Committee members, I call the meeting to order, please.
As you know, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), today we're studying the motion adopted by the committee on October 4 to resume the study of the modernization of client service delivery.
We have for the first hour, 3:30 to 4:30, two witnesses. The first one, from the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants, is Dory Jade, the chief executive officer. We also have a presenter from the Canadian Council for Refugees, Loly Rico, president. She comes to us by video conference, and she is in Toronto today.
Welcome to our witnesses. We'll begin with Mr. Jade.
You have seven minutes to make a presentation, and then we'll move to Ms. Rico for seven minutes.
Hello. Good afternoon, Madam Chair, respected members of the committee, and ladies and gentlemen. Thanks for inviting me today to present on the modernization of client service delivery. I'm the chief executive officer of the Canadian Association of Professional Immigration Consultants, CAPIC. We are the association that represents immigration consultants in Canada. Across Canada, we have four chapters and about 1,500 members.
Thank you for inviting us to appear before the committee today.
I'm pleased to be here and to give you a presentation on the modernization of IRCC's client service and other services.
The presentation was submitted to you in English; however, it's a pleasure for me to answer your questions in French or English.
As an introduction, I would like to start by mentioning that IRCC processes millions of applications. These include temporary residency applications, PR applications, eTAs, and ATIP applications. I'm using acronyms to make things fast. I believe we are all familiar with these acronyms.
Throughout the years, we've made improvements throughout the system. However, in an era of technology, today it is time for IRCC to be on top of the technology and to offer adequate and respectful—excuse me; respectable—service to the clients.
I'll start with the communication offered by IRCC. In fact, this is split into three categories.
The first one is personalized messages. These are mainly the letters that the candidates and the immigration consultants who are their representatives receive, in the name of their client, to advise them about the status of the case, the decision, and/or other required documentation.
The second category of communication is automated messages. Under the new system and with electronic services, IRCC has been starting to send what we call massive communication to its clients, advising them about an issue, etc. The point here is that so far we have been struggling with the fact that IRCC has been sending some messages that really are not personalized. Therefore, these messages are missing the names, file numbers, and contact information of the authorized representative. This is a point that we would like to raise today.
The third category is the call centre. Here I would like to commend the move that it made. I'm not sure if you have tried the call centre recently, but the message, way, and approach are completely different. We are happy to see this kind of approach from IRCC. To give you an example, the previous message used to start by saying something like, “If you are offensive to our staff and to the people on the call, then we will take measures, and we will hang up.” The new message says something more like, “Welcome. Thanks for calling Immigration and Citizenship Canada.” This is a big change.
We also would like to recommend that our centre agents be split into categories so that some of them would be more senior. Then we would have the option that they would speak to immigration consultants who represent clients on specific files. We believe that in this way—by asking immigration officers to make changes and by sending them emails, and so on—we can save a lot down the road. We could call a specific phone line to ask for minor changes on the file.
Now I'll move to the processing times. We all know that the processing times have reached unacceptable levels.
I think is to be highly commended on the final decision he has taken. We know how many resources and how much funds it would take to lower the family class processing time to 12 months. However, that is in comparison to an express entry application. For express entry, the candidate is invited to apply, and it is a process of six months or less. We are still putting our humanitarian and non-economic classes behind. These are 50% slower than the economic class.
Another aspect I would like to touch on is what is known as GCMS, the global case management system that is running the whole operation in IRCC, in CBSA, and, of course, other agencies. With this system, there is something called the APR portal, the authorized paid representatives’ portal, which allows us and authorized representatives to have access to their clients securely. It also allows us to send applications to Immigration Canada and submit applications of all types, except family class, so far.
It allows also the department to move files in crisis zones. For example, you may have a crisis in one zone, so now electronically and securely, without diplomatic bags, they can transfer complete office files to another file or retrieve them from Canadian processing centres and so on, electronically and securely.
