mind, this makes no sense. Was our legislation poorly drafted? Do you believe that the bill we are considering will accelerate things? Do you think there will a shorter waiting list?
If the problem is one of bureaucracy... Where I come from, people say that public servants are “pencil pushers”. I'm beginning to believe them.
Of the 900,000 people waiting to enter Canada, 600,000, 700,000, or 800,000 are probably undesirables. Why are those people still on your list?
I simply would like an answer.