Thank you for inviting us to come and talk about the modernization of services. As you know, the Canadian Council for Refugees is a national organization that accommodates more than 180 member organizations serving immigrants and refugees. We are very concerned in relation to the modernization of services happening within the IRCC. We want to talk a little bit more about how it impacts refugees and vulnerable migrants.
One of the things we have been seeing is that with the modernization, the changes on the website and online have been especially impacting refugees and our member organizations. They have been burdened by the work that has been downloaded onto them in terms of all the forms and also in applying.
I want to give you two examples of the impacts. One is that people have to pay for any of the applications, such as when refugees apply for permanent residence as convention refugees, or when people apply under humanitarian and compassionate grounds, or for work permits. They have to pay online. If you look at the online payments, you see that they're focused on immigrants.
When you talk about refugees, first of all, refugee claimants who've just arrived in Canada don't have access to credit cards. One of the problems we have seen is that it puts them in a vulnerable situation, because he or she has to count on a friend to give the credit card, or some of the settlement workers have to lend their credit card as a way to pay the fees. In the past, it was possible for the person to go and do the payment at any bank and then send a proof of payment. That was easier, because the person could go to the bank and send it by mail.
That's one of the challenges we've been seeing.
As well, when it's online, some of the refugees don't have either the access to computers or the expertise in terms of technology experience. Many come from either a refugee camp or countries where access to computers is more difficult.
The other example I want to bring to you is with regard to prepaid credit cards. We have been bringing this up at our round tables with the IRCC. They say that the person can buy a prepaid credit card, but on the prepaid credit card we haven't had a satisfactory response from the IRCC, because the prepaid credit card is always a very low amount of money.
The other point is that the electronic fill-in forms have also been a burden, especially with private sponsorship. To give you an example, schedule A is the form in which you need to declare what has happened or what you've doing for the last 10 years. You're trying to connect through Skype and fill in all the information with the client when they're outside the country. Even when you are doing the forms or the work permits here in Canada, it takes longer. That is one of the challenges.
We do see a positive in that when it's done online, we can scan all the IMM forms. Most of the time, private sponsors can save money on UPS and couriers, because they don't need to send it.
I also want to bring forward the fact that in the modernization, they have been increasing some of the fees, but there's no consistency from the IRCC officers. As an example, if a refugee claimant is refused, they have to pay the fee for the work permits. If you read online, they say that they increased it by $100, but it's not related to refused refugee claimants. When we tell that to the client and fill out the forms and do the payment, sometimes they send the application back because some of the officers are asking for $100.
What I'm trying to say is that the modernization of the service has some inconsistencies, and also there is no harmonization in the information that they provide to the immigration officers. For example, if you call the call centre, it gives you different information. We are recommending to the IRCC that, first of all, it take into serious consideration that if it is going to do a modernization and do everything online, it needs to consider the diversity and the different categories that are involved in immigration.
Also, in the past all of these have been focused on the economic perspective, but we also need to focus on the refugees and on how the vulnerabilities happened. At CCR we are concerned that sometimes when they start looking for help, they can be taken advantage of or exploited by having to pay fees for something that they could do for free if the access were more understandable. We also look at whether they are going to do the morning sessions for services. We also look at them talking to NGOs and having a consultation with them, because we are the ones doing things on the front line and working with the clients and doing the clear work.
One of the things we are looking at with the modernization is effectiveness. We have been saying to the IRCC and even to the minister that, for example, one aspect of the modernization should be to speed up the processing times, especially for family reunification. That is not happening. Also when a person is making a refugee claim, at the same time they could be using the interim federal health program and they could be issued a work permit. In that case, the person could start working.
That concludes my remarks.
Thanks for the question. In fact we have also brought a few recommendations. Most of them are based on technology.
Number one, when an officer is making a decision, the officer puts notes into the case file. When a case is represented by an authorized representative within the GCMS system and within the AR portal, it could be very securely available to get those notes, so in this way we would save time by not having to make another access to information application. This would be in the same portal through which we submit. We could have double-direction communication.
We also recommend creating additional levels of call centres. This way, with technology you would just need to go through the call centre and find a more senior agent who could answer your question if it was not a basic question but was pertaining to a specific case.
We have also some other points that we want to bring forward. Tracking is very important. More than 3,000 complaints were received last year by IRCC, and the large majority were very focused on the fact that the client didn't know where his or her file was. That's really what it was. I think having something like the tracking systems that all of the courier services have now: when you order something, you know where it is in transit, and then at the end of the day it gets to you. That would be a very good practice that IRCC could start within the AR portal. That way authorized representatives could know through tracking that the case was with a particular officer. The names of officers would not be disclosed. Most of the time officers have used their initials and they could continue doing so to respect their privacy. There is no issue with that, but at least we would know where the case was and we could follow up accordingly.
Those are some of the points we have brought forward in terms of technological access to the system.
In terms of access to information, oftentimes people would phone into the call centre and they would get very generalized information. The automated information is often frustrating for individuals, and often they're actually put on long wait times to talk to a live agent. I've done it myself, and it's an exercise in frustration.
It was interesting, Mr. Jade, that you suggested an approach whereby people can access the information, and you suggested that consultants could access further detailed information or even get into the notes in getting that information. I'm wondering, both of you, whether or not it would be advisable to go to a system almost like the bank or like your income taxes. You file your income tax. In order for you to sign on to get your information, you actually have to have a pass code, and it's only for you, obviously, for security purposes. Would that make sense? Then people could actually get the detailed information, and maybe they'd stop phoning people.
I just want to get your opinion about that. I'll start with Mr. Jade, and I'll come back to you, Ms. Rico.
In fact you're dealing with, I believe and I'm sure you are aware, two different acts, the Privacy Act and the Access to Information Act. In these cases, what's going on is, first of all, we continue to recommend that the person needs to be in Canada. Therefore what's going on is that if you have a username and password for anyone to access his or her file, you're exposing the whole system to a security issue. That's number one.
Number two, when you deal with a client and you start to file and submit an application on his or her behalf, what would happen at the later stage is that the client would get a decision and/or is waiting for a decision. In this process, you can still, at any time, file an access to information request. We have been working on workshops and other programs with IRCC teams in order to see how we can improve this.
Every time we file an access to information—and by the way, for the information of the committee, IRCC is the largest solicited agency in the government for ATIP access—what goes on in this case is, if it's available on the authorized representative portal, we don't have to file an access to information, which is more work for them. It's already there. All you need to do is just make a tick to then access what the officer has done so far, because this information is not hidden from authorized representatives. The only difference is that it requires one additional step on the side of the client and his representative and on the side of Citizenship and Immigration Canada.
Well, first, they don't have to put, let's say—l'll get it from your mouth—“big bucks”.
You are dealing with immigration law, and to start, the first section of the law says that you must submit a complete application. The word “complete” is used in there and is exactly what it means. Anything that is missing will lead to a refusal or rejection, or, if the process allows it, probably a long processing time, because they need to ask you for more documentation.
In my opinion, they can make it as easy as possible, but because it's law.... What we're seeing now is that everybody thought that if express entry was in, then it's easy: you put it in, you get out, and it's all about numbers.
Well, that is not correct. It's all about law. This is why there is also a need for an authorized representative. Those authorized representatives who exist do not exist by chance. The market has a need for those individuals, and they are under the law. They are authorized by law to do it.
I really can't see how you can make a law simpler to individuals. With due respect, I will give you a very simple example: matrimonial law. If the couple is not really 100% accepting, the two parties would still have to go to a lawyer, and maybe not to court, but for arbitration. It is part of our law. This is how the country functions, and this is how Canada works. This is our system.
Thank you for the honour and privilege of appearing here today.
I have only seven minutes.
I'll speak on two topics. The first is modernization of the way people get to understand how to use the immigration system, and the second is the modernization of the way of processing immigration cases.
I'd like to share excerpts of a very high-level senior management memo, obtained under access to information. CIC, now IRCC, is now implementing the next wave of tools to facilitate case processing and improve program integrity.
This is what the memo says about the scope of the project:
|| Create a smart front-end application interface...for all major lines of business which will not only guide clients towards the right program but will move them seamlessly into the application process itself, resulting in fully electronic application submissions;
|| Automate defined steps in the processing of an application...and moving towards the automation of simple, straightforward decision;
|| Automate the triage and distribution of workload based on the complexity and impact of the applications, taking into consideration authority levels and operational capacity both in Canada and abroad.
Putting this simply, it would not only be handling application intake but also making initial identity and eligibility checks, as well as pulling information for admissibility. The expectation is that the status of the application will be available electronically and instantaneously, similar to what is available through the tools used by Amazon and other major online retailers.
That was back in August 2015. Here's something more recent:
|| Key accomplishments to date: in just over 18 months, [IRCC] has built the capabilities for predictive analytics from scratch.
Business lines include temporary resident visas, study permits, extensions, eTAs, and the international experience Canada program, among others.
The memo adds:
|| [IRCC] has established strong relationships with other federal departments (including CBSA, CRA, and PCO) and countries (including in the U.S., the U.K. and Australia).
The 18 months would have been up in March 2016.
Is this the first you're hearing about the modernization? This is the heart and soul of IRCC's modernization of client service. Here's why perhaps it has not come to light, and I quote:
|| It is only legislation and public perception that will limit what decisions could be automated in future.
To paraphrase from the memo, artificial intelligence and automated decision making could pose a significant public confidence challenge.
I would recommend requesting IRCC to appear and explain its artificial intelligence decision-making system, because that's the very heart of our modernization system.
Second, IRCC should table that website design. This is the core of the new, modernized intake system that explains to the world at large how to get into the Canadian immigration system for either temporary status, permanent residency status, or information that they require no document whatsoever. If we were to build a bridge across the Rideau, when is the design disclosed? Is it at the ribbon-cutting ceremony after the money is spent, or a little earlier?
Those are my seven minutes, Madam Chair.
I'd like to begin by thanking all committee members for the invitation to appear here today. It is a privilege, as my colleague said, to have the opportunity to speak to you today on this important subject.
As noted, I'm counsel with the Atlantic-Canadian firm McInnes Cooper, and my practice is focused almost exclusively on economic immigration, work permit applications, and permanent resident applications for professionals across many sectors, including health care and information technology. I also assist clients in making family class applications, including spousal sponsorships.
Prior to re-entering private practice in 2013, I served as the director of programs and corporate initiatives with the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration, and for these reasons I'll focus my comments primarily on issues related to the economic immigration programs, including the processing of the nominee program applications.
As noted, I'm here in my personal capacity as an immigration lawyer and not as a representative of the Canadian Bar Association or any other group.
Client service is such a large subject. I struggled to identify the key points I wanted to cover. I don't have a top 10. I don't think there's enough time. I have a top four, so I'll essentially ask you to take away these points from my comments.
The first is that IRCC deserves credit for improvements that have been made under this government and under the previous government.
Point number two is that applicants should be at the centre of all modernization efforts; three is that non-express entry applicants should not be left behind in the department's modernization efforts; and finally, lawyers should play a vital role in the immigration system, and this should be considered by IRCC as they continue their work in this area.
Before preparing my notes today, I had the opportunity to listen to the presentation by IRCC officials, including Robert Orr, which was made to you at your last meeting. I think it's important to give credit where credit is due, and to acknowledge that IRCC has implemented and promised further positive innovations. Mr. Orr and his colleagues touched on some positive changes in their comments, including the planned improvements to the call centre, both in terms of the scripts that staff are going to be instructed to use and in terms of the tone. In my view, this is desperately needed.
As many have, I've personally found it very difficult to navigate the call centre. On many occasions I've navigated myself into a dead end. Either I've been disconnected or I was sitting there with a dead phone, wondering how clients manage this. When I have gotten through to agents, they are often but not always somewhat abrupt and unhelpful. Clients have reported similar experiences. The improvements that Mr. Orr announced at your last meeting are overdue, in my view, but very welcome.
Express entry is another area where IRCC does deserve credit. Starting under the previous government, the introduction of express entry was, in my view, a dramatic and a positive change. Requiring upfront language tests and education credential assessments has required more work by applicants, but it results in more complete applications, which are ready for immediate and quick assessment.
In my own practice, I've seen express entry applications for permanent residents completed, from application to approval, in as little as six or seven weeks. This, in my view, is fantastic, and should be applauded. However, this fast processing is not seen across all application categories, and I'll come back to that in my comments.
My second point is that IRCC should continue to focus on humanizing the process for applicants. The system is truly faceless, and clients understand quickly that it is nearly impossible for them to get useful information on their applications from the IRCC call centre or website at this time. Perhaps this is now changing, and I greet Mr. Orr's comments on call centre improvement with cautious optimism.
I canvassed clients before my appearance today, and this is a quote from one client who is unhappy with IRCC service. This is the quote:
||The current system has failed us on so many levels, the biggest three are: compassion, timely response and communication. Immigration is not a product, it is about people.
While this reflects a negative experience of that client, it is not the experience of all, but it is the experience of too many, in my view, and this must change.
My third and final points are more technical in nature.
The third is that the non-express entry streams and applicants should not be left behind in the modernization effort. In my practice, I am seeing dramatic differences between the processing of the express entry and the non-express entry applications. Specifically, I am speaking about Nova Scotia nominee program applications or other provincial nominee program applications.
As you may be aware, these applications continue to be made on paper to CIO Sydney and, in my experience, they are taking 15 to 18 months, on average, to process. You can see the inequity there, in that last week I had two applications approved and reaching finalization. One was filed in March of last year, I believe, and one was filed on October 13. It's hard to reconcile that in my mind. While it is possible to link the paper applications to Sydney to the online portal for lawyers, it certainly feels that this class of applications is no longer a processing priority for IRCC.
A related concern that I have on this area with respect to nominee programs is that innovation in provincial programs may be sacrificed to speed. IRCC has been pushing to align the provincial nominee programs more and more with IRCC policy, and this does risk a loss of innovation, in my view.
My fourth and final point is that modernizing the system and improving client service should not have the indirect result of making it more difficult for applicants to get needed advice and assistance from lawyers and consultants.
When I worked with the Nova Scotia Office of Immigration during the period from 2006 to 2013, we often took pains to emphasize to people that you don't need a lawyer or a consultant to complete your application. This was driven by a concern at that time about unscrupulous consultants and other—
Sure. Thank you for the question.
I don't necessarily think it's a question of resources. I don't have an encyclopedic understanding of IRCC's budget. In many places, it's a question of tone, responsiveness, and attitude. I guess that's one thing about that humanizing experience with the call centre. It's so much attitude, in my clients' and my own experience, in what we get.
I think that there are efficiencies, and my colleague spoke about the online system and what's been automated and what more could be automated. Obviously, having paperless applications offers huge potential savings, which I think are being realized. I don't have any other.... In terms of choke points, perhaps CIO Sydney, which I referred to earlier, where there are paper applications still being processed, could be moved online so that there's equivalency with express entry applications that we now do online.
Because I have only five minutes, I'm going to ask five questions and leave it to both of you to decide what you would like to respond to.
First, you've talked about artificial intelligence, Mr. Kurland. Do you have a specific recommendation around that as we're modernizing our client services?
Second, Mr. Nurse, you have reminded us that with a modernized immigration system, you want to leave a space for the role of lawyers. Could you be more specific about what your recommendation is?
Third, part of this client modernization is looking at third party suppliers for visa offices and security. Do you have any recommendations as to what that would look like and how we can modernize that?
Fourth, private companies could take over part of the processing. Who does this well?
Fifth, we've talked about the CRA model, but does any country do it well, that we should model ourselves after